Even before Novak Djokovic was tossed from the United States Open for accidentally striking a line judge with a ball during his fourth-round match, the 2020 edition of this tournament was not destined for any showdowns between all-time greats on the men’s side.
It had also lost the moments of fan-generated, supercharged intensity that come with a packed stadium.
Now, with Djokovic disqualified, the U.S. Open has almost fully transformed into a tournament carried by the sport’s next generation, with few of the mainstays who have propped up tennis for more than a decade, other than Serena Williams.
“It’s a chance to create new stars,” said Jim Courier, the former world No. 1. “We need those new stars to be winning majors also for the general American public to really pay attention to them, but you have got to start somewhere.”
On the men’s side, without Djokovic, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal are not here to hog the attention and trophies, the future is being scripted by a new generation of bigger and freakishly athletic players in their early 20s. And the women’s game, already so wide open, appears as though it will only open up further in the coming years, even as Williams pursues a record-tying 24th Grand Slam singles title before retirement.
Djokovic was mostly overpowering in his first three matches, but it was Felix Auger-Aliassime, 20, of Canada, his country a quickly rising power in tennis, barely breaking a sweat as he dispatched the British star Andy Murray, who was making a comeback from hip surgery, on the court where Murray became a Grand Slam champion in 2012.
The men’s draw, packed with Europeans, started with the most players younger than 23 at a Grand Slam tournament since 2005, according to the ATP Tour. Ten men under 25 years old made the round of 16, the most at a Grand Slam since the 2009 Australian Open, and the most at the U.S. Open since 2001.
“This feels like a beginning of sort of the next phase,” Courier said.
The transition will not be easy. Tennis has enjoyed a golden era during the past decade, with Federer, Nadal, Djokovic and Williams staking their claims as the greatest pro of all time. It will not likely happen again soon.
With Federer (knee surgery) and Nadal (hesitation about travel during the coronavirus pandemic) skipping the tournament, television audiences for the United States were suffering even before Djokovic’s untimely exit. ESPN’s ratings for the first week were down an average of 35 percent compared with the past three years. Competition from the N.B.A. playoffs, a league which is usually in its off-season by now, has not helped.
As players that only hard-core tennis fans are familiar with duel in empty stadiums — Sunday afternoon featured round of 16 matches between Petra Martic of Croatia and Yulia Putintseva of Kazakhstan and Alejandro Fokino of Spain and Alexander Zverev of Germany — it is hard not to see the rows of unoccupied seats as an omen.
“Let’s hope it is just this one year,” said Andrea Gaudenzi, the chairman of the Association of Tennis Professionals, which represents the male players and their tournaments.
Williams — a megastar without whom it would have been difficult to see the tournament happening at all — may yet win the title. The less well-known Sofia Kenin, 21, of the United States, won the Australian Open in January and has also barreled her way into the second week at the U.S. Open. Naomi Osaka, the 2018 U.S. Open champion, has drawn significant attention both with her play and her persistence in speaking out against systemic racism.
Even with them at the top, the women’s tournament is basically a crapshoot. By Sunday evening the No. 23 and No. 28 seeded players in the women’s draw had booked spots in the quarterfinals, as did Shelby Rogers, ranked No. 93 in the world.
“The women’s game is so deep, anybody can win a major,” Jen Brady, 25, of the United States, declared Sunday after upsetting a former world No. 1, Angelique Kerber, to make her first Grand Slam quarterfinal.
For years tennis relied on rivalries to sell itself. Judging from this year’s U.S. Open, that might not be possible in the near future, for the men and especially for the women.
“There is nothing in sport like a great rivalry,” said Steve Simon, chief executive of the Women’s Tennis Association. “But going into every big event, whether it’s the U.S. Open or Roland Garros or Wimbledon or Australia or the tour finals, we have all of these possibilities and 10-12 story lines versus one or two.”
Gaudenzi, the chairman of the men’s tour who once ranked as high as No. 18 when he played, said tennis has been through transition periods before, most recently when Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi retired in the early 2000s. “We are talking about the three greatest players of all time, and they are going to be hard to replace and highly missed,” he said, referring to the Big Three of Federer, Nadal and Djokovic. But, he added, “we’ve got good players and good personalities” beyond them.
Those players who will be on display this week also bear little physical resemblance even to the Big Three, suggesting that tennis’s future looks taller and even more physical. For years, most top tennis players came in all sizes. Then came Federer, Nadal, Djokovic and Murray, who are all roughly the height of small N.B.A. point guards.
Daniil Medvedev, Stefanos Tsitsipas, and Zverev, the Nos. 3, 4 and 5 seeds at the U.S. Open, are all 24 or younger, and have the combination of height and footwork of N.B.A. wings like Kawhi Leonard, the Los Angeles Clippers star. At 6-foot-4, Auger-Aliassime evokes the style of Golden State Warriors shooter Stephen Curry with a tennis racket. Their long arms function like trebuchets, producing cannon-like serves and powerful forehands.
“You still need one of these players to break through,” said Donald Dell, the longtime agent and co-founder of the ATP. “But money is the big motivation” that could attract even more of the world’s top athletes to tennis, he said.
That is especially true in women’s tennis, which is by far the highest paying sport for women and one which offers equal pay at the biggest events. It also helps explain the depth of American women in the U.S. Open field, even as European women dominated the top 20 seeds. The United States has more depth than it has had in decades, especially in its pipeline.
There were 11 American women in the final 32, though Coco Gauff, 16, was not one of them. Gauff, who captured the spotlight after her run to the round of 16 at Wimbledon last year, lost in the first round. She is one of several promising young Black prospects for the women’s game in the United States, including Hailey Baptiste, Katrina Scott and Robin Montgomery.
Their time atop the sport seems like it is still a few years away. Ahead of them are some women less well-known than Gauff but who have plenty of talent and athleticism. Catherine McNally, who is just 18, came back from a set down to knock off the No. 21 seed Ekaterina Alexandrova to make the third round, as did Ann Li, 20, and Amanda Anisimova, 19.
“I learned I belong here,” said McNally, who is 5-foot-11 and grew up playing basketball.
Martin Blackman, the director of player development for the United States Tennis Association, said with so many top athletes entering the game, the competition is likely to become even more fierce, diminishing the chances that one player, or even a small group of players, will dominate.
“These women are investing in themselves and putting these amazing teams,” Blackman said. “That leads to parity.”
Christopher Clarey contributed reporting.