The hot potato game between the already established tennis stars was halted in the 2021 US Open, as new faces stole the show — something that tennis needed.
In 2015, rap sensation Drake gave the world an instant hit in his song “Hotline Bling.” The melody and chorus was catchy, the music video was aesthetically pleasing and the one-liners filled Instagram captions around the world. But by far the biggest mark left by “Hotline Bling” was a meme.
In the music video, Drake performs a dance move that, when isolated, looks like he is looking away in disgust. Later in the video, he nods his head and points. These shots were used to make a meme that expresses preference between two things.
As I watched the US Open, I couldn’t help but think about the “Hotline Bling” meme. For nearly 15 years, the tennis world has been dominated by the same names — Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer, Rafa Nadal, Serena Williams and most recently Naomi Osaka. Oddsmakers figured that those five would have deep runs in this year’s US Open with one of them winning it all.
That was not the case. Williams, Federer and Nadal withdrew from the U.S. Open and shut down their 2021 seasons. Osaka was upset early by the then-18-year-old Leylah Fernandez — a non-household name who was ranked 77th in the world at the time.
Djokovic, however, did make it to the final match, and with the opportunity to make history. He had already won the Australian Open, the French Open and Wimbledon this year, leaving him the opportunity to become the first man since Rod Laver in 1969 and the first player since Steffi Graf in 1988 to complete a calendar Grand Slam. He was also trying to win his 21st major singles title, a total that would have put him ahead of Federer and Nadal, his rivals and fellow all-time greats, who are tied with him atop the all-time majors list at 20.
With the rest of the crew out, it seemed only natural for Djokovic to make history. The only person standing in his way was Daniil Medvedev, a young up-and-coming tennis star who Djokovic had already beaten in the Australian Open Championship. Not only did Djokovic beat Medvedev in the Australian Open, he demolished him by winning in straight sets and losing only four games combined over the last two sets.
Things went much different for Djokovic in the US Open Championship. From the start of the match he looked tired and overwhelmed, sluggishly moving around the court and slapping his legs between points as if to wake them up. He uncharacteristically whacked shots into the net and failed to exploit the poor passing shots or get to the gettable drop shots Medvedev repeatedly sent his way.
Towards the end of the match, Jokovic smashed his racket, but to no avail. Medvedev wound up winning 6-4, 6-4, 6-4. He displayed a dominance that wasn’t expected.
The women’s side was even more mouth-dropping as it featured teens as the championship finalist. Fernandez, who turned 19 years old during the tournament, followed her upset victory over Osaka and faced off against Emma Raducanu, an 18-year-old who had never played a tour-level match. Both women walked into the tournament with house money and came out owning the casino that is the tennis world.
It’s easy to make the simple mistake of thinking sports are predictable. The greatest athlete in any sport isn’t an algebra equation that has specific variables and one outcome. Greats are humans who make mistakes, have missteps and are dethroned by the next great player.
Djokovic is one of, if not the best tennis player of all time, and sometimes even his legs get tired and he looks off. Raducanu, who is British, is 18; Fernandez, who is Canadian, turned 19 during the tournament. Neither Raducanu nor Fernandez was a year old when Federer won his first major. Every match they played seemed to unlock, for the first time, some new dimension of their games, and the viewers got to see that.
The unpredictability of fresh faces is what makes the game of tennis, and any game in general, special. It is fun when a household name achieves new feats, but seeing new people ascend to becoming household names keeps the game going. And when that happens, Vegas might lose, but the fans win.