Tuesday, August 9, 2022

SOUL OF THE US OPEN: Venus, Serena, Sloane Advance

*Flushing, New York – Another year, another credentialing for one of the largest sporting events in the world, The US Open. This year happens to be the tournament’s 50th anniversary and what’s crazy is 20 of those years have featured as headliners at least one, if not both, of our foremost sporting luminaries, Venus and Serena Williams. ??

USTA President Katrina Adams speaks before the Women's Singles finals match on Day Thirteen of the 2017 US Open at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center on September 9, 2017 in the Flushing neighborhood of the Queens borough of New York City.
USTA Chief Katrina Adams

That’s pretty danged notable considering the bad rap tennis has endured down through the years regarding diversity. But the sport has come a mighty long way and the US Open in particular has actually LED the way in diversification. It was the first to offer equal prize money to men and women players, its show stadiums are named after blacks (Louis Armstrong and Arthur Ashe) and pioneers such as Ashe and Althea Gibson are well represented around the grounds. Heck, the current face of American tennis, the USTA chief, is a black woman, Katrina Adams.

And there it is … minorities are winning in Flushing, New York. This is one of the reasons why the US Open has a special place in my heart. But I also love the tennis … no matter what ethnicity or gender is playing it.

Now let’s talk about it.

The tournament started on Monday with round one action all around the grounds – on 17 courts. It was hard to pick which matches to cover, but I had a plan … the one drop rule. Maybe I shouldn’t be using that today, but as I read the latest headlines about what’s going on in our country … yeah, we still need some concentrated love.

So, I entered the stadium, picked up my daily schedule, and where there was a possible drop and a little American flag appearing next to the name, I made a circle. I had to see Venus, Serena and Sloane, of course (there’s no question there), but there were others who may not quite be household names who made the cut: Madison Keys, Taylor Townsend, Sachia Vickery, Frances Tiafoe, Donald Young, Naomi Osakad and Michael Mmoh.

Sachia Vickery was up first on Court 17.

Sashia Vickery competes against Shelby Rogers. (photo credit: Margot Jordan)

It was known going in that Sachia had a hard way to go. She was set to play the no. 7 seed, Elena Svitolina. The american always brings an extra gear to New York, but she’s still figuring out her game and weapons. “Svitolina is the 7th seed for a reason,” she said, which proved to make the difference. Vickery held her own in the seesaw match, but it was she who ended up with her butt on the ground. She lost 3-6, 6-1, 1-6.

Venus Williams, former champion and sentimental New York favorite, was up next on Ashe.

Venus Williams at the 2016 US Open. (Photo credit: Margot Jordan)

Like Vickery, it was evident that she wouldn’t get a walkover. Her opponent, Svetlana Kuznetsova, is a former US Open champion and she’s a veteran of the game with plenty of gas left in the tank to match the experience. She’s also tatted and even wore braids at one point … she has street cred. ? Venus started out firing bullets at her opponent, but was unable to find her range. She gave Kuznetsova an early break as a result. It was a good strategy to dictate play and keep the points short … it just needed to click. And it eventually did. The 38-year-old finally dialed in and started bossing the Russian around. She was able to get the break back after a marathon game and after some intense back and forth set herself up to serve for the match.

It was part of my  mplan to motor over to Armstrong Stadium to catch defending champion Sloane Stephens in action right after Venus handled Kuznetsova, but things got really complicated. ?

Venus had two match points on her racquet, but as I gathered my things to make my exit, the elder Williams crumbled under the pressure of trying to pull out a straight sets win. Instead, she was broken, the Russian held, then broke her again to take the second set. Aye yai yai! I settled right back in.

It was no surprise, given her history of thrilling 3-setters at the US Open, but … I had places to go and people to see! Meanwhile, Sloane was over on Armstrong handling business. She was mauling, er … playing Evgynia Rodina – also of Russia, and took the first set 6-1. Had to read it, couldn’t see it! ?

By then, Venus had run my pressure up to eye-bulging levels inside Ashe. Like riding in the car with someone who can’t drive and pushing the imaginary brakes, I’m in my seat squirming and contorting like I was the one holding her racquet. She had blown match points, break points … broke points, whatever … she was still on court. It got ugly out there, but like her sister, Serena, if ugly is what it takes, she’ll give it to you.

The two-time champion came out looking regal like she was fresh off a flight from Wakanda, but by the third set, her bun was done and her class was in the past. But she got ‘er done, which is why we love Venus. At 38, she still has so much passion for the game no matter who she’s up against or how fatigued she may be, she leaves it all on the court. Has that led to some heartbreaks in the past? You bet, but it’s better to experience the heartbreak of being present than it is to have the same for lack of trying.

Venus finally won, 3-6, 7-5, 3-6, no doubt went to the locker room to let out a sigh of relief and redo her bun, then went to her room relishing the joy of living to fight another round. That’s what I’m talking about! Go V!

I thought I’d still go show Sloane some love, but I checked the score on my phone and she was gone, baby gone. After easily taking the first set, she overcame a brief blip in Rodina’s pulse to take the second, 7-5. On to round two for the defending champion.

I went and grabbed some food to prepare for the razzle dazzle that was to take place during the night session opening ceremonies. I was looking forward to hearing what spin Maxwell was gonna put on the National Anthem (never seen him live, so it was my big chance … lol) and I’m a low key Kelly Clarkson fan, so, yeah, I wanted to see her perform.

