A recap from this past week:
What a bizarre week it was at the U.S. Open Tennis Championships.
I don’t think I have ever seen a series of events at a sports event that actually transcended the play on the court.
Let’s start with the men’s round of 16 match between heavily favored Roger Federer and his Australian opponent John Millman.
I don’t think I enjoy watching anyone more than Federer who is the model of class on the tennis court on and off, who maintains an amazing ability at age 37 to combine fitness and composure that makes you cheer hard for him every time you see him play.
I mean, how can you root against this guy?
On this particular night, I was prepared to sit back and simply revel at this court magician. I didn’t know anything about Millman, except that he was good enough to reach the quarters and was lined up to be the next victim in Federer’s march forward.
The match began shortly after 9pm and what was evident was that it was extremely hot, humid and uncomfortable inside Arthur Ashe Stadium.
Federer was Federer as the match got underway, and it looked clearly as if this could be a quick exercise. Roger won the first set 6-3, and the stage was set for him to advance to his next encounter, a big one, two nights later against Novak.
But a funny thing was happening on Federer’s way to the semis.
He was visibly uncomfortable with the conditions, and his outfit was soaked through and through and his face was wet with perspiration so bad, the normally stoic visage of this great player was more of a grimace that would never go away.
Meanwhile, Millman, was also drenched, but seemed to be enjoying himself, constantly in motion and actually relishing what was obviously a suffocating atmosphere.
It was kind of amusing to see Millman gesture and shout while he looked over to his right at one end of the court when he lost a point. Only later did we realize his gyrations were directed toward the box where his coach and friends sat.
Without turning this into a tennis play-by-play, the momentum of this match was turning in a subtle manner. Millman, was not only hanging in there against the great Swiss star, he was giving the popular Federer all he could handle.
John Millman was outplaying Roger Federer.
It was no longer a matter of how quickly Roger could dispose of his opponent, the question became, could Federer actually lose.
And it became apparent that he could.
It’s interesting, when you observe a truly great performer or, for that matter, a team, trailing in the midst of a competition, you feel it’s just a matter of time before the tide turns. You wait, and you wait, and then comes the realization that it’s not going to happen.
That was the case, in my opinion, in the Federer-Millman match.
Federer was out of gas, and Millman never weakened.
Two nights later, the scene was like Groundhog Day.
Here was another brilliant player, Novak Djokovic. He was like Roger Federer at the start, looking fresh, sturdy, and prepared to breeze by this upstart, whose luck would finally run out.
It was another 9pm start. Once again, it was so humid, it looked like the players could hardly breathe.
But Djokovic was In control and easily beat Millman 6-3 in the first set.
Millman, who we learned, was used to the conditions in Flushing, from his native Brisbane, where a steamy climate is the name of the game.
Amazingly, things started to turn. Just as they did two nights earlier.
Djokovic was visibly affected by the humidity, and his impassive appearance began to wilt. Millman remained the same: sweaty, but animated, hopping around, gesturing to his people.
It was unbelievable. History was repeating itself. You had to think, was Millman going outlast another star, and outlast him, the way he did with Federer?
Then came the turning point.
During an early changeover in the second set, Djokovic asked for what was apparently a drink made up from a concoction of whatever, to help him gain strength to weather the weather.
Here he was sitting, after removing his shirt, waiting to get his refresher.
At the same time, Millman, who never took a break to change into a dry outfit, as Federer had done more than once, told the umpire and his opponent, that he had to change his shorts because they were too wet to place a tennis ball in his pocket.
Frankly, you can’t make this stuff up.
To cut to the chase, Millman returned with dry tennis shorts. Djokovic was now rejuvenated with his drink and much-needed rest, and now looking like a new man, Novak proceeded to whip Millman in straight sets to move on to eventually capture another Grand Slam title.
Serena Williams, the dominant player in her sport, now the mother of a girl, looking to grab yet another Slam, at the expense of long-shot Naomi Osaka.
Osaka easily won the first set. Then the fun began.
In the second set, Williams, who had an early one game lead was docked a point by the chair umpire who spotted Serena’s coach giving signals to his player. Coaching from the box during a tennis match is against the rules, although it’s regarded as something that is routine in the sport.
Serena was starting to meltdown, and in her frustration over a point that was played, smashed her racquet to smithereens on the court and was docked another point.
During the next changeover, Serena looked up and lashed out at the chair umpire, both demanding an apology, claiming she didn’t, wouldn’t, and had never needed to cheat.
She also charged the male umpire with taking advantage of her gender in the form of discrimination.
The coup de grace came when she called the umpire a “thief”.
Serena was then docked a third point, and as a result Osaka was awarded a game.
When Williams won the next game, to cut what was now a deficit to 3-5 , the crowd, vehemently rooting for Serena, was amped up.
But the cool Osaka quickly captured the next game finishing off the upset.
Then came the trophy presentation to truly cap the bizarre happenings.
Here was Serena, standing next to Osaka, who was in tears. The crowd was booing the ceremonies. The whole scene was surreal.
In her interview, heard throughout the stadium, Serena showed tremendous class by asking the fans not to boo, to recognize and appreciate the champion who had earned her title, and to declare that “we will get through this”.
Then it was Osaka’s turn. Still in tears, the young Japanese girl, who gave her country their first Grand Slam championship, gave the appearance she was sorry she won.
Her dream was to someday face Serena Williams in a Grand Slam final.
Now she had. And now she won. But I have a hunch she never expected events to go the way they did.
In summing up, while the chair umpire followed the letter of the rule in his penalizing Williams, considering what was at stake, he should have given Serena a warning that she could default the game with one more outburst.
I also believe Serena should have avoided her sharp accusations, and just leave it to the fact she claimed she didn’t see her coach signal and would never cheat to win.
As for Naomi Osaka, she dominated her distinguished and favored opponent.
She is unconditionally the women’s champion of the U.S. Open , and we will be seeing her many more times in the finals of the big tournaments. Minus the tears.
Naomi Osaka and Serena Williams on the award podium.
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