Month: September 2016

European Tour of Sports – Belgium

The Basics

Population: 11.25 M

Area: 30 528 km2

Capital: Brussels

Summer Olympic Medals: 148 (40 G-53 S-55 B)

Winter Olympic Medals: 5 (1 G-1 S-3 B)

 

Popular Sports and History

Belgium is a state culturally and linguistic divided between the Dutch-speaking region of Flanders and the French-speaking community of Wallonia and that reality naturally spills into sport, with most sport federations split into two branches overseeing the development of the games in their own backyards. Football, field hockey and basketball are some of the sports that escape that paradigm, yet many more present unified competitions at the highest level, with nationwide leagues held to sort out the Belgian finest athletes and teams.

The country’s evolvement on sports at the international stage dates back to the second Olympiad, culminating in the 1900 Games in Paris, and Belgium has the honour of having organized one edition of the Summer Games, at Antwerp, in 1920. Sending by far their largest delegation ever, the hosts tallied an incredible 36 medals, including 14 golds, to underline their most successful Olympic participation ever on an edition that comprised 28 other nations. The Olympic movement has grown immensely since those early editions and Belgium never approached the totals of 1920, however they’ve managed to regularly add a handful of honours in every appearance, coming home empty handed for the only time in Los Angeles 1936.

After the Rio de Janeiro Games, Belgium’s medal total is at 148 medals and it is symptomatic that the highest slice was provided by the nation’s number one sport, one that stretches his influence to every nook and cradle of land, uncompromised by linguistic barriers or cultural tensions. Riding bikes through the whole of Belgium, cycling’s marquee names are revered across the country and the populations flock to the roadsides to attend some of the sport’s legendary competitions.

Eddy Merckx riding uphill wearing the rainbow jersey as the reigning World Champion

Eddy Merckx riding uphill wearing the rainbow jersey as the reigning World Champion

It’s thus perfectly fitting that cycling’s greatest of all-time, Eddy Merckx, hails from Belgium, with “The Cannibal” boasting an unmatched trophy cabinet that includes, among dozens of other triumphs, five Tour de France GC wins, five Giro d’Italia, one Vuelta a España, three World Championships titles and victories in all five cycling “Monuments”. However, if no one could ever match Merckx’s achievements, Belgium boasts countless other cycling Champions, with the country amassing more Road Race World Championships titles (26) than any other nation.

Furthermore, Belgium cyclists combined to conquer 18 Tour de France and 7 Giro d’Italia, numbers only surpassed by the hosting nations despite remaining stagnant since 1976 (Tour) and 1978 (Giro). On the other hand, Belgium’s decorated history on one-day classics is still receiving new additions, with the country dominating in accumulated triumphs at three of the Monuments (Tour of Flanders, Liège–Bastogne–Liège and Paris-Roubaix) and coming after hosts Italy on the other two.

Belgium’s cycling prowess naturally extends to the Olympics, with a total of seven gold medals in the sport, the most recent by Greg Van Avermaet at Rio on the men’s road race, yet the other disciplines shouldn’t be forgotten. In mountain biking and track cycling, Belgium athletes have achieved Olympic success in multiple occasions, while in cyclo-cross no country has matched their dominance at the World Championships and World Cup level.

Cycling is definitely the belle of the ball but football has its own predominance in terms of team sports. Two editions of the European Championships (1972 and 2000, this one in a shared organization with Netherlands) were held in Belgium, and the national team has regularly qualified for the major competitions, playing in 12 of 20 World Cups and five Euros. From 1982 to 2002, Belgium never missed the sport’s biggest competition, peaking with a fourth place in 1986, while they were runner ups in the 1980 European Championships, losing the final to West Germany.

The best period of the “Red Devils” history comprehended the 1980’s and 1990’s, with names like Jan Ceulemans – whose 96 caps are a record -, Eric Gerets, Jean-Marie Pfaff, Franky Vercauteren, Enzo Scifo, Marc Wilmots, and Michel Preud’homme deserving recognition, but a new era of glory seems in full swing, with Belgium fresh of reaching the quarter-finals of the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Euro founded on a tremendous collection of talent that plies its trade abroad on the best European clubs. On the women’s side, the wind is also blowing favourably, as Belgium recently qualified for its first international competition, the 2017 European Championships.

Diego Maradona's Argentina downed the Red Devils at the 1986 World Cup semi final, Belgium's best performance in the competition

Diego Maradona’s Argentina downed the Red Devils at the 1986 World Cup semi final, Belgium’s best performance ever on the competition

From 1976 to 1988, while the National Team racked up successful campaigns, Belgium clubs took advantage of the available resources to also achieve unprecedented heights, collecting a total of seven European trophies, five of those courtesy of the nation’s most successful emblem, R.S.C. Anderlecht. The 33-times National Champions conquered the UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup in 1975–76 and 1977–78, the UEFA Cup in 1982-1983 and the European Supercup in 1976 and 1978 to tower over Belgium football, but others also left their mark. Club Brugge K.V, who holds 14 National Championships, played in the premium European Cup Final in 1977–78, something no other Belgium club can claim, and also contested the UEFA Cup Final in 1975-76, while 4-time National Champions K.V. Mechelen won the 1987–88 European Cup Winners’ Cup and the 1988 European Super Cup. With no European feats to pamper but 10 National titles and 7 National Cups laying on their museum, Standard Liège is also one of Belgium’s traditional clubs, while Royale Union Saint-Gilloise dominated the scene before World War II, amassing 11 National titles from 1903 to 1935, as of today still the third highest total.

The clout of cycling and football stars isn’t easily overshadowed, but you could make the case that two tennis players carried the Belgium flag worldwide like few others could after the turn of the century. Justine Henin and Kim Clijsters were both World No.1 in the WTA Rankings in the 2000’s and their résumés speak for the tremendous popularity both enjoyed among tennis’ fan base. The Liège-born Henin won seven Grand Slam titles, including three at Roland Garros, and the single’s tournament at the 2004 Olympics, while Clijsters, a Flanders-native, conquered four majors, including three at the US Open. The duo also led Belgium to its only Fed Cup triumph, in 2001, finishing as the runner- up in 2006 by losing the final on home soil, something emulated nine years later by the men at their maiden Davis Cup final.

Belgium tennis stars Justine Henin (L) and Kim Clijsters (R), friends, teammates and arch rivals for much of their brilliant careers

Belgium tennis stars Justine Henin (L) and Kim Clijsters (R), friends, teammates and arch rivals for much of their brilliant careers

Meanwhile, Athletics is another sport where Belgian woman have bested their male counterparts recently, accounting for the last three Olympic medals in the sport after the men bagged all previous nine. Sprinter Kim Gevaert, twice European Champion in 2006, led the 4x100m relay to silver in Beijing 2008 – in a race won by a Russian team that has recently been disqualified – while high-jumper Tia Hellebaut conquered gold in the same edition, a accomplishment matched by heptathlon’s Nafissatou Thiam in 2016.

Belgium’s track record in team sports other than football isn’t exactly striking but a few deserve further mention.

The Belgium basketball team has participated in the EuroBasket on 17 occasions, with the best result being the fourth place in 1947, yet from 1979 to 2011 they only qualified once (1993). This down period is being put to bed with a fourth consecutive participation looming in 2017, but the country is far from a contender on the continental scale, even at the club level. BC Ostende and Spirou Charleroi may have combined to take 15 of the last 16 national titles, but can’t make a dent in European Competitions.

