Countdown to the US Open: With less than a month to go now until the start of the US Open, Last Word on Tennis begins its Countdown to New York. The 2017 US Open is truly wide open, with no overwhelming favourite in either the men’s or the women’s event. Can Roger Federer complete one of the greatest sporting comebacks of all time and win a sixth US Open? And can Garbine Muguruza build on her Wimbledon triumph and establish herself as the new dominant force in the women’s game?
Over the next four weeks, Last Word on Tennis will look back at the greatest US Open finals and the greatest US Open champions in both the men’s and the women’s game, beginning with the Five Finest US Open Women’s Finals.
For a women’s Grand Slam final to be considered truly great, it must last three sets and be so good that it prompts demands for women, like men, to play five-set matches. In my opinion, that age-old argument was finally settled by Matthew Syed in his Times article on the subject during Wimbledon, when he convincingly argued that restricting women to three-set matches is ultimately the same kind of sexist nonsense that prevented women from running marathons and other long-distance races until nearly the end of the 20th century.
All five of these US Open women’s finals meet the three-set criterion and were epic in other ways besides.
- 2012: Serena Williams beats Victoria Azarenka (6–2, 2–6, 7–5)
For a brief period (roughly 2012 and 2013), the Serena Williams-Victoria Azarenka rivalry looked like being the next big rivalry in women’s tennis and perhaps even one to match the greatest rivalries in the women’s game, such as Seles-Graf or Navratilova-Evert. At the 2012 Australian Open, when Serena surprisingly lost in the fourth round to Russia’s Ekaterina Makarova, the way was open for Azarenka to claim her first Major title, which she duly did by beating Maria Sharapova in the final in straight sets, even “bagelling” the former Australian Champion 6-0 in the second set. Azarenka would retain her Australian title the following year, but in between came a superb US Open final in which she nearly defeated Serena, the dominant woman player of her generation.
Williams won the first set in the 2012 US Open final relatively easily, 6-2, and it seemed likely that the rest of the match would be a typically serene procession to a typical Serena triumph. Azarenka, however, had other ideas and literally did to Williams in the second set what Williams had done to her in the first, hitting her off court to win it 6-2. Thus the stage was set for an epic final set, which was the first deciding set in a women’s US Open final since 1995.
Near the end of the third set, Azarenka actually broke Williams and served for the match. However, in a run similar to that of Roger Federer earlier this year, when he won the last five games against Rafael Nadal to win the Australian Open, Serena first broke back and then won the next three games in succession to claim her fourth US crown. At the end, Azarenka wept into her towel, rather like Marin Cilic during this year’s Wimbledon final. However, while Cilic wept because of the physical pain (severe blisters) that prevented him from playing at his best, Azarenka knew that she had given her all and it just wasn’t enough against probably the finest female tennis player of all time.
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Williams and Azarenka met again in the US Open final the following year, but the 2013 final was a pale imitation of the 2012 version. Azarenka won a superb second-set tiebreak 8-6, but then folded in the final set to lose it 6-1. Since then, of course, the potentially great rivals of women’s tennis have had one thing in common – motherhood – as first Azarenka and then Williams has withdrawn from the game for a time to give birth. If both of them can return to their best form in the future, the prospect of another epic final like the 2012 New York showpiece will be a tantalising one.
- 1994: Arantxa Sánchez Vicario beats Steffi Graf (1–6, 7–6 (7–3), 6–4)
As mentioned above, prior to 2012 the 1995 US Open women’s final was the last to go the full distance, as Steffi Graf beat her great rival, Monica Seles, in three sets, when Seles was beginning her comeback after the dreadful stabbing incident in 1993 that nearly ended her career. Nevertheless, the 1995 final was eclipsed by its immediate predecessor, as Arantxa Sánchez Vicario beat reigning champion Graf to claim her lone US crown.
When considering the recent history of the women’s game, it is perhaps easy to forget Sánchez Vicario, principally because she never won Wimbledon, the greatest Grand Slam, where she was twice runner-up to Graf. Nevertheless, she was a four-time Major winner, with three French titles to go alongside her sole US triumph, and her 1994 US Open victory was probably her greatest Major victory of all.
