The Keys to US Open Happiness

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BILL SIMONS

New York

LORD OF THE RINGS: After checking out Madison Keys’s engagement ring from her fiancé Bjorn Fratangelo, the stunned Chrissie Evert quipped, “I’ve been married three times and never had one that big! Well done, Bjorn!” BTW, during Kim Clijsters’s brief engagement to Lleyton Hewitt, the Belgian star suffered a wrist injury, which prompted Mark Woodforde to suggest her injury was due to “carrying her huge engagement ring around.” 

WHAT’S MORE DAUNTING?: For the seventh time, Taylor Fritz will be playing Novak Djokovic – he’s never beaten the Serb. Or, Russian Andrey Rublev is into his ninth quarterfinals – but he has never won one.

REPORTEDLY IT’S A WTA NO-GO FOR SAUDI ARABIA: According to Amex US Open Radio, the WTA Championships will not be held in Saudi Arabia. 

I COULDA BEEN A CONTENDER: Sports is an exercise in opportunities gained and opportunities lost. In the classic movie “On the Waterfront,” the failed boxer, portrayed by Marlon Brando, tells us, “I coulda been a contender.” “Coulda, woulda, shoulda” is too common a refrain in tennis. 

Tennis historian Richard Evans contended that when John McEnroe hit not one, but two, lobs over Bjorn Borg’s head at the 1981 Open, the Swede had a look in his eye. He thought, “I’m never gonna beat this guy.” Borg just walked away from tennis. 

In the 2009 Wimbledon final, Andy Roddick had a narrow window of opportunity against Roger Federer, but he muffed an easy volley to an open court. James Blake could have knocked out Andre Agassi in five sets at the 2005 US Open, but his late-night forehand landed long. Young Stefanos Tsitsipas was up two sets against Novak Djokovic in the French final in 2021, but he faltered. Some wonder if he’s ever recovered. 

More to the point, six years ago the rising young Madison Keys reached the 2017 US Open final. But she came out flat. Her play was tepid. Sloane Stephens pummeled her. She’s played 18 majors since then, but hasn’t reached another final. Ouch. Maddy’s 2017 shortfall has turned into a long-lasting memory that hovers.

But now Keys, who’s played for 13 seasons, has a bouncy, positive mindset. Her fiancé, Bjorn Fratangelo, is her coach. That helps. And she told Inside Tennis, “My worst year is still traveling the world, playing tennis. So it’s not that bad!” Playing without expectations is key for Keys. Just focusing on specific shots, having fun and understanding it’s just a tennis game all help. 

This afternoon Madison used a surprising variety of shots to score a surprising upset over the No. 3 player in the world, Jessica Pegula, 6-1, 6-3. Keys told the Ashe crowd how happy she was to have another opportunity to be an American playing on the world’s biggest arena. She’ll face the considerable Wimbledon champion Marketa Vondrousova in the quarterfinals. Madison and the crafty Czech lefty have never played each other.

As for the highest ranked American player, Pegula suffered her first-ever loss in the fourth round of a Slam. She’s lost six times in Slam quarterfinals. Consistency is her thing, but she’s never reached a Slam semi. 

COPING WITH CRISES: Often it seems that the US Open draws crises. One thinks of the tumultuous 2018 Serena Williams/Naomi Osaka final or the tournament being played in 2020 without fans during COVID; Novak being kicked out because he swatted a ball; or a hurricane descending on the place.

This year, Disney stopped supplying its content to the cable provider Spectrum, so ESPN’s US Open was blacked out on cable in key markets including New York. The move must have kicked off a landslide of legal issues.

BREAKING BRAD: After John McEnroe, Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova, has anyone been a more ever-present figure in tennis than the former pro, “Winning Ugly” author, ESPN broadcaster and coach of Andy Roddick, Andre Agassi, Andy Murray and now Coco Gauff than Brad Gilbert, who once was No. 4 in the world?

IGA FALLS: In Paris, Iga Swiatek won her fourth Grand Slam. Life was good. Since then, her results have been modest. Sunday, she suffered a devastating defeat to Jelena Ostapenko and lost her No. 1 ranking. On the one hand she told the media that being No. 1 meant a lot to her, even though it was stressful. But now she wants to “do all this stuff that my team and all these great players like Roger or Novak or Rafa do.” Iga now hopes to focus on the tournaments and not the rankings.