As for volleyball, the outlook is more promising in face of both national teams’ recent progresses. The men conquered the European League in 2013, and rode the success to guarantee a spot on the World League and secure qualification for the 2014 World Championships, a competition Belgium wasn’t part of since 1978. The women’s national team contested the European Championships in 2007 for the first time in two decades, lost in the final of the 2013 European League and won bronze at the 2013 European Championships.

 The women's national volleyball team of Belgium celebrates an historic bronze medal at the 2013 European Championships

The women’s national volleyball team of Belgium celebrates an historic bronze medal at the 2013 European Championships

At the club level, the main teams have also proved competitive internationally, since Knack Randstad Roeselare won the men’s CEV Top Teams Cup in 2002 and Asterix Kieldrecht won the same competition on the women’s side in 2001, adding the CEV Challenge Cup in 2010. Before that, men’s Noliko Maaseik reached and lost two finals of the CEV Champions League in 1997 and 1999.

In futsal, the national team appeared in the first three World Cups (1989, 1992 and 1996) but has failed to qualify ever since. A fourth place in the 1996 edition is their best outcome, while at the European Championships Belgium were third in the same year but have been ousted in the first round in every subsequent participation, including 2014, edition they organized. However, Action 21 Charleroi, 10-time National Champions since 1999, were crowned European Champions in 2005 after being runner ups in 2002 and 2003.

Another Belgian club with extensive continental pedigree is table tennis’ side Royal Villette Charleroi, which counts seven European Club Cup of Champions since 1994, including five victories in nine finals played in the European Champions League (since 1998-1999), making it the most successful club in this competition. The foundation of all those triumphs was Belgian table tennis legend Jean-Michel Saive who competed in seven Olympics from 1992 to 2012, and was the single’s European Champion in 1994 and runner up at the 1993 World Championships.

Furthermore, in the first editions of the Olympic Games, Belgium piled up medals in water polo (four silvers and one bronze) but since 1964 they haven’t been able to qualify , while the national field hockey team was a force until the 1970’s (winning bronze in 1920) before a down stretch that was only stopped at the turn of the century. The silver medal at the 2016 Rio Olympics culminated a return to form that had already delivered a third place at the 2007 European Championships and a second position on the same competition in 2013.

Belgium's field hockey national team won a silver medal at the 2016 Olympic Games

Belgium’s field hockey national team won a silver medal at the 2016 Olympic Games

Archery is the sport in which Belgium has amassed the highest number of gold medals (11) at the Olympics, yet those achievements mainly date back to the early 1900’s, since the country broke in 2016 a period of 20 years without representation in the sport at the highest level. Moreover, after the aforementioned cycling and athletics, three other sports can brag to have secured double-digit medals at the Summer Games: Equestrian, Fencing and Judo, with the latter being the most interesting case since it’s been part of the calendar for a shorter period. Belgium judokas brought medals from every edition between 1988 and 2004, with Ingrid Berghmans and Ulla Werbrouck taking gold in 1972 and 1996, both on the -72kg category.

As for sports figures outside of the Olympic range, a shout-out to billiards player Raymond Ceulemans, who dominated several variants of his sport for most of five decades (1963 to 2001), collecting a staggering 35 World titles and 48 European Championships in the process, and motocross racer Stefan Everts, World Champion ten times from 1991 to 2006.

In the winter disciplines, the representation of Belgium is usually reduced to a handful of athletes, nevertheless the country has been able to gather five medals in the Winter Olympics: one in speed skating, two in figure skating (including gold in 1948) and two in bobsleigh. The most recent – and first in 50 years – belongs to speed skater Bart Veldkamp, who finished third in the men’s 5000m in Nagano 1998.

Star Athletes

Tom Boonen (Cycling)

As soon as he closes the book on his storied career, the best eulogy that will be given to Tom Boonen is the nationwide understanding that he undoubtedly merited his place amongst the pantheon of Belgium’s cycling Champions. After all, the three-time Sportsman of the Year (2005, 2007, 2012) provided his compatriots with so many magical journeys over the last fourteen years that they’ll miss watching him power up the hills of Flanders or turbocharge through the cobbles on the roads towards Roubaix.

Tom Boonen took victory in the Paris-Roubaix for the fourth time in 2012

Tom Boonen took victory in the Paris-Roubaix for the fourth time in 2012

Born in Mol, Flanders, in 1980, Tom Boonen has rode all but one season of his professional career for Belgium-based Quick Step and it was draped in blue and/or black that he compiled a list of achievements few can match. The legend started taking shape in 2005, when he became the first man to win the Tour of Flanders, Paris-Roubaix and World Championships in the same year, and since then it hasn’t stopped growing. About to turn 36, he’s tied for the record of triumphs in two of cycling’s Monuments, having won the Paris-Roubaix on four occasions (2005, 2008, 2009 and 2012) – like compatriot Roger de Vlaeminkx – and the Tour of Flanders three times (2005, 2006, 2012) – similarly to five other men – yet he’s been far from just a single day specialist that hoarded classics in bunches from 2005 to 2012. At the top of his powers, Boonen was also a strong sprinter in bunch finales, tallying six Tour de France stage victories during his career and securing the green jersey in 2007, winning two National road race Championships and finishing in the podium twice at the Milan-San Remo (3rd in 2007 and 2nd in 2007).

With over 100 professional triumphs to his name, “Tornado Tom” is reaching the twilight of his career but he may have a final card up his sleeve: the one he revealed at the 2016 Paris-Roubaix, where he came so close to an unprecedented fifth triumph.

Nafissatou Thiam (Athletics)

Nafissatou Thiam may have exploded into the international scene at the Rio Olympics, but it should be attested her country had already noticed the gem in hands way before that.

The Namur-native, a daughter of a Belgian mother and a Senegalese father, entered her maiden multi-event competition at age nine and would grab the first headlines in 2013, when she broke the women’s pentathlon junior WR indoors at Ghent. The mark wouldn’t be ratified for lack of an anti-doping control, but it didn’t take long for the young Thiam to prove herself in the main senior stages, taking bronze in the heptathlon at the 2014 European Championships and ending the season as the Belgian Sportswoman of the Year.

Nafissatou Thiam trumped a host of more experienced opponents to win gold at the 2016 Olympic Games

Nafissatou Thiam trumped a host of more experienced opponents to win gold at the 2016 Olympic Games

Still, the 22-year-old was considered an outsider heading into the 2016 Olympic Games, where a lifetime performance would deliver the Olympic title. Tapping on her superior length and power, she made ground on the throws (shot put and javelin throw), astonished on the jumps (long jump and high jump) and defended her position on the racing events to claim victory with a Belgium record of 6810 points and five new personal bests. If she keeps the upward trajectory, the charismatic and supremely talented “Nafi” has the tools to dominate the heptathlon for the next decade, and eventually became one of Belgium’s greatest athletes ever.

Eden Hazard (Football)

Picking one guy from the absolute collection of riches that forms the current Belgium football team isn’t an easy proposition, yet I deemed it necessary as a nod to the excellent work made by everyone involved with the revival of the game around the country.

The slick Eden Hazard is one of the stars of Belgium's Red Devils

The slick Eden Hazard is one of the stars of Belgium’s Red Devils

A son of former footballers, Eden Hazard crossed the border to France at age 14 to join Lille’s youth academy and he needed just two years to guarantee a debut for the senior squad in 2007, quickly becoming a key player for the Ligue 1 outfit. Over the next five seasons, Hazard developed into one of the most vibrant players in France due to his pace and creativity, eventually leading the club to a league and cup double in 2010-11, which earned him Player of the Year honours.

