New York, America, Part 1
The graphics rolled across the television screen as a prophecy.
In 1984, 33 American men reached the second round of the US Open. Ten years later, the number was cut in half to 16. It dwindled by more than half to just seven in 2004 and was down to just three last year.
There are no Americans in the ATP top 10, and it seems every major has reached an apocalyptic statistical moment for the American game. At each Slam, we are reminded that today isn't yesterday. During the first week of the year's final major, there was no real urgency surrounding any American player this year.
Donald Young entered the tournament having made the fourth-biggest jump in the rankings since year-end 2013, blew a 4-0 first-set lead to Blaz Kavcic and lost in straights. Jack Sock, seemingly distracted, pulled up lame in the fourth set against Spanish veteran Pablo Andujar and abruptly retired.
Once and for all, it is time to leave Young alone. Trapped by the "potential" label since his days as a junior prodigy, the truth is that Young isn't big enough, strong enough or gifted enough to project anything upon him on the pro tour. He is not wasted talent or an underachiever, but an undersized player in a land of giants who must work for everything he gains on a tennis court, who must fight for every point.
As competition increases, Young should receive the underdog's encouragement, not the ballast of a favorite.
Up close, it is easy to see why Sock is so tantalizing. He is a "little Roddick" with his backward hat, sizzling forehand, 133 mph serve and Nebraska roots. He's is a pitcher in love with his fastball, even in breaking-ball counts. At one point early against Andujar, he channeled his inner Gael Monfils, responding to a simple rally ball a few inches behind the baseline with a leaping forehand. The shot traveled 200 mph. It landed three rows into the seats.
Sock plays in a hurry and seems as enamored with the acoustics of tearing the cover off the ball as hitting a winner. A seasoned veteran aware that the only point that is more valuable than all the rest is the final one, Andujar waited him out, capitalized on his impetuousness, returned just enough to frustrate.
Late in the third set, Sock struggled with his right leg. He responded by trying to hit each ball seemingly 300 mph before smashing his racket, frustrated by the score and by his body breaking down. Finally, after three games in the fourth, Sock cracked, retiring even though his serve was still consistently 125 mph. Andujar shook hands, and that was that.
Around the grounds, whispers grew that Sock didn't really want to be out there, or at least didn't want to jeopardize his doubles possibilities. As Wimbledon champions, he and Canadian Vasek Pospisil entered the tournament with a very real chance of reaching the World Tour Finals in London. Whispers became louder when Sock retired against Andujar but did not pull out of doubles, and louder still when he and Pospisil won their first match in Flushing Meadows.
The bubbling conversation around Sock is that he might be leaning toward becoming a doubles specialist, following Mike and Bob Bryan instead of Andre Agassi. Sock will be 22 next month and is free to emphasize whatever discipline he chooses. The optics of him quitting singles but playing doubles, however, were not particularly good, especially at the home slam.
We're not sure exactly what happened, but it certainly appeared that Sock called it an afternoon when things didn't go his way.
Women and men
It was a lesson to be expected, for Williams is highly motivated across at least four different planes:
1. She hasn't advanced past the fourth round of a major this year. She was dominated by the Spanish young gun Garbine Muguruza at Roland Garros 6-2, 6-2, her career Grand Slam loss, and lost to Alize Cornet at Wimbledon.
2. She is the two-time defending champion.
3. She is chasing her 18th Grand Slam singles title, putting her on the same stat line as Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova.
4. Passing the torch is a narrative for the seats and the press box, and Americans in this sport need to believe in the continued bloodline. However, torches are not passed in sports, they are taken. As part of a long national inheritance, though, Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi passed the torch to Andy Roddick, who thus far has passed it to no one. Billie Jean King passed to Chris Evert, who passed to Lindsay Davenport and the Williams sisters, who are holding on to the throne until someone is good enough, hungry enough and tough enough to take it from them.
Until that day comes, there is nothing romantic or acceptable about a greatest-player-of-all-time candidate losing in the first round to a teenager. Perhaps one day Townsend will headline night matches at Ashe. On this night, she was chum. Serena tore through her without sentimentality, a champion uninterested in who would be next to wear the crown and completely focused on finding the necessary mental space to win yet again.
Though the outcome was never in doubt, the match was nonetheless interesting. Townsend, once the world's top-ranked junior, has wonderful hands and great feel around the court. She fought hard and did not appear overwhelmed by the moment.
Far more interesting, however, were the conversations surrounding Williams-Townsend. I watched the match at the venerable P.J. Clarke's over on 55th and 3rd (where, incidentally, a smiling and healthy-looking Jack Sock would arrive a short time later), and during warm-ups I asked former ESPN writer Amy K. Nelson if she thought Townsend was overweight.