TAYLOR FRITZ – GOOD NEWS, BAD NEWS: First the good news: after enduring a tough Grand Slam season, No. 9 Taylor Fritz, who last year at the Open lost in the first round, has reached the quarters without much of a fuss. He’s the only man who hasn’t lost a set and has been under the radar. There’s been far more hoopla about Coco Gauff, Ben Shelton, and Taylor’s longtime pal, Frances Tiafoe. He hasn’t had to face a seed yet. The average ranking of his opponents has been 153. 

But his foe in his Tuesday quarterfinal will be the best hard-court player of all time, who just happens to be the greatest player of all time – Novak Djokovic. Fritz just lost to Nole 6-0, 6-4 in Cincy. It wasn’t pretty. As noted above, Taylor has never beaten Djokovic. No one has dominated Taylor like that. Then again, Coco Gauff had lost seven straight times to Swiatek before she downed her nemesis in Cincinnati. Taylor actually likes it that he just played Nole and his game plan will be to “stay within himself” and not try to serve too big or hit out to the lines.

QUOTEBOOK: 

“He’s beloved around the world – deservedly so.” – John McEnroe on Carlos Alcaraz

“I had to make it a little bit messy.” – Madison Keys on her effort to not give her foe Jessica Pegula any rhythm

MATCH ANALYSIS OF THE DAY: When asked about his late-night win over Sebastian Baez, Daniil Medvedev said, “Tough. I just want to go to sleep. That’s it.”

SCOUTING REPORT OF THE DAY: Frances Tiafoe commented, “Ben Shelton is going to come out with a lot of energy. I’m just going to have to tame him down, try to be the vet and get the win.”

THE UNITED COLORS OF THE US OPEN: The US Open is the most diverse Slam by far, and its center court, Arthur Ashe Stadium, is named for an African American. Four of the last seven Americans in the draw are African Americans: Frances Tiafoe, Ben Shelton, Coco Gauff and Madison Keys. And Pegula’s mother is Korean. BTW: Tiafoe bristled when Gauff said she liked Shelton’s shirt better then his and offered a curious take. He said, “Yeah, she’s all loving Ben’s light-skin energy, I guess [smiling].”

RESTAURANT REVIEW: Arthur Ashe Stadium may be the best tennis arena in the world, but for us reporters, the media cafeteria is not the best (to say the least). 

Still, you’ve got to give the place credit. Its salad bar impresses. It has red balsamic vinegar, white balsamic vinegar, red wine vinegar and champagne vinegar. Better yet, at its coffee bar, you can choose whole milk, fat free milk, almond milk, oat milk, or (if you’re wishy-washy) half and half.

AND NOW FOR A TALE OF THREE DEPARTMENT STORES: For generations, Taylor Fritz’s family owned the huge May department store that once reigned as a dominant Southern California retailer.  

For years, Jack Kramer’s kids figured their dad was called Neiman Marcus, since every week their mom would get a package from a guy named Neiman Marcus.

After Monica Seles was stabbed in 1993, she went through a lot of therapy. Then, when she was feeling better, she would go on wonderful flights of fancy. For instance, in Barney’s Department store in New York. There she pictured herself as Audrey Hepburn in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.” No sales persons were around, Frank Sinatra was playing in the background and she shamelessly tried on about 100 hats and felt as if she were in a movie.

HONEY DEUCE’D OUT: When we asked Frances Tiafoe what playing on Ashe Stadium was like, he replied, “It seems like a million people are out there…This is why I play my best at the Open. It’s that kind of court, man. To be named Arthur Ashe, the biggest stadium we have, it’s rocking. Everyone’s drunk…Energy is insane. Honey Deuce’d out.”

SPEAKING OF HONEY DEUCE: Is the vodka concoction, Honey Deuce, the US Open’s answer to Wimbledon’s strawberries and cream? And BTW, when Radio Wimbledon wants to get candid interviews with wide-eyed fans, they go to Henman Hill or out to the long, serpentine queue, the world’s most famous line. In contrast, here in New York, when US Open Radio is seeking fan interviews, they go to the not-so-fabled American Express lounge. 

JUST WONDERING: Is it a good idea for Coco Gauff to play singles, women’s doubles and mixed doubles? She’s young and energetic – why not? Or – if she really wants to break through – why doesn’t she just focus on singles?

YOU KNOW YOU’RE IN NEW YORK WHEN: After playing on Court 17, Alexander Zverev tells the crowd, “The whole court smells like weed.”

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