After he backed up the individual performance in 2011-12, the giants of Europe lined up to sign him and it was Chelsea FC who snapped the young Belgian winger, who’s been a mainstay at the club since then. In London, Hazard conquered the 2013 Europa League, was elected Young Player of the season in 2014 and flourished during 2014-15, meriting the distinction as Best Player of the Season by powering Chelsea to victories on the League Cup and English Premier League with a bundle of devastating exhibitions.

At age 25, Hazard has already represented his country in two major competitions (2014 World Cup and Euro 2016) since his debut in 2007, and is widely considered one of the top offensive midfielders in World football, making use of his deft technique, mazy runs and clinical finishes.

Other Athletes: Thibault Courtois, Kevin de Bruyne (Football), Pieter Timmers (Swimming), Thomas Van der Plaetsen (Athletics), Charline Van Snick (Judo), Evi Van Acker (Sailing), David Goffin (Tennis), Greg Van Avermaet, Philippe Gilbert (road Cycling), Jolien D’Hoore (track Cycling), Sanne Cant (cyclo cross), Bart Swings (Speed Skating), Thomas Pieters (Golf), Jaouad Achab (Taekwondo), Delfine Persoon (Boxing)

Venues

Brussels, capital of the European Union, centre of international cooperation and major multicultural city, was the place of one of the most disgraceful events in the history of European football: the Heysel Stadium disaster, which occurred before the 1985 European Cup Final between Juventus and Liverpool and took 39 lives as fans of both sides engaged in vicious confrontations in the stands.

Such dark episode of hooliganism was possible because of the wretched conditions of Belgium’s national stadium at the time, a venue erected in 1930 which was crumbling in several sectors and in serious need of repairs by his 55th anniversary. With capacity for almost 60,000 people, the Heysel Stadium hosted 7 finals of European Club competitions and the 1972 European Championships Final until the tragic contingencies forced a shutdown only interrupted for sporadic athletics competitions.

By 1995, under the name of King Baudouin Stadium and completely renovated, the largest stadium in Belgium was reopened, in time to receive the 1996 Cup Winner’s Cup Final and  be a part of the 2000 UEFA European Championships, with the opening ceremony and one of the semi-finals taking place in Brussels. The seating capacity is now 50,000 and the infrastructure is used regularly by Belgium’s national team and for annual events such as the National Cup Final and Athletics’ Memmorial Van Damme meeting. Moreover, over the last two decades, the King Baudoin Stadium also hosted international rugby matches, a record-breaking exhibition tennis match between Kim Clijsters and Serena Williams in 2010, and several concerts from luminaries such as U2, Beyoncé and the Rolling Stones.

The King Baudouin Stadium clad in red for a game of the National Team

However, despite a fruitful second life, there are plans for a brand-new National Stadium to be built in Northern Brussels in time for the 2020 UEFA European Championships. The proposed “EuroStadium”, still without a date to break ground, should welcome more than 60,000 people and would ditch the athletics’ track, being used by the National Team and RSC Anderlecht.

Anderlecht currently plays at the Constant Vanden Stock Stadium, whose initial foundations date back to 1917 and the actual formulation from the latest major renovation in 1983, when all stands were built from scratch and covered. Situated at the border of the Astrid Park, the Stadium, which carries the name of a former Anderlecht chairman and player, hosts just 28,000, including 6,900 standing people; therefore in European matches less than 22,000 tickets can be sold.

The second stadium in Belgium is Liège’s Stade Maurice Dufrasne (or Stade de Sclessin, in honour of the district where it is located). Used by Standard Liège, the venue was opened in 1909 and revamped several times until 2000, when it hosted three games of the European Championships and the capacity was set in 30,000 seats.

Coming right behind in maximum occupation is the Jan Breydel Stadium in Brugge, home of top-flight clubs Cercle and Club Brugge. A venue opened in 1975 as “Olympiastadion” after Club Brugge won the National Championship, the stadium was renamed and expanded in 1998, before the Euro 2000, to reach the more than 29,000 fans it can welcome today.

The other two stadiums that can hold over 20,000 are still relatively new. The 25,000-seats Luminus Arena in Genk was concluded in 1999, while the impressive, state-of-the art Ghelamco Arena was inaugurated in 2013. The new home of KAA Gent counts 20,000 seats and has already been bestowed with the club’s maiden National title celebration in 2014-15, plus some UEFA Champions League action the following season.

The spectacular Ghelamco Arena in Gent is the new landmark of the Belgium city

The spectacular Ghelamco Arena in Gent is the new landmark of the Belgium city

Running contrary to the trend emerging in most European countries, Belgium doesn’t possess a premium indoor arena in its capital city, a big venue that can be relied upon to host big-time sporting events, instead dividing the main competitions held in the state for a handful of locations.

The largest multipurpose arena in Belgium (by seating capacity) is the Ethias Arena in Hasselt – the capital of the province of Limburg – which seats 16,000 but can hold up to 21,000. Built in 2004, is a modern hall part of a broader exposition centre that is preferably used for concerts and cultural fests rather than sports events.

In Antwerp, the Sportpaleis, opened in 1932, was originally built for sports, including a cycling track where the 1969 and 2001 World Championships were contested, but has been reshuffled to fit other purposes. The latest renovation, in 2013, increased the total capacity to over 23,000 people, but nowadays music fans are the ones entering the gates, as concerts book the place regularly, leaving other events to the odd date. Still, the Sportpaleis hosted the 2013 World Artistic Gymnastics Championships and, in early 2015, over 17,000 fans attended a record breaking basketball match.

Nonetheless, most sporting events in Antwerp are now held at the adjacent Lotto Arena, a 5,200 seats-venue opened in 2007. Basketball’s Antwerp Giants are the regular tenants of the place, with the infrastructure also used for WTA and ATP Tour tennis tournaments.

The intimate Lotto Arena, in Antwerp, during a voleyball match

The intimate Lotto Arena, in Antwerp, during a voleyball match

The Flanders Expo in Ghent, a convention center built in 1986, is another location that regularly hosts important sports demonstrations. The biggest hall of the complex, Hall 8, is capable of welcoming 13,000 and was the venue chosen for the Final Four of the 1988 FIBA Champions Cup as well as the 2015 Davis Cup final.

Elsewhere in the city, a smaller amphitheatre, the Flanders Sports Arena, is used primarily for indoor athletics’ competitions, with the best example being the 2000 European Athletics Indoor Championships, while the “Kuipke” is the main velodrome in Belgium. First opened in 1927 on the city’s Citadelpark, and renovated in 1965 following a destructive fire, it seats 3,000 fans during the popular Six Days of Ghent, a track cycling competition held every November.

In Wallonia, the biggest indoor arena is Charleroi’s RTL Spiroudome, inaugurated in 2006 and with capacity for 6300 people, usually the fans of basketball powerhouse Spirou Charleroi. Meanwhile,  in Liège, the Country Hall Ethias Liège is the place to go for sports presentations, as the multi-purpose arena renovated in 2005 is used by Liège Basket and received the 1973 FIBA European Champions Cup Final and the 1977 EuroBasket Final.

