After a lot of struggle over the last few months, the US Open is finally set to get underway in just over two weeks. Fears over the pandemic’s impact in New York City, doubts over players’ participation and more took up most of the narrative around the event. It will soon be finally time for tennis to take over.
It has been 11 years since the last time the US Open men’s singles title was defended. Roger Federer successfully defended the title in 2008 with a win over Andy Murray in the final. That was his fifth straight US Open title and since then no player has been able to defend the title. Before Federer, the last man to achieve the feat was Patrick Rafter in 1998. Before that, many title defenses were seen in the 80s and 90s. This came from the likes of John McEnroe, Jimmy Connors, Ivan Lendl, Stefan Edberg, and Pete Sampras.
Even before a single ball is hit at the 2020 US Open, the current streak is set to extend by at least another year. Defending champion Rafael Nadal recently withdrew from the event.
Nadal has won four titles since 2008, in 2010, 2013, 2017, and in 2019. Federer and Nadal’s ‘Big Three’ competitor Novak Djokovic has won it thrice in 2011, 2015, and then in 2018. The others to win the US Open are Juan Martin Del Potro in 2009, Andy Murray in 2012, Marin Cilic in 2014, and Stan Wawrinka in 2016.
So what made it possible for Federer to defend the title five straight times? And why has no one been able to defend it even once since then?
At the time when Federer set the streak, he was in superior form, something rarely seen before. He had a purple patch like no other and he successfully converted his time at the peak into numerous titles. Not many could even challenge Federer in best of five-set matches before Nadal and Djokovic developed their all-round games. Back then, Djokovic, who Federer beat in that 2008 semifinals was still developing his talent into being a real contender for titles. Nadal had shown his prowess on clay but was yet to reach the finals at a hard-court major.
The year 2009 then saw Nadal evolve his game on hard-courts and Federer narrowly missed out on his sixth straight US Open title to Del Potro. Soon, Djokovic too started to show the extent of his abilities and Federer was suddenly part of a ‘Big Three’. Age started to catch up to Federer in recent years and he has been vulnerable in the latter part of the season.
Even Nadal has struggled with injuries mainly in the second half of the season. He has not had an easy time defending the US Open title. Djokovic was the favorite to defend his title in 2012 and 2016. He was undone in the final both times. In 2019, an injury forced him out early. Del Potro, Cilic, and Wawrinka were undone by either Nadal or Djokovic in their title defense attempts.
A major factor that has also made defending the US Open difficult is the time at which it is held. Being the last Grand Slam of the year, players have already played so matches throughout the year coming into the event. As a result, many early upsets are seen.
This factor, coupled with the slowness of the courts and the New York summer heat also contribute to fatigue for players. Lower-ranked players tend to play like they have nothing to lose and trouble the top guys who might already be struggling. At the time of McEnroe, Sampras, and the others, the courts were known to be faster than they are now.
It will be interesting to see what the new Laykold courts have to offer at the US Open. But to see a title defense, we will have to wait at least another year.