The lights came up around 7pm, all the pomp and circumstance went off without a hitch and the official kickoff was underway. The wattage of the night was boosted by the presence celebrities like Mike Tyson, Katie Couric, Gladys Knight, Gayle King, Daymon John, Hugh Jackman, Ana Wintour and Vera Wang. Even the Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin, was there in spirit as they remembered her by replaying her 2007 performance of Respect to raucous applause. #riparethafranklin

Kelly then took the stage. Being that Ashe Stadium is no Carnegie Hall, she did what she could do but sounded a little like she was singing into an empty toilet paper roll. Maxwell followed, respectfully delivering the anthem with just a touch of “black magic.” (I felt a little conflicted for a second … should I be standing or nah?) Never-the-less, good choices for the kick-off, but maybe the roles should’ve been flipped. Kelly should’ve used her power and range to smash the anthem and Maxwell should’ve touched our souls with some Ascension, A Woman’s Work or something. Wasn’t my call though … and maybe that would’ve been TOO black.

But the real reason for my excitement was seeing the OG Queen of New York return to the big stage. What was she gonna wear (since she’s been on blast about her French Open catsuit)? What form was she gonna be in? Heck, would she win??

It was time to get my answers.

Image result for serena williams
Serena Williams at the 2018 US Open

Serena Williams came out of the tunnel to true New York applause looking a little bit future son top and a little bit ballerina on the bottom. (She’s gonna always give a little extra, because she has a public, ya know.) Then off came the jacket and the crowd went wild. She revealed two-tone, top that gave the illusion of an off-the shoulder effect. It brought her pre-baby sexy back! Ok … we see ya, Serena!

Then she unleashed that game of hers. She was shaky to start, only finding the net during quite a few rallies and making her opponent, Madga Linette, feel like she was in the match, but once the gears started clicking, it was a wrap. She finally strung enough points together to get the break in game 8 to go up 5-4, then served the first set out, 6-4. The rest was HER story. She found her rhythm off the ground and that big serve and smothered Linette out, taking the second set and the match 6-4, 6-0. She hadn’t made an opponent lay an egg in a while, so her hope of going deep in New York was reinforced by the performance.

Serena got of the court so quickly, it left time for me to catch Donald Young getting mauled by Spaniard Juan Martin Del Potro over on the Armstrong. I’ll spare Donald’s rep and not provide the gory details, but I’ll just say Del Potro has won the US Open before, beating the great Roger Federer in his prime and he’s the current world no. 3. The final score was 6-0, 6-3, 6-4.

Round one then became day two, Tuesday, and on tap to play on were Madison Keys, Taylor Townsend, Micheal Mmoh, Francis Tiafoe and my honorable mention, Naomi Osaka.

Taylor Townsend took the court – the very hot, hot, HOT court – against fellow American, Amanda Anisimova. The stifling heat contributed to sluggish, erratic play in the first set, which Taylor lost, 3-6, but the remaining sets came down to conditioning – who could take the blistering heat – and Anisimova ended up being the one to high tail it out of the kitchen. Townsend took the final two sets, 6-4, 6-3, and earned her first second round spot in the US Open.

Taylor Townsend in action as Donald Young’s mixed doubles partner. (photo credit: Margot Jordan)

She was hot, I was hot, we were hot … it got quite treacherous out there. The tournament brass had to implement the heat rule for both the women and the men (a new thing), which provided one 10 minute break for each if the temperature reached a certain point …and it did.

Michael Mmoh

After Taylor won, I hydrated, set my face like flint, and made my way over to Court 17 to watch Michael Mmoh try to exceed his 2016 first round appearance. He lost then, but he’s won a couple of titles since and matured a little, so he had a chance – a remote one – against the controversial Italian, Fabio Fognini. He started strong, taking the first set with solid play, but was unable to maintain after that and lost the next three consecutive sets. He had chances galore, but there’s still some growing to do before he can believe enough to topple players as experienced and skillful as Fognini. He bowed out 6-4, 2-6, 4-6, 6-7. No round two, but one to grow on.

Next up, young Frances Tiafoe.

FLUSHING, NY September 1 US Open

Frances Tiafoe probably wouldn’t like that designation, but I’m using it it anyway because it fits. He’s a favorite of mine and fans because he has skills out of the wazoo and an endearing personality to make you care that he does. But he’s gotten bad breaks in his US Open experiences. Out of the gates he’s always been up against the tournament favorites in the past, but this year he had a reasonable opponent to face, Adrian Mannarino. Mannarino was the 20th seed … yep, I said was, because my man Tiafoe brought his A game and got the job done. The crowd loves him, he had a gaggle of family and friends in his box for support and he used his young legs to run the Frenchman off the court in 4 sets, 6-1, 6-4, 4-6, 6-4. His shot selection was superb, mixing power and finesse, and most importantly, he believed. After the win and the obligatory handshake, he let out a victory roar that signaled he has officially arrived in Grand Slam play. The Virginia native moves on to the 2nd round for the first time.

I didn’t get a chance to see Naomi Osaka (the  young lady who vanquished Serena in the first round in Miami), but like Sloane she had no problems dispatching her German opponent, Laura Siegemund, 6-3, 6-2. She still has maturing to do, as well, but her power game can threaten or eliminate any of the top players if she’s fire on all cylinders. She’s reached round three in New York in 2016 and 2017, and I look for at least a repeat this time around.

Madison Keys

Madison Keys earned a straight sets win over Paula Parmentier during the primetime match on Ashe. It wasn’t the cleanest performance, but she got the job done. She doesn’t have the most dynamic game, but she has Williams-esque power that can cancel out the weapons of anyone she plays. It’s just a matter of being consistent and being solid between the ears. She went off the rails a few times during her night match, dropping sets and squandering breakpoints, but her recovery was enough to earn her a round two appearance, one step closer to defending all the points she earned by making the 2017 final. She has a long way to go, but she’s game to give her all.

Catch round two action today, featuring Venus
Williams, Serena Williams as they try to set up another commemorative meeting in the third round, Sloane Stephen and more. Check your local listings.




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