Also located in the French-speaking region of Belgium is one of the country’s most iconic venues, the circuit of Spa-Francorchamps, where the Formula One Belgium Grand Prix, the Spa 24 Hours, and a multitude of other motor racing competitions are held. Capable of welcoming around 70,000 fans, the racing track first used in 1922 is one of the most challenging circuits in the world, being a favourite of most drivers and fans for its hilly and twisty nature, as well as the background of the Ardennes forests.

An overview of the dashing Spa-Francorchamps circuit

An overview of the dashing Spa-Francorchamps circuit

And we couldn’t close out this section without a reference to the roads of Belgium, which are paved by cyclists competing almost on a daily basis. From the winding Flanders-based classics rich in short, cobbled hills, to the Ardennes one-day races populated with consecutive, steep climbs, the beautiful countryside of Belgium and its charming towns are part of a giant outdoor venue that showcases to the World the passion of millions of Belgians.

Yearly Events

The list of significant cycling races held in Belgium is so extensive that you can virtually attend a major sports spectacle (for free) every week, anywhere, from March to October.

However, if cycling isn’t your thing, the best option is football, with the Belgium Championship, a mid-level European league, running from late July to May. The clubs are mainly located in Flanders and the Brussels region, with Liège and Charleroi as the main exceptions.  Meanwhile, the Basketball League starts in October and ends in June, whereas Volleyball’s regular season goes from October to March, with the playoffs stretching the play to early May.

For a summary of the rest of Belgium’s main yearly sporting events, look below:

Tour of Flanders (Ronde Van Vlaanderen), Cycling

Flanders region, early April

Liège–Bastogne–Liège, Cycling

Wallonia, Ardennes region, late April

The peloton of the classic Liège-Bastogne-Liège is saluted by a mass of people

The peloton of the classic Liège-Bastogne-Liège is saluted by a mass of people

Spa 24h, Motorcycle Endurance Racing

Spa-Francorchamps Circuit (near Stavelot, Liège Province), July

Belgian Grand Prix (Formula One World Championship), Automobile Racing

Spa-Francorchamps Circuit, August

Memorial Van Damme (IAAF Diamond League Meeting), Athletics

Brussels, September

Brussels Marathon, Athletics

Brussels, October

European Open (ATP Tour), Tennis

Antwerp, October

Six Days of Ghent, Track Cycling

Ghent, November

Cross Cup Brussels, Cross Country running

Laeken Park (Brussels), December

 

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The Notebook: US Open 2016 (II)

The last of tennis’ Grand Slams ended last Sunday in Queens, NY after two first-time Champions were crowned during the weekend, and it was fitting that a season oversaturated of competition during the summer months was capped with the triumphs of two dogged, late-maturing sensations.

Both Angelique Kerber and Stan Wawrinka devoted huge chunks of their career to ironing out playing styles that lacked some fundamentals to reach the summit, but since their breakthroughs they’ve wholly justified their place amongst the game’s rarefied heaven of big-time Champions, with the performances on the courts of Flushing Meadows solidifying a legacy few would have predicted not too long ago.

However, much more transpired in New York over the second part of the fortnight and it was worth compiling a few considerations on some of the other players that found themselves under the spotlight, whether by defying the odds or falling short of expectations.

I obviously encourage you to check out the first instalment that focused on the earliest action before diving into this final chapter, in which I started by highlighting a few ladies before moving to the men. Miss Kerber is the first on the spot while Mr. Wawrinka closes the book.

 

Angelique Kerber

Absolutely astonishing is how one would describe the year Angelique Kerber is having, fuelling one of the major storylines of the sports world in 2016.

The German, which had her breakout performance at the 2011 US Open by reaching the semi-finals as an unassuming 23-year-old, established her niche on the top 10 since then but always seemed to lack substance or power to take the next step into “Grand Slam contender” territory. Thus, for a player that hadn’t made it past the third round of a Major in 2015, outmanoeuvring Serena Williams at the Australian Open in January during a punishing third set battle was stunning and, in hindsight, the moment that unlocked the door to greatness.

Except for the underwhelming appearance at RG, where the weight of being a Grand Slam Champion was still sinking in, Kerber’s season has been close to impeccable, delivering at Wimbledon (Final) and the Olympics (silver) before putting the cherry on top at the US Open. She has amassed the most wins on Tour by a large margin (54 to Halep’s 40), attended seven finals, including her first three in Majors, and her tennis improved by leaps and bounds in every surface. When the World No 1 was secured late last week, she had already backed up the achievement with her performance and regularity, regardless of Serena Williams’ self-imposed (extra-) light schedule.

Angelique Kerber’s forehand has been fundamental for her improvement in 2016

In New York, the progresses in her game flourished in the latter rounds to perfectly summarize her improbable ascendance in front of a horde of casual tennis fans. First, she was able to patiently overcome a tricky player that denies any kind of rhythm during ball exchanges in last year’s finalist Roberta Vinci, stepping in the court aggressively to control the points while keeping the unforced errors in check. Then, she wrestled against a motivated Caroline Wozniacki that ventured much farther than usual, and dealt with continual moonballs with aplomb, displaying improved agility to whip accurate forehands inside out and down the line.

Lastly, facing in the final a player that had recently delayed her dream of becoming the world leader with a humbling loss, the German showed everything pundits had been raving about. Her improved fitness, essential to sustain the haymakers coming from the other end, the killer instinct to pounce when Plíšková’s serve flinched, and the mental strength to dial back in after losing her first set on the entire tournament. Her lefty swats on the run turned some points upside down delivering winners from unsuspected positions, and she picked her spots thoughtfully, with her forehand opening angles that explored the Czech’s debilities moving around the court and forced untimely net approaches.

At age 28, Angie Kerber is the oldest player to debut at the top of the WTA rankings by more than three years, but she has enough time to add more silverware to her résumé at a time when Serena Williams seems to be finally sliding downhill, established names are out (Viktoria Azarenka, Maria Sharapova), and other challengers struggle to find the right balance (Garbiñe Muguruza, Madison Keys, Petra Kvitova). The future will bring new tests, none more significant than entering every match with a target on her back, but the German’s maturity resonates well with an ultimately fruitful period at the top of the game.

Karolína Plíšková

The tall Czech finally took a much awaited step forward at the US Open

The tall Czech finally took a much awaited step forward at the US Open

The first thing that stands out when looking at Karolína Plíšková are those infinitely long legs. The second is her serve, and both are inherently correlated, as the Czech boasts one of the best deliveries in the WTA Tour, capable of banking aces with unmatched consistency. Couple that with a powerful forehand that can cause havoc from the baseline, and you’ve got a player with the tools to supplant any opponent on a good day.

Unfortunately for Plíšková, those days never seemed to arrive at a Slam, as the 24-year-old struggled to deliver in the biggest tournaments despite competing in more than a dozen finals since 2014. Until the 2016 US Open, the Czech had never reached the second week of a Grand Slam in 17 appearances, but at least she made it count when the opportunity finally arose, taking down both Williams’ sisters in the process, something only three other players had done before at a Major.

Escaping a thunderous fourth-round encounter against Venus, when she had to save match points, was probably the click she needed and Serena was left to palate the finest version of Plíšková’s game. For instance, on the semi-final match, the long-limbed Plíšková was absolutely impenetrable on her service games, winning more than 80% of the points on the first serve and surrendering just one break point to one of the most accomplished returners in the game. Additionally, the 24-year-old also rocketed several laser shots past Serena, especially in important points, and exhibited an ice cool presence with the sets on the line, with no discernible signs of distress on her play when it counted the most.