Like most Spaniards, Sánchez Vicario had grown up on clay, claiming her first Major title at Roland Garros in 1989 (and winning there again in 1994 and 1998). Consequently, it took her some time to adapt to other, faster surfaces, particularly grass and hardcourt. By 1994, however, her transformation into a hardcourt player was complete, as she proved by defeating the great Graf in three scintillating sets.
At first, it looked like Sánchez Vicario would suffer another beating at the hands of Graf, as the German raced to the first set for the loss of just one game. But she regrouped and took the second set to a tie-break, which she won 7-3. Even then, most observers felt sure that Graf would reassert herself in the deciding set, but Sánchez Vicario kept up her superb level of play to close it out 6-4 and win her third Major title.
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- 1989: Steffi Graf beats Martina Navratilova (3–6, 7–5, 6–1)
Some Grand Slam finals are symbolic, marking the end of a period of dominance by a single player. The 1989 US Open final falls into this category, as it effectively represented the end of Martina Navratilova’s dominance of the US Open, which had been her home Grand Slam since she became a US citizen in 1981, and confirmed Steffi Graf’s rise to the top of the women’s game.
Navratilova was the Queen of Wimbledon, winning in London SW19 a record six times in succession between 1982 and 1987, in the process proving herself to be probably the finest female serve-volleyer in the history of tennis. However, she was scarcely less dominant on the hardcourts of New York. She won her first US title in 1983 and won three of the next four US Opens (finishing runner-up in the other, in 1985, to Hana Mandlikova). She won her fourth and final US Open in 1987, beating Graf, who was then only 18, in straight sets, 7-6, 6-1.
When the two women met again in the US Open final, two years later, their roles had almost completely reversed. Graf had won her “Golden Slam” in 1988, adding the Olympic singles title in Seoul (where tennis had been readmitted to the Olympics for the first time since 1924) to the four Majors that she won that year. Meanwhile, Navratilova, having been at the top of women’s tennis for more than a decade had begun what would ultimately become a slow and rather graceful decline. She was still good enough to reach the US Open final in 1989, but she could no longer resist the irresistible force that Graf had become. The first two sets were hard-fought and split between them, but eventually Graf’s youth, energy and mobility wore down Navratilova’s serve-volley game and she took the final set 6-1.
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Navratilova would go on to win Wimbledon again in 1990 (and, incredibly, was a Wimbledon runner-up four years later), but she only reached one more US Open final, in 1991, when she again ultimately succumbed rather meekly, losing to Monica Seles in straight sets. Thus, the age of the great serve-volleyer was over, ended by the two brilliant baseliners who would go on to dominate women’s tennis in the early 1990s, Graf and Seles.
- 1984: Martina Navratilova beats Chris Evert (4–6, 6–4, 6–4)
Chris Evert dominated the US Open women’s singles event from the mid-1970s to the early 1980s, winning it six times in total and four times in a row between 1975 and 1978. Her only serious rival in this period was the precocious Tracey Austin, who won two US Opens in 1979 and 1981, defeating Evert herself in the final in 1979. When Austin’s game began to be eroded by injury, which was perhaps inevitable given that she had begun playing professional tennis while she was still a teenager and while her body was still developing, Evert must have thought that the way was clear for her to resume her domination of the event. That, however, was to reckon without the rise of Martina Navratilova.
Navratilova had already beaten Evert twice in Wimbledon finals (in 1978 and 1979), but Evert remained her superior on hardcourt until 1983, when she comfortably beat Evert in the final in straight sets. That triumph in New York really marked the start of Navratilova’s “imperial phase”, to borrow the term coined by Neil Tennant of the Pet Shop Boys, which refers to a musician’s period of excellence but is equally applicable to sport. Having already won the Wimbledon title in 1983, Navratilova won in New York that autumn and proceeded to win the next four Grand Slam events. Her golden run, which was unprecedented in either men’s or women’s tennis, finally came to a halt in the Australian Open at the end of 1984 (when the Australian Open was still played at the end of the calendar year, rather than the start, as it has been since 1987), when she lost to Helena Sukova in the semi-finals.
