I realized something astonishing this morning. No one has defended his title at US Open in the last 7 editions of the tournament. The fact that the last person to do this at the open was Roger Federer in 2008 is interesting. Consider the following data:
Grand Slam Last time someone defended his title here
Australian Open 2016 (Novak Djokovic)
French Open 2014 (Rafael Nadal)
Wimbledon 2015 (Novak Djokovic)
US Open 2008 (Roger Federer)
It is clear that this pattern is observed only at US Open. It implies that no one was ever good enough to win 2 consecutive titles at the open during the period 2008-2015. Federer came close in 2009, Nadal in 2011 and Djokovic in 2012. But they all failed. Nothing like this ever happened in the other 3 grand slams in their respective last 7 editions. One can say that this is just a coincidence. But, I would not buy that. Most probably, it’s not a co-incidence.
The fact I have mentioned isn’t the only striking difference between US Open and the other majors. One must take note of the fact that in the last 8 editions of the open we have witnessed 6 different champions lift the trophy. So, why do we see such a varied cast of champions at the open of late? Another noteworthy fact is, in the last 8 editions of the open, there were two occasions on which a player who is not a part of the big 4 group won the title. Compare this with the results at the other grand slams since 2008 and you will see a difference. So, why do the non-elites emerge most often at this open? We will try to answer these questions by looking at some of the characteristics of the US Open, the players who have been defending champions for the different editions in the period we are studying and the characteristics of some of the US Open champions who have been able to defend their title there.
Timing of the US Open and the player activity prior to it
US Open commences in the month of August every year. In the period from May to August which comprises 4 months, 3 of the 4 grand slams take place. A major injury acquired during Roland Garros or Wimbledon doesn’t generally get completely cured before US Open because the time gap is too small. That is a hectic period for the players. During this period, players wither out physically and mentally, get injured and sometimes can also become complacent.
Nadal did not participate in 2 editions of the US Open during the period we are talking about, i.e., in 2012 and 2014 editions. In both the cases, the cause was an injury acquired most probably after the Roland Garros of each of the years. In US Open 2014, he was the defending champion.
Murray won his maiden Wimbledon title in 2013 but shortly after we saw him come back to his usual form in the US Open in which he lost 2 sets en route to his quarter final which he lost to Stan Wawrinka winning just 9 games in all. Did he become a little complacent after winning Wimbledon that year? Did it play a role in his defeat? We shall never know. Nonetheless, it’s a plausible cause.
The physical style of play employed by some of past US Open champions
Some of the players who became champions at the open during the period 2008-2015 have a very physical game which they have not been able to maintain well enough to win two consecutive titles here because of its injury-prone nature. We are talking about Del Potro and Nadal.
Del Potro had been hitting his forehand with a lot of power prior to Australian Open 2010. This was definitely one of the reasons as to why he acquired the wrist injury in 2010 which never parted with him and plagued his career.
It goes without saying that Nadal’s highly physical game has taken a toll on his body from time to time. Owing to this he had to skip US Open’s 2012 and 2014 editions.
The fast DecoTurf surface used at the US open
The US Open champions during the period 2009-2015 who had their peak in the same period were all good on the fast DecoTurf surface used at the open but none was a specialist of the surface. We are talking about Djokovic, Nadal and Murray. They were great but the problem is none of them was ever consistently much better than the other 2 on this surface which could have made him stand out. This is evident in the results at the open in the editions during the period 2010-2013. In those 4 years, we witnessed 3 different players lift the trophy.
The fast surface also means that its more easy to cause upsets and become one-slam wonders here than at any other grand slam where the surfaces are comparatively slower. From time to time, very aggressive players exploited this characteristic by playing out and out aggressive tennis for one day or for one week and causing all the upsets needed to win this trophy. They used their short runs of great form. Del Potro’s cruise to victory at US Open 2009 by defeating Nadal and Federer in the semis and finals respectively and Cilic’s rampage at US Open 2014 come to your mind.
Lack of truly aggressive and consistent players at peak form
The playing conditions presently at US Open are characterized by the DecoTurf outdoor hard courts and the modern day powerful racquets. The playing conditions have more or less remained the same for the last 25 years or so. Since 1991, only 4 players have managed to defend their US Open titles namely, Stefan Edberg (once), Pete Sampras (once), Patrick Rafter (once) and Roger Federer (4 times). All these players were very aggressive and consistent players who defended their title at least once while in their prime. The first 3 members of the list were serve and volley players who would exploit the court with their efficient serve and fine volleys. Roger uses a game that mainly involves playing from the baseline but one which also involves coming to the net at times to win points. He too has been using quite an aggressive game. Therefore, it’s evident that having a very aggressive game and being in prime helps dominate this event.
Let’s look at the US Open champions we previously had under scanner. Djokovic, Murray and Nadal are either power baseliners or defenders. Consider the following information:
Player Forehand Grip used
Novak Djokovic ¾ th western grip (close to semi-western grip)
Andy Murray Semi-western grip
Rafael Nadal Between semi-western and western grip
None of these forehand grips is best suited for a very aggressive game. Therefore, none was ever a specialist of the DecoTurf surface although they had their peak during the period 2008-2015.
During the last 10-15 years, we saw the homogenization of tennis courts was done causing very few fast courts to remain on tour. Naturally, players tend to practice the grips and styles that help master the slower set of courts using a more conservative game. This renders them vulnerable at the US Open which uses a court that is relatively faster than those used at the other three grand slams and which favours an aggressive style of playing.
Although Federer has been a fairly aggressive player, his prime was actually behind him by US Open 2009.
The surface at the US Open and the playing styles of the recent champions we have had there are probably the most prominent of the factors responsible for the pattern we have studied here. Whether this is purely coincidental or not, we shall know only after a good amount of time; after looking at the future champions. For now, all we can do is ponder over this intriguing pattern.
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