Perhaps tapping on her experiences on a couple of Fed Cup finals, Plíšková seemed to thrive with all eyes on her and produced the shock of the women’s draw to extend a run of 11 consecutive triumphs dating back to Cincinnati.

On those, she had defeated five top ten players, including Angelique Kerber, but the rematch against the German wouldn’t be as successful under different circumstances. Kerber neutralized Plíšková’s serve and lethal groundstrokes with solid defensive skills and superior stamina, and was able to puncture back using her own delivery, regularly angling the ball towards Plíšková’s backhand and taking advantage of feeble returns to assume control with her forehand. Nonetheless, the Czech was still able to snatch the second set before falling at the end of the decider, a brave performance at her maiden Grand Slam Final

Karolína Plíšková should use the US Open as a springboard for more roars in the future

Karolína Plíšková should use the US Open as a springboard for more roars in the future

Even if the most successful fortnight of Plíšková’s career didn’t end with the trophy aloft on her hands, the lanky Czech left New York under an entirely different aura, having discarded the underachiever label, and with newfound objectives after sealing a new career-high ranking of No.6. She should be excited for what lies ahead, especially if she keeps improving her movement and finds a way to ensure bigger margins of error when dictating the play.

Serena Williams

Coming off a dispiriting loss early at the Olympic competition, Serena Williams arrived in NY under intense scrutiny over her mental and physical condition, but for the first four matches she was her usual self, looking unattainable, dispatching opponents with ease and cruising without conceding a single service game. However, at the quarter-finals, Simona Halep would force the American to long rallies and a taxing three-set battle,  which exposed a few cracks that Karolína Plíšková would accentuate 24h later.

Reportedly hobbled by a knee injury and supporting a shoulder in less than ideal conditions, the mighty Serena was beaten at her own game, unable for much of the match to deal with the Czech’s vertiginous serve and struggling to impose her ball-striking powers. The defeat in just two sets was finalized by a double fault on match point and Serena was left to re-enact the scene of last year, striding to the net to congratulate a foe that had just achieved her most memorable victory whereas the Arthur Ashe Stadium processed what had just happened.

Serena saw her title hopes in NY dashed at the SF for the second consecutive year

Serena saw her title hopes in NY dashed at the SF for the second consecutive year

Soon to be 35 years old, the American lost her World No.1 after 186 consecutive weeks, a record-tying period that she’ll probably share for a long time with Steffi Graf, but it’s reasonable to expect she’ll regain the honour until the end of a season that hasn’t been up to her lofty standards.

Serena reached three Grand Slam finals and one SF in 2016, but only conquered one big trophy (Wimbledon) while looking more vulnerable than ever. Until Wimbledon 2015 her W-L record in Grand Slam semifinals and finals was 46-7 but is just 4-4 since, a sign that her rivals are finally catching up. It’s almost certain she’ll get that elusive 23rd Major sooner or later, but maybe somewhere next year (not yet at Australia, if healthy) she’ll start a big tournament without being the odds-on favourite. It’s about time for a change of the guard.

Ana Konjuh

On the tournament that crowned the oldest No.1 in women’s tennis history, another statistic caught my eye: only 8 teenagers were entered in the main draw in comparison with 20 players aged 30 or older. Slowly but steadily, the female tour is going through the same path experienced by the men, one where youngsters increasingly need more time to mature their game and emerge at the top.

Thus, in this era is naturally newsworthy that an 18-year-old woman breaks into the last eight of Slam, even if Ana Konjuh has been tipped as a future star for some time. A two-time Junior Grand Slam Champion, the Croatian’s progress was slowed down by injuries after she turned professional in 2014, shortly after celebrating her 16th birthday, but she always seemed primed for the type of breakout performance we got to witness in New York. World No. 4 Agnieszka Radwańska may have survived match points in the second round of Wimbledon last July, when an untimely step on a misplaced ball incapacitated Konjuh, but this time she was unquestionably bested by the teenager from Dubrovnik.

18-year-old Ana Konjuh prepares for another powerful shot that may put the opponent on her heels

18-year-old Ana Konjuh prepares for another powerful shot that may put the opponent on her heels

Throughout the match, spectators watched as winners rained on the Pole off both sides with Konjuh mingling eye-popping power with efficient shot selection and ample doses of spin, conjuring a heavy ball that her opponent just couldn’t handle and is bound to claim more victims in the future. Moreover, the Croat also showcased a booming serve that yields a fair amount of aces and is part of Konjuh’s arsenal despite her unremarkable frame.

A lopsided quarter-final defeat at the hands of Karolína Plíšková proved the Croatian prodigy still has a ways to go to fully deliver on the promise, but the potential is evident. Konjuh is now on the verge of the top 50, yet regularly competing in the latter stages of top events should be her hallmark in the near future.

Anastasija Sevastova

For me it’s one of the appeals of women’s tennis: the amount of unseeded players that Major after Major are able to break through the draws, reach the latter stages of the tournament and then proceed to keep toiling away after that. It’s a product of a WTA Tour that is, recognizably, more susceptible to upsets and Cinderella campaigns seldom seen in the men’s tour.

Just in 2016, we had already seen Shuai Zhang, who had never won a match in a Grand Slam, take down Halep and Madison Keys to grab a last eight spot in Melbourne, no less than three unheralded players (Kiki Bertens, Shelby Rogers and Tsvetana Pironkova) sweep away seed after seed at Roland Garros, and Elena Vesnina plod around Wimbledon to set up an encounter with Serena in the SF.

Anastasija Sevastova in action at the US Open

Latvia’s Anastasija Sevastova in action at the US Open

At Flushing Meadows, the feel-good story had the face of a 26-year-old Latvian still fresh of a two year retirement due to several nagging injuries, who just one year ago passed incognito through the US Open qualifying while on a season-long comeback to the top 200.

While true that on her first tour of duty Sevastova had been a solid performer, ranking as high as 36 at age 21, winning a WTA title and reaching the second week of the Australian Open, there wasn’t a lot pointing to a possible breakthrough before the US Open, as her top performance of 2016 was in Bucharest, where she was battered (6-0, 6-0) by Simona Halep in the final.

However, with a lot of help from a discombobulated Garbiñe Muguruza, she notched her maiden top-five win in the second round, and later avoided the dreaded hangover by further shocking 13th-seed Johanna Konta. She deserved better luck than rolling her ankle early against Caroline Wozniacki, but by then her clean, smooth shots off both sides and resourcefulness to mix slices, drops and invasive strokes had gained admirers. Poised and talented, Sevastova is a name to keep under attention over the next months, joining rising star Jelena Ostapenko as a top-50 player hailing from the small Baltic nation.

 

Kei Nishikori

For the first season in his career, Kei Nishikori reached the second week of every Grand Slam in the calendar but he’ll end the year with a sour taste on his mouth. With Nadal and Federer yo-yoing on and off the Tour, and Djokovic suffering after slaying the Roland Garros’ dragon, the Japanese had a great opportunity to find his way into a second Major final but couldn’t capitalize. In Flushing Meadows, he once again proved worthy of those stages but his chances were nixed by the usual Achilles heel: a fragile body that rarely levers the rigors of consecutive battles against top players.

