The US Open, in many different ways, is the material equivalent of its spiritual cousin, Wimbledon. The latter envelopes us in a quiet, ethereal experience that transports us into a beautifully warped illusion of the past.
The event in New York, in stark contrast, is a garrulous celebration of the moment and a peek into the future of the sport. The rather elaborately named, Billie Jean King National Tennis Centre, is doing just that this week, thrusting the limelight on the young men and women stepping up to the be custodians of this great sport.
If you are still worried about an impending vacuum in the wake of the stratospheric journey that the golden generation took us all on, rest easy. The emergence of stars such as Naomi Osaka, Alexander Zverev, Francis Tiafoe and their ilk is a reassuring development.
The poise and intelligence of the Japanese star (who lives in America and speaks more English than Japanese), the inexplicable maturity and resolve of the German and the unbridled aggression of the American will ensure that we continue to experience the same orgasmic delights that have defined our tennis experiences of the past decade and more.
Tiafoe, all of 19, has a fearsome forehand that could threaten the best in the business. Built to bulldoze, the 188cm American plays with gay abandon, paying scant respect to heritage. In fact, it is this aggressive mindset that might have opened the door for Roger Federer in a first-round encounter that American dominated at the start.
Comfortably ahead at the end of the first set, Tiafoe decided rather curiously to change tactics at the beginning of the second set. Emboldened perhaps by the outcome at the stage, the first generation American, born of Sierra Leonean immigrants, chose to attack from the net. The tactic enabled Federer to alter the geometry of their rallies and take control of the match. Tiafoe will have learnt from the experience.
“Great year so far,” Federer said at the net, giving Tiafoe some assurance and comfort.” You’re only getting better and better. Keep going, you’re going to have one hell of a future.”
The victory over Zverev in Cincinnati and his performance in the first round of the US Open should provide Tiafoe the fuel he needs to make the transition from promising teenager to a seasoned professional.
‘It means a lot that he said that to me, that he thinks I have a future,” said Tiafoe. “That definitely gives me some confidence.”
The youth brigade
The young brigade is clearly eager to avoid the fate that befell men such as Tomas Berdych, who were swept to the sidelines by the insatiable appetite of the domineering big four.
Taifoe (ranked 70), Borna Coric (61), Jared Donaldson (51) and Karen Kachanov (29) – all under 21 - are just some of the many young men forcing their way up the order.
In the company of an already rampant Alexander Zverev, they seem set to challenge the hegemony at the top, finally breaking an oligarchy that has ruled tennis for the past fifteen years.
After enduring a tougher than expected first round match, Zverev (6) is fancied by many to go very deep in New York. Perhaps even challenge for the title on 10th September.
The German of Russian heritage has been a revelation this season, squarely fulfilling his promise, by winning five titles including two Masters Series events.
Zverev is a fully developed prototype of a tennis player from the future. He stands enormously tall at 198cm, weighs a healthy 86kilos and plays with the assurance of a man who understands his gifts.
Naomi Osaka adds a charming layer of text to this narrative of emerging talent. The pocket powerhouse from Japan is a dual citizen, with an American passport in the reserve. She is intuitive on the court, fearless with her expression and bold about her chances. Osaka uses her wit to great effect and her growing legion of twitter fans will vouch for it.
In eliminating the defending champion Angelique Kerber, Osaka has sent tremors around an already shaky women’s establishment.
Osaka, born of a Japanese mother and Haitian father is a player with global appeal. She was born in Japan but later moved to the United States, making her home in Fort Lauderdale. Her background and upbringing give Osaka a uniquely universal appeal.
“Maybe it’s because they can’t really pinpoint what I am,” said Osaka “So it’s like anybody can cheer for me.”
She can count on plenty of support on the road ahead, where she likely faces Victoria Azarenka in the third round.
“I always think that they’re surprised that I’m Japanese,” added Osaka, who is proud of her Japanese roots. “So I like the fact that there was like Japanese flags and stuff, it was like really touching.”
Still only 19, she has already made at least the third round of each of the four majors. The WTA might be looking up to her soon to fill the void at the top of women’s tennis.
The absence of Serena Williams has rendered the WTA rudderless. The fact that as many as eight women arrived in New York with a shot at the top rank, speaks volumes of the volatility that has troubled women’s tennis for years.
With Serena nearing the end of her career, the sport needs a handful of young stars that can perform consistently over a period of time. Osaka, Madison Keys and Monica Puig are some of the young ladies with the tools needed to deliver just that.
The re-emergence of Sloane Stephens from injury and Eugenie Bouchard out of boredom could also augur well for the sport and its women.
Just two days into the final major of the 2017 season, it is the young stars that are providing all the fodder for discussion. If we continue to speak about them next week, it might be the surest sign yet of a new generation of stars that may have finally arrived to claim their rightful inheritance.
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