I asked because I was thinking back to the unfair way the USTA had attempted to muscle her into losing weight even as she flourishes as a player. Amy was immediately inflamed.
"Name me a male tennis player where you would have a similar comment," she said. "I really think this is BS."
I responded that there are several male athletes that would receive similar treatment, that both David Wells and Charles Barkley were criticized throughout their careers for perhaps being more injury-prone because they were not in better shape. Amy was unmoved. The bartender, a walking sports encyclopedia named Bill (who had already won me over by switching the television from Yankees-Tigers to tennis) glanced up at the television and offered an instant assessment:
"She's young, and she has baby fat. It's no big deal. Within a year on tour, it will all be gone."
During the second set, in which a dominant Serena began running mercilessly to the finish line on her way to a 6-3, 6-1 win, another conversation occurred between two men and a woman, one of the men arguing the following:
"I like Serena, but it's totally unfair that she competes against women because she's a dude," he said. "I mean, look at her body against someone like Aga Radwanska. The other women, like, they have no chance."
In both instances, what was clear was that the conversation wasn't really the conversation at all, but that the landmines surrounding it had become the discussion, landmines that made it impossible to even approach Townsend's conditioning or the power of Serena's and Stosur's games because of the overlay of gender and sexual politics that cannot -- and should not -- be avoided.
Lauren Davis is 5-foot-2, a short and underpowered player who plays with great heart but is simply going to be at a physical disadvantage in nearly every match, against nearly every player she plays. Williams is 5-9 and about 160 pounds. Maria Sharapova is 6-2 and hits the ball ferociously. Stosur is 5-8, a physical marvel, a muscular player who hits with vicious topspin. Maybe Davis and the group at P.J. Clarke's shouldn't have framed their conversations in that way, even if they were obliquely complimenting Serena's and Stosur's awesome physical presence.
Townsend, meanwhile, is just a teenager, and as of today her fitness is largely irrelevant to her prospects. She reached the third round of the French Open, beating Cornet. When the time comes, Townsend will know first and better whether she can play with top competition. If not, she'll know why.
Secondly, everything is not even, and not being mindful of such basic reality is tone-deaf. The privilege of the aggrieved allows black people to make fun of white people for not having rhythm or women to make fun of men when they have colds. Reciprocally, it doesn't work.
White people cannot easily stereotype black people without incident, and men (or the public in general) cannot talk blithely about a woman's weight, athlete or not. The racial- and gender-coded overtones cannot be overlooked, and they shouldn't be. This is not an issue about oversensitivity. It is an issue about power. The fat guy in the movies still ends up with the supermodel. The fat girl doesn't.
Thus, to Nelson's point, it doesn't work to merely say that Wells was criticized for being overweight and thus Townsend, as an athlete, becomes similarly fair game. Ostensibly, we were watching tennis, but through tennis these conversations are sitting, snoring elephants in the room, and they should be had.
The veneer that "everything is even" is really its own shade of suggestion that key differences and sensitivities and historical perspectives can be ignored by the people in power -- men, in this case -- when they cannot.
America, Part 2
In a relatively short time, Sloane Stephens is accomplishing what once seemed impossible: becoming one of the least-liked players on tour.
Stephens' three-set loss to world No. 96 Johanna Larsson on Ashe, where she piled up 63 unforced errors and lost leads of 3-0 and 2-0 in the second and third sets, respectively, were disappointing but not exactly catastrophic. Players lose, after all.
Madison Keys was gripped by nerves and lost a winnable first-round match. The world didn't collapse.
It was Stephens' arrogant and condescending performance afterward, combined with unflattering magazine profiles, a childish social media presence, private anecdotes from tennis officials, players and legends ("She played with no heart and no guts," said 18-time major winner Chrissie Evert) that changed the view of Stephens.
Perhaps she is rebelling against a hype machine that has been ruthless in its dance with her, anointing her after beating an injured Williams at the 2013 Australian Open only to watch her struggle, but the truth is other talented players are running past her. Stephens is on her third coach, second this year.
In her past 27 tournaments dating back to Washington 2013, she has been eliminated in the first or second round in half of them. She has never reached a final at any tour-level event. Or perhaps she has reached her own hell moment, knowing her current skill set is good enough to have a great life and sell boatloads of Under Armour gear but not nearly good enough to be a top-five or top-10 player.
Of course, she merely represents the coin of the realm of American sports in 2014, that winning is not particularly important when a player like Stephens is marketed, treated and compensated like a legend without actually being one.