Despite besting Andy Murray in the QF, Kei Nishikori wasn't able to keep the ball rolling long enough to emerge victorious at the US Open

Despite besting Andy Murray in the QF, Kei Nishikori wasn’t able to keep the ball rolling long enough to emerge victorious at the US Open

Case in point: in his quarter-final appointment he played well (especially after the weather conditions determined an indoor affair) and was able to penetrate into Andy Murray’s astonishing defence to wrangle a famous victory, yet couldn’t do the necessary follow up against Wawrinka. He still managed to go a set and a break up on the Swiss with authority, but couldn’t keep the foot on the pedal and would let the rival off the mat on the second set. A sudden fitness breakup followed before long, and it opened the door for Stan to turn the table completely and take the driver’s seat, edging through in four outings.

It’s been validated Nishikori’s game, an attractive variety of flat, wheezing strokes from both wings and off-pace shots depicting every trick in the book of tennis, is well-rounded and adequate for a potential multi-Slam winner, but he can’t continue to let opportunities like this slip through his fingers. And they’ll just keep skirting Nishikori if he can’t find a way to trade blows with his prevailing opponents for as long it takes.

Juan Martin Del Potro

Meanwhile, Juan Martin Del Potro may have also been betrayed by physical shortcomings but his defeat at the hands of Wawrinka stemmed mainly from other sources. The Argentinian looked mentally drained after an emotional summer on what it is still an incomplete comeback trail, and faced an opponent that held the keys to slow him down.

With the upset at Wimbledon still fresh in his memory, the Swiss defused Del Potro’s bread-and-butter weapon, the massive forehand, with his own exceptional shot, a strong backhand that pressed the rival towards the corner during crosscourt exchanges, limiting his opportunities to seize control and dictate from the baseline. Thus, Del Potro’s sub-par backhand had to absorb responsibilities and, in his current form, proved no match for Wawrinka’s fiery forehand, a much more consistent backup plan. If the Argentine hopes to add to his 2009 US Open title, he better improve the backhand so that it might carry some water over two weeks and seven best-of five encounters.

Juan Martin Del Potro, the 2009 US Open Champion, still has work to do before getting back to his best

Juan Martin Del Potro, the 2009 US Open Champion, still has work to do before getting back to his best

Gaël Monfils

Just three months after missing his beloved Roland Garros with a virus, the greatest opportunity for Gaël Monfils to leave his mark at a Major presented itself in NY, and the Frenchman’s reaction was to throw it down the court, out of bounds, aimlessly, just like he would if he was down match points during a rout.

For just the second time, tennis’ ultimate showman was in the last four of a Grand Slam and judging by what stood on the other side, he simply had to do better. Yes, it was the World No. 1, the reigning Champion, one of the best hard-court players of all-time, and someone he hadn’t beat in 12 confronts on the professional ranks, but also an ailing, slightly out-of-sorts Novak Djokovic that was there to be conquered.

The defiant Gaël Monfils pings the ball back during the match against Novak Djokovic

The defiant Gaël Monfils pings the ball back during the match against Novak Djokovic

Yet, a few minutes into the volatile contest, Djokovic was 5-0 up and not even the guy that had yet to concede a set in the tournament had the mental fortitude to believe he could go head-to-head for hours and come out on top. His efficient, measured, business-like attitude went out of the stadium (through the roof?), and instead fans were treated with a deliberate attempt to rattle the opponent with insistent slices, heartless chips and lackadaisical play, the total opposite of what had endeared him to the audience in his previous matches.

The trick shots, the leaping blows, the unparalleled athleticism that fascinates viewers, would make a short return later on, but Monfils’ decision making and focus faltered down the stretch in spite of Djokovic’s evident struggles. The grimacing Serbian could barely serve on the fourth set with the shoulder pulsating, yet his foe sealed by himself a disappoint finish to a story that pledged so much. At age 30, Monfils’ time was there, and he squandered it.

Lucas Pouille

The final few days of the men’s Grand Slams are usually populated by the same faces, as the group that challenges for the top-honours is eminently hermetic. The same 10-12 names (and that may be stretching it) arrive at the latter rounds regularly, and true shocks are far and few between until the quarter-finals, when the competition gets stiffer. When they do happen we can normally pinpoint the reason the favourite got upset, ranging from health /conditioning reasons to an uncharacteristically bad day at the office where everything goes awry. What happened to Rafael Nadal at the US Open was different, as the 14-times Grand Slam Champion, who breezed through the first week, was simply outlasted by an opponent that was just slightly better… at a five-set marathon, no less.

Lucas Pouille had already impressed at Wimbledon by defeating Juan Martin Del Potro to reach the quarter-finals, but grinding a triumph over the Spanish legend was even more special as the two exchanged pleasantries over five scintillating sets.

Lucas Pouille's reaction after upsetting Rafael Nadal provided some of the wackiest photos of the tournament

Lucas Pouille’s reaction after upsetting Rafael Nadal was ….intense

Despite having already endured two long battles in the initial rounds, the 22-year-old blitzed Nadal in the first juncture with tremendous flat strokes from every possible angle, and kept his nerve through the ups and downs of the slugfest, negotiating the long rallies until he could go for massive winners or attack at the net. Even trailing a break in the decider, with everyone expecting a quick finish, Pouille hang on physically, didn’t waver and overcome a legendary competitor like the Spaniard to snatch victory in the tiebreak.

It was a stunning epilogue for one of the top matches of the 2016 US Open, and the signature triumph for a player that broke into the top 100 for the first time last year and boasts the firepower to settle in the top 10 very soon. Exhausted, Pouille was no match for Gaël Monfils two days later, having to resort to consecutive, ill-timed net approaches in order to speed up the points, but it didn’t matter that much. The hype won’t wane anytime soon.

Stanislas Wawrinka

Who would have predicted, back in January 2013, that the man that had just been defeated by Djokovic on a sparkling five-set thriller would be three quarters of the way towards a career Slam less than four years later?

A brawny player with a backhand to behold was the scouting report on the Swiss for the first few seasons on the Tour, but maddening inconsistency impeded his progress inside the second week of the best tournaments worldwide. However, that battle with Djokovic showed Wawrinka he had the means to swing with the best and he rose from Roger Federer’s Davis Cup partner to Grand Slam Final world-beater in three stunning acts.

At age 31, he’s growing more dangerous by the day and his big-match panache is reaching legendary levels, with 11 consecutive triumphs in finals and a perfect record in the decisive game of Majors.

There were plenty of opportunities for Stan Wawrinka to show off his trademark celebration at the US Open

There were plenty of opportunities for Stan Wawrinka to show off his trademark celebration at the US Open

Yet, at the US Open, the Swiss had to survive a scare on the first week, nearly falling at the hands of unheralded Dan Evans in the third round before he righted the ship. Later, Stanimal summoned his beast mode to conquer the challenges posed by Del Potro and Nishikori as his superior physical condition made the difference and helped set up a much waited rematch with the World No.1, Novak Djokovic.

In another duel from what has grown to become a highly entertaining rivalry, the Swiss stunningly dictated the terms of the contest for the near four hours of back and forth action. His heavy strokes controlled the rallies and took time away from Djokovic on both wings, forcing the hand of the Serbian several times. Having to toe the line between keeping the ball deep and opening angles, Djokovic was consistently burned with explosive winners down the line in return.

Moreover, the fluid one-handed backhand of the Swiss, one of the most lethal weapons on the Tour, opened seams in Djokovic’s usually impermeable defence and flustered the Serbian in so many occasions that the defending Champion couldn’t muster the alertness to take full advantage of the opportunities he still managed to produce.

Djokovic went an uncharacteristic 3-of-17 on break points in the final, and looked clunky on his serve after the first set, whilst his rival synched body and mind with each passing point, displaying a courageous form that could only stir from the deep belief on his own chances of making history. And so he did, pointing to his temple after another error by his opponent on match point.

