Who to Watch at the US Open? The Women! (Guest Blog)

The female competitors — even minus Serena Williams — will, and should, be what draws audiences, Michele Willens writes

Naomi Osaka

No Federer. No Nadal. No (defending champion) Thiem. And now no Serena. The New York-based U.S. Open starts on Monday, and Novak Djokovic is, once again, feeling underappreciated, especially as he goes for the Grand Slam. Assuming he doesn’t stub a toe, he should reach that goal, lack of applause — or added asterisks — be damned.

The truth is, the female competitors — even without Serena Williams in the competition — will, and should, be what draws the viewers. “It’s very exciting to have this many women with very different games, playing with power and touch,” said Joel Drucker, who has covered the tennis world for many years.

“I think the women have always had compelling stories and can definitely drive and sustain ratings,” adds Andrea Joyce, who has covered the Open on TV for decades. “It’s a reflection of the culture and times we live in. Coming off the Olympics, we are celebrating strong women and there is no shortage of that in women’s tennis. I have never felt that the women lacked excitement or drama … sometimes just overshadowed and overlooked.”

Such parity is refreshing, especially compared to the male troika that has dominated for more than a decade. Yes, the Williams sisters — especially Serena — had a period of domination. But as she nears 40, things are obviously fluid and occasionally frustrating (hold that thought).

Equal excitement is welcome, and appropriate. Financially (thank you, Billie Jean King) the U.S. Open winners — men and women — will take home roughly $2.5 million each, and even losing in the round of 32 still earns them close to $181,000. Unfortunately, there is also equality in terms of the stresses — both physical and mental.

We might expect that men would get injured more, but these days, not so much. Serena slipped at Wimbledon and quickly retired. Simona Halep has missed much of the year due to a calf issue (the same one afflicting Mike Trout). Petra Kvitova was seeded second in the just-completed Western and Southern Open, and defaulted to Angelique Kerber in the quarters with a recurring “stomach issue.”

This, of course, is due to the fact that women are playing harder and more frequently, due largely to eager (and greedy) entourages comprised of agents, trainers and parents. It was not always thus. “I don’t ever recall calling an injury timeout for a questionable injury,” says Anne White, a former internationally ranked player and currently the head pro at the Beverly Hills Tennis Club. “There are many players who use multiple injury timeouts to disrupt their opponents’ momentum and that needs to stop. Injury timeouts are never called by the player who is winning the match unless they fall on the court.” Hmm…

White, incidentally, made international news when she showed up in a skintight one-piece suit at Wimbledon in 1985. Imagine how Serena dresses on the court now, and you see other ways women’s tennis has changed. Incidentally, looks are still part of the game. Serena used to complain — as she should have — when Maria Sharapova made many millions more in endorsements when they were competitors. That was, of course, when beauteous blondes mattered most to advertisers.

Happily, things are somewhat different these days. I said somewhat. An Italian player named Camila Giorgi is heading to New York after upsetting six seeds to win a tournament in Montreal. Even before, she had managed to sign a hefty deal with a lingerie company (brokered by a verbally intrusive father).

Does that help box office, so to speak? Billie Jean King understood this concept years ago, when she and eight other women (recently inducted into the Hall of Fame) started their own tennis circuit. The nine less-than-glamorous trailblazers had trouble drawing ticket buyers to their matches. When the other eight complained about some cute upstart named Chrissy Evert winning hearts and attention, King said, “she is the best thing that has happened to us.”

Besides the physical challenges, there are the mental ones. As even non-tennis fans know that Naomi Osaka (who made some $50 million last year in endorsements) refused to do tournament press conferences at the French Open, was fined, and quit the tournament. She confessed to mental illness issues and then landed on magazine covers, had a salad bowl named after her at Sweetgreen, and lit the torch at the Tokyo Olympics. Osaka is the defending champion of the U.S. Open, but lost early at the Olympics and was just upset in an important Cincinnati tournament. So more stress and press are likely in her near future.

She has been one of multiple — and temporary — No. 1s over the past several years, which, again, can be considered a plus. But why so many have big wins — Andreescu, Kenin, Kerber, Muguruzu, Stephens — and then falter, is likely best left to the psychologists. When Chris Evert was asked at Wimbledon why even No. 1 Ash Barty tends to falter mid-match, she said, “She’s not arrogant enough.”

Once again, King may have an answer. In a recent New Yorker interview, she said, “I know a lot of players lose because they don’t think they deserve to win. You’ll see them get right to the brink of winning and then they can’t do it. Why? Something’s going on there. So they need to find out.”

I recently was with King (who just published a memoir, “All In”) at the memorial for my tennis-coach brother. She recalled that she always had that need to win and nothing less. “I was 12,” she said, “when I determined I would be the best in the world.” We told her how grateful we were that she showed up at this time in her life and career, no longer the person we met all those years ago. “I am still that person,” she assured us.

She is indeed, and this week many women, all worth watching, will be playing on the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center. My final suggestion: What if Venus and Serena used this moment to announce their retirement? In their country, where they first made their names. And a court would — and should –carry their names.


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