Almost all of Navratilova’s Major finals in 1983-84 were one-sided affairs, as she won them all in straight sets, with the sole exception being the 1984 US final. As if sick of being so completely put in the shade by Navratilova, her erstwhile rival, Evert came out firing in New York, winning the first set 6-4 after achieving a rare break of the magnificent Navratilova serve. The second set was close, too, until Navratilova finally broke to win that by the same score, 6-4. Incredibly, Navratilova also won the third set by the same score, but only after Evert had come the closest that any woman came to ending her remarkable winning run, which would eventually extend to 74 matches, a record for both men and women in the Open era.
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- 1960: Darlene Hard beats Maria Bueno (6–4, 10–12, 6–4)
It is ironic that probably the greatest US Open women’s singles final ever was not a confrontation between two legendary champions, such as Evert and Navratilova or Graf and Seles, but instead featured at least one woman whose name is now largely forgotten. Nevertheless, Darlene Hard’s triumph over Maria Bueno, the reigning champion, in 1960 was not only the longest US Open women’s singles final in terms of games but arguably the finest in terms of quality.
Darlene Hard is a name that should not be forgotten, and not only because it is such an appropriate name for a tennis player. (Of course, it would have been even more appropriate if she had played after 1978, when the US Open, after a brief experiment with clay for three years, became a hardcourt tournament.) It is also worthy of remembrance because Hard was a fine player who would have won even more than the three Majors she did win if she had not had to stop playing in the game’s greatest events simply because she wanted to make a living from tennis. Like so many other great players in the 1960s, most notably Rod Laver, she had to abandon hopes of Grand Slam glory simply so she could turn professional and profit from the game she played so well.
Hard was one of the few serve-volleyers to prosper in Paris, winning the French Championship (as it was then called) in 1960. Nevertheless, when she reached the US Championship final just a few months later, she was decidedly second-favourite, as she was facing the woman who was the darling of the women’s game at that time, Maria Bueno.
Bueno remains the greatest Brazilian (indeed, the greatest South American) player of either gender, as her total of seven Major titles (three Wimbledons and four US victories) easily eclipses Gustavo Kuerten’s hat-trick of French titles in the late 1990s and early noughties. In 1960, she was arguably at her peak, having won the US Open the year before, and so the stage was set in New York that autumn for a titanic clash between two of the top women players of the period.
Hard won the first set 6-4, but lost a truly epic second set 12-10, in the era before tiebreaks were introduced. (They were finally introduced in the early 1970s, more than a decade after this final). Somehow, despite the disappointment of losing such a long and arduous set, Hard rallied superbly to take the third set 6-4 and win her maiden US title. She retained the title in 1961 and reached the final again in 1962, losing to the great Margaret Court, before finally turning professional. By contrast, Bueno, who came from a relatively affluent Brazilian family, was able to remain “amateur”, winning three more US titles in 1963, 1964 and 1966, securing the enduring global fame that eluded Hard.
And this year…?
The women’s singles final at the US Open is due another classic. Last year’s final between Angelique Kerber and Karolína Plíšková, which Kerber won 6-4 in the third, was pretty good, but the omens are perhaps even better for this year. For one thing, Kerber herself will be desperate to end a bitterly disappointing 2017 by defending her US title and regaining the World No. 1 spot she recently forfeited to Plíšková. For another, the two most recent women’s Grand Slam winners, Jelena Ostapenko and Garbine Muguruza, will be determined to win a second Major this year and propel themselves towards the coveted No. 1 ranking. And Jo Konta, fresh from her semi-final run at Wimbledon, may do even better at the US Open, because hardcourt, rather than grass, is her favourite surface. With Serena Williams still absent due to her pregnancy, the New York stage will be set for her rivals and possible successors to stake their claim as the greatest female tennis player in the world.
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