Third Grand Slam Trophy for Stanislas Wawrinka

Third Grand Slam Trophy for Stanislas Wawrinka

Wawrinka is now only the fifth man to gather two Slams after turning 30 and his burly figure shows no sign of decay as his late-career blooming continues to intensify on the events where players are asked to push the limits of their bodies. Indeed, Wawrinka boasts a single Masters 1000 title (Monte Carlo, 2014), but has reached the QF’s in 10 of the last 13 Majors, where the larger margins of error allowed on best-of-five matches suit him perfectly. Step by step during the fortnight, he calibrates his power shots, builds his physique and exercises the mental resilience necessary to zone in and thrive in the biggest stages at the right moment.

By equalling Andy Murray’s Grand Slam total, “Stan the Man” has now tinted an inescapable new reality. He’s not only a sure-fire Hall of Famer, but one of the top players of the XXI century and full member of the elite of men’s tennis, joining the Big Four. May we toast to tennis’ “Fab Five”.

The “Notebook”: US Open 2016 (I)

It’s been a while since I wrote about tennis and the last Major of the season represented a perfect opportunity to end that drought. The first 8 days of both singles’ main draws are already in the books – with the quarter finals looming – and it seemed appropriate to compile a few remarks on the major storylines of the competition so far.

This post is a miscellany on a few topics, from players that have impressed or gone home early, pre-tournament expectations that have delivered or went off the rails, overarching trends that are breaking out or have fizzled, or just simple rants on specific individuals. It isn’t exactly rich in tactical/technical considerations as the time to watch the multitude of games is limited, but maybe we can tackle that a bit soon enough

On a second part I expect to dissert on what transpires in New York on the closing days of the fortnight, delving into the top players that have cruised through the competition without too much trouble until now and some of the lesser known names still alive entering the final stretch (Ana Konjuh, Karolina Pliskova or Lucas Pouille, for example).

(I expect to sharpen the concept behind this “Notebook” on future occasions – and not necessarily just tennis tournaments -and present a more concerted effort that doesn’t resemble a patchwork)

The American Men: Present and Future

For a country that’s been looking for a torch-bearer in the men’s side since Andy Roddick retired, the US Open has proved enlightening about the United States’ ATP prospects in the near future. And it began shortly after the first balls were popped for the main draw, with a doubleheader between up-and-coming aces and the more established names. Frances Tiafoe and Taylor Fritz, both 18 years old, duelled John Isner and Jack Sock, respectively,  to tight five-set encounters that fired up the crowd and were a few bounces away from knocking out their compatriots, further amplifying the expectations of future stardom for the two prodigies.

Isner, the main American of the last couple of seasons, has seen his status threatened by Sock and Steve Johnson, and didn’t help his case with a four-set defeat to British youngster Kyle Edmund. Meanwhile, Jack Sock went on to impressively make quick work of former Champion Marin Cilic in three sets before falling to Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. The 23-year-old with a remarkable ability to spin his forehand was the last American man playing and he left without breaking a curse that has plagued the home boys recently: Since Andy Roddick in 2011, no American has been able to reach the quarter-finals.

Jack Sock (right) authored one of the upsets of the US Open when he defeated former Champion Marin Cilic in three sets

Jack Sock (right) authored one of the upsets of the US Open when he defeated former Champion Marin Cilic in three short sets

As for Johnson, he was unceremoniously dumped out by Juan Martin Del Potro in the second round, just a few days after publicly calling out the decision to award the Argentinian a wild card that was destined for a young native.

The player that had to navigate the qualifying because of that decision? 20-year-old Jared Donaldson, one of the major surprises of the first week by stringing five consecutive wins in Flushing Meadows, including a first round upset of Belgium’s David Goffin in the first round and a straight sets triumph over Serbia’s Viktor Troicki later on. When he succumbed to the invigorated Ivo Karlovic on Saturday night, Donaldson had already gone further than any other American wild card receiver, with his serve and return game deserving accolades. It’s expected he shouldn’t need an invitation the next time around.

Reaching the same stage as Donaldson was fellow qualifier Ryan Harrison, the former phenomenon who dispatched fifth-seed Milos Raonic on the second round in a match marked by the Canadian’s vicious cramps.

Germany: The female powerhouse that sputtered

Lost amongst the emergence of Angelique Kerber as the most consistent challenger to Serena’s dominance is the gradual erosion of the rest of Germany’s star quartet: the group that waltzed together into the top 20 in 2011/12 and created expectations of a Fed Cup dynasty that never materialized.

The careers of Angelique Kerber and Sabine Lisicki have followed different paths over the last seasons

The careers of Angelique Kerber and Sabine Lisicki have followed different paths over the last few years

In those years, Julia Goerges (15th, 3/2012), Sabine Lisicki (12th, 10/2012) and Andrea Petkovic (9th, 10/2011) posted career-highs in the WTA rankings, but if Kerber has finished in the top 10 in every season since, the rest has stumbled as their careers advance. Injuries partly justify the decline but it’s still disappointing that those three have combined for a single Grand Slam final appearance (Lisicki, Wimbledon 2013) and two semi-finals (Lisicki, Wimbledon 2011; Petkovic, Roland Garros, 2014).

At the US Open, Petkovic was brushed aside by Belinda Bencic in the second round, tying her season-best at Slams, while Goerges got dumped out by Venus Williams on the same stage. Meanwhile, Lisicki, currently ranked 84th, was pummelled by Kazakhstan’s Yulia Putintseva in the inaugural round and is in danger of dropping out of the top 100 soon. All are still in their 20’s, but time is running out as other names emerge, from 22-year-old’s  Annika Beck and Anna-Lena Friedsam to the slightly-more experienced Laura Siegmund, already ranked 27th in World after reaching the top 100 for the first time in 2015.

As for those Fed Cup results, the Germans only once went to the final, in 2014, where they were beaten by their tiny neighbours Czech Republic, who have collected four of the last five titles…

The Great Dane is giving signs of life

Since being upstaged from the top of the World Rankings after the 2012 Australian Open, Denmark’s Caroline Wozniacki has endured a steady decline that was only briefly halted in 2014, when she reached the final of the US Open. As her off-court commitments have become more prominent, she’s become an afterthought in the biggest tournaments, with that 2014 campaign in NY as her single appearance in the last eight of a GS since early 2012. Despite hovering around the top 10 for a long time, sometimes one gets the sense that Wozniacki stays relevant because she’s Serena’s BFF and a pretty face to put in front of a camera.

However, just 26 years old and under the glittering Big Apple lights, maybe things are changing just as her career seemed to be approaching a fork in the road. Ranked an aberrant No.74 entering the last Major of the year, Wozniacki’s classic counterpunching style just wasn’t proving as effective as in the dawn of her career, since opponents have adapted and can either blow the ball past her and match the stamina and consistency that function as the staple of her game.

Pundits said she needed to step forward, use her athleticism to drive the ball and put her rivals under pressure, and in this tournament she has followed suit. More aggression functioned against the 9th-seed Svetlana Kuznetsova in round two and helped dispatch Monica Niculescu (a player that forces opponents to set the pace), contributing to an important boost of confidence.

