*Serena Williams owns the US Open. Heck, she owns women’s tennis, but I digress. She won her first Grand Slam trophy here in New York and went on to collect five more. The Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in Flushing, NY is who’s house? It’s Serena’s house.
But Serena’s not in the house this year. Why? Because she had the nerve to turn all human (I know, right? I was beginning to think she was a machine, too!) and lady like on us and get engaged and pregnant. So, while she’s off planning a wedding with her fiancee’, Alexis Ohanian, and having baby showers and things with her sisters and friends like Kelly Rowland, Ciara, LaLa Anthony and Kim Kardashian, we’re here in New York at the 2017 US Open trying to find that soul that she’s – now irrefutably – long brought to the US Open. And to be clear, I define “soul” as the essence or embodiment of a specified quality; African American culture or ethnic pride.
But fret not, because, for one, we can’t overlook her elder sister, Venus Williams, who’s been right here in her shadow since Serena has been toppling generations of WTA players over the years. In fact, Venus Williams was the first in the sister act to win a trophy inside Arthur Ashe Stadium – now celebrating its 20th year. Venus won it back in 2000, before Serena, in 2001, tapped into that skill, ferocity and probably even a little jealousy that would eventually move her to the top of the women’s tennis class. Venus was her idol and, really, if it had not been for Serena, we’d likely be heralding her as the Grand Slam winningest active player on the women’s tour.
But, she’s been content to watch her sister mow down opponent after opponent and win trophy after trophy, humbly and quietly collecting seven Slams trophies herself. She’s ridden her genuine love of the sport this whole while, continuing to hone her game, holding back the hands of the clock to remain active and a legitimate threat at 37 years of age. In fact, 2017 has been a banner year for Venus, having reached two GS finals (Australian open where she lost to her pregnant sister, and Wimbledon, losing to Garbine Muguruza) and one Quarterfinal. She hadn’t put in a year like this, well … in years. Here at the US Open, she’s on the tougher side of the draw (Kvitova, Muguruza, Wozniacki and, yes, Sharapova being threats), but given her current form, she’s capable of going deep. She won her first round match against Qualifier Viktoria Kuzmova (SVK) and appears to have a smooth ride at least through to round 4, then it gets tricky.
Should Venus Williams fail to show and prove, all is still not lost, however, because there is a crop of young and hungry players, men and women alike, who are flawed, but capable of representing the soul of the USTA here in New York.
Madison Keys: big serve, thumping ground strokes, and coached by hall of famer and former champion Lindsay Davenport, but with a yet fragile mentality and underdeveloped discipline that could derail her hopes of New York glory. She won her first round match on Tuesday night against Elise Mertens (BEL), 6-3, 7-6.
Sloane Stephens: roadrunner legs, powerful groundstrokes, and some slam success with big scalps under her belt (beat Serena Williams at Aussie Open), along with being well-rested after a long injury layoff . She’s currently surging, but she can rely too much on her defensive skills (Slam winning history favors offensive players) and has the propensity to go away when she finds herself down in a match. She took down the woman who denied Serena the coveted calendar slam in 2015, Roberta Vinci (ITA), in her first round match, 7-5, 6-1, on Monday night.
Frances Tiafoe (out but worthy of a mention): diverse skill set, power hitter, young legs, gaining in critical experience against top ranked players (had match points over John Isner in a 5-set thriller, 2016 US Open) and surrounded by significant support (USTA and Roc Nation). He’s still growing and he, unfortunately, played the GOAT, Roger Federer, on Ashe in the first round on Tuesday night … but it was another 5-set thriller, that earned him respect that likely to catapult his career to a new level. He had a tag on his toe for this year’s US Open, but next year …
Donald Young: capable player (juniors phenom, though long behind him), solid results at the US Open over other slams (4th round, ’11, ’15), but battles erratic on-court maturity and a decidedly stagnant career. His first round match is underway (interrupted when leading 3-6, 6-1, 2-0 by rain) against 125th ranked Maximilian Marterer (GER); but if he wins, the road ahead includes the possibility of facing ATP luminaries Gael Monfils (FRA), Grigor Dimitrov (BUL) and Rafael Nadal (ESP). If he survives Maximilian, the prospect of early US Open death increasingly becomes him.
Taylor Townsend: Another juniors phenom, has a rounded game with potential strengths, but she’s still in development and likely a ways off from the breakthrough needed to go deep here in New York. She faces Ana Bogdan (ROU), ranked at 714, in the first round, then it gets tough.
Sashia Vickery: a player who’s been pecking away at rising in the rankings for several years (currently at 141), whose speed and consistency are her strengths. Her slam best is the 2nd round – including a come from behind win this year against Natalia Vikhylyantseva (RUS) in round one – here at the US Open. She has a chance to take down American wildcard Sofia Kenin in round two, but with a garden variety game and on course to face Maria Sharapova as a third round opponent, it’s not likely that she’ll advance beyond that point.
Round one, which will wrap up on Wednesday night due to Tuesday’s rain cancellations, is notorious for upsets alongside its natural attrition, so its highly likely that the aforementioned field of hopefuls will be a bit narrower by the next edition of “Soul of the US Open.” But, though I know it’s unlikely that there will ever be another Serena Williams, there ARE a few on the USTA who are poised to at least keep the 2017 US Open diversified for a few rounds with high level play and passion.