The resolution of the past is back on Caroline Wozniacki's face

The resolution of the past is back on Caroline Wozniacki’s face

With her coolness restored, came a vintage Wozniacki performance to outlast the favourite Madison Keys. Tactically savvy to force the opponent out of the comfort zone by deftly varying her shots and serve placement, unfazed through the swift barrages of winners, and composed as her rival entered a tailspin due to the Dane’s vaunted defensive skills and ability to prolong the rallies. In one week, the former World No.1 beat more top-10 players (2) at a Major than during her entire stint at the top of the game (1). Maybe a renaissance has started on a place that Wozniacki clearly loves.

The intricate succession of Serena Williams 

The grasp of Serena Williams on American tennis has been so absolute for so long that seeing another female player (outside of Venus) step out of her shadow has taken more time than it should on a country like the USA. The US Open is the tournament where candidates showcase their credentials and every year new names are added to the ballot. However, few go on to break into the top echelon of the game, displaying year round consistency and a firm growing curve. Until last year, Sloane Stephens (who pulled out injured in NY) looked well on his way to that level, but it was eventually Madison Key’s door to knock wide open.

Keys’ 2015 highlights – SF in Australia and QF at Wimbledon – may flash brighter on her résumé but the regularity achieved during this season points to an evolution that is hitting all the right notes, with good performances spread across different tiers of tournaments and surfaces. At the US Open, Keys was pushed to the brink twice in the tournament and came out roaring like a Champion – not unlike the Queen of the WTA Tour – leading many to believe the story would go on unblemished. Aged 21, bursting with lethal groundstrokes and a powerful serve adorned with a striking mechanic that resembles many of the finest male players, Madison Keys was a superstar in the making that would lead the American aspirations as soon as she fine-tunes his amazing qualities.

Madison Keys' inate firepower is one of the reasons she's been tabbed as the future of USA's tennis

Madison Keys’ inate firepower is one of the reasons she’s been tabbed as the future of USA’s tennis

Not so fast…as Caroline Wozniacki so eloquently illustrated on their fourth-round encounter, with Keys’ game neutralized by a rival willing to deny her intents of pocketing points in a hurry with her overpowering acceleration. She learned a valuable lesson and we quickly remembered  it too: the American’s game, as most heavy-hitters (Petra Kvitova is a good comparison), is beautiful to watch in the peaks, but excruciating in the valleys, with blasts sailing meters wide (or long) and harried executions dyeing at the bottom of the net. The learning curve is still steep to threaten the Queen.

For the rest of the American roster on the women’s side, the US Open wasn’t a banner event either. 29th seed Coco Vandeweghe, a big-serving player quietly on the verge of her 25th anniversary, followed up a really strong grass season with a first round defeat to 18-year-old Japanese sensation Naomi Osaka. The once-promising Christina McHale couldn’t resist the 2015 finalist Roberta Vinci in the second round, while the top 50-ranked Madison Brengle and Shelby Rogers, a surprising quarter-finalist in Roland Garros, were upset by younger compatriots. Brengle retired before 16-year-old Kayla Day, the US Under-18 National Champion, could complete the job, but Rogers was outplayed by 17-year-old Catherine Bellis, who burst onto the scene in similar conditions in 2014.

The Brits are finally coming

Andy Murray arrived in New York as the odds-on favourite to take a Grand Slam title for the first time in his career, but Great Britain’s media has had more to rejoice than just the spoils very much left in play by Novak Djokovic’s sudden drop from the pedestal. A few years ago, the Scot’s footsteps in major events were supposed to be followed by two promising young girls in Heather Watson and Laura Robson, but those two have failed to deliver, leaving the 2016 US Open on the first round without much fanfare. On their place have step up three names that created a buzz for British Tennis in the first week.

The 25-year-old Johanna Konta – who came out of nowhere to reach the fourth round one year ago – justified the hype that has surrounded her rise following the semi-final run in Melbourne by dismantling Belinda Bencic in the third round, even if she then lost a winnable match against Anastasija Sevastova.

The youngster Kyle Edmund is Great Britain's best male prospect since Andy Murray

The youngster Kyle Edmund is Great Britain’s best male prospect since Andy Murray

On the men’s side, Kyle Edmund and Dan Evans are still riding the impulse of the Davis Cup victory last fall, joining Murray to become the first British trio to reach the third round of the US Open in 48 years. The 26-year-old Evans, an offensive talent with a knack for net play, shocked the highly-touted Alex Zverev in the second round before producing a thriller against Stan Wawrinka in the third, even wasting a couple of match points in the fourth set before succumbing in the decider. As for Edmund, a former junior star, his lightning-quick forehand and heavy style were too much for the crafty Richard Gasquet in the first round and for John Isner later on, with Novak Djokovic putting a stop to his progress on the last 16.

Setbacks, declines and darkhorses

To end, a few lines on some renowned players dropping out early on the women’s event plus a brush stroke on everyone’s preferred dark horses on the men’s side.

Ana Ivanovic, who’s yet to string three consecutive triumphs in 2016, kept her mediocre season going with a straight sets defeat to Denisa Allertova in the first round. The slow eclipse continues for the former World No.1, whose Semi-Final run in Roland Garros last year, the first on a Major in seven years, is looking more like a thing of the past by the day.

Eugenie Bouchard’s bumpy ride over the last two years caught another rut in New York with a disappointing first round loss to Katerina Siniakova, World No. 72. The Canadian hasn’t been able to amass any type of momentum that favours an approach to the level displayed in 2014, her breakout season, and the net point loss from this result will make her ranking spill outside of the top 50 again.

The World No. 3, Spain’s Garbiñe Muguruza, suffered a startling exit at the hands of Latvia’s Anastasija Sevastova in the second round, prolonging her listless form since a maiden Grand Slam triumph in the clay of Paris. After quick exits at Wimbledon and the Olympics, the 23-year-old looked apathetic against Sevastova, losing her serve seven times in two sets and lacking the spirit to take full advantage of her opponent’s shakiness on the verge of a famous triumph.

Garbiñe Muguruza has been left looking for answers regularly over the last few weeks

Garbiñe Muguruza has been left looking for answers regularly over the last few weeks

The newly crowned Olympic Champion, Puerto Rico’s Monica Puig, crashed out at the first hurdle in NY but I’m certain few were wholly stunned by it. The 23-year-old has never reached the quarter-finals of a Major, and all the partying following her improbable achievement was far from an ideal preparation for a debut under an entirely different limelight. Undoubtedly a letdown for failing to capitalize on the newfound recognition, but Puig gets a pass for a few more weeks. After all, becoming a national hero overnight certainly takes some time to assimilate.

On the flip side, most of the men’s narratives have hovered around the positive vibes emanating from the top-notch level of play exhibited by some beloved crowd-pleasers. Above all else is, obviously, Juan Martin Del Potro, who has carved through the draw with his hammer of a forehand. Building on the upset of Stan Wawrinka in Wimbledon and the fairytale campaign at Rio de Janeiro, the gangly Argentine is yet to relinquish a set in four matches, dispatching on the way the American highest seeded player, Steve Johnson, and the ever-unrelenting David Ferrer.

Also yet to cede a set is French Showman Gael Monfils, whose spectacular style has been toned down slightly to provision for an uptick in effectiveness. With his rare athleticism visibly intact, the 29-year-old may now be approaching that sweet spot we’ve all been waiting for years, a scary proposition for everyone standing on the other half of the court.

With Nadal eliminated, Federer watching on television from the other side of the Atlantic and Stan Wawrinka prone to some dangerous bouts of inconsistency, Del Potro and Monfils headline the list of candidates to hinder the Djokovic-Murray rematch.