After a six-month break from the tour, you might have expected tennis stars to look fresher than ever as they returned to playing in earnest.
But the legs and the mood often seemed heavy as the Western & Southern Open limped to a finish at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center on Saturday, with the U.S. Open set to begin in the same spot less than 48 hours later.
The women’s final was a walkover, Naomi Osaka withdrawing because of an injured hamstring and guaranteeing Victoria Azarenka her first singles title since she gave birth to her son, Leo, in 2016.
The men’s final was Novak Djokovic versus Milos Raonic, but also Djokovic against himself, as he tried to work his body and mind into a better place after dropping the first set in a listless hurry.
But Djokovic, strong and stubborn, found a way through, as he has so often in his career, which, like it or not, may yet turn out to be the most successful in men’s tennis history.
He began finding his targets and extending the rallies, playing them on his precise terms. He broke Raonic’s fearsome serve for the first time in the sixth game of the second set, then went on to win, 1-6, 6-3, 6-4, to claim this collectors’ edition of the tournament, staged in Queens because of the coronavirus crisis, instead of its usual location of Mason, Ohio.
Ranked No. 1, Djokovic is 23-0 in 2020, with 18 of those victories coming before the tour paused because of the pandemic. Now, he will try to sweep the so-called bubble double by winning the U.S. Open for the fourth time.
“It has been challenging mentally and emotionally for me to stay sane and be able to compete at the highest level and win this title,” Djokovic said after defeating Raonic for the 11th time in 11 singles matches.
Challenging not only because of the sore neck that had him considering withdrawal earlier in the week but also because of the off-court concerns that have kept him busy on WhatsApp chats and beyond.
“It was not easy, definitely, especially in the last three or four days,” he said.
Convinced that the men’s players need more leverage with the tournaments, he and Vasek Pospisil of Canada have been working since last year to create a new player association. It is not a new concept — it has been pursued several times in the past 25 years — but it has new momentum.
Though Djokovic insists it can coexist with the men’s tour, ATP Tour executives — as well as Djokovic’s longtime rivals Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, who made their feelings known on Twitter — clearly view it as an existential threat.
Though the timing seems less than ideal, with the sport reeling from the economic impact of the hiatus, Djokovic and Pospisil have decided to formally start the association and sign up players in New York. Djokovic resigned from his position as the president of the ATP player council on Friday, with Pospisil and the American John Isner stepping down from the council as well.
Six other members — Federer, Nadal, Sam Querrey, Jurgen Melzer, Bruno Soares and Kevin Anderson — responded with a letter to their fellow players opposing the new association and arguing that the ATP leadership team that started this year — the chairman, Andrea Gaudenzi, and the chief executive, Massimo Calvelli — deserved time to carry out their plan.
Internal tennis politics can be a terrific cure for insomnia, but anything that puts Djokovic on the opposite side of the net to Federer and Nadal is a shot of espresso.
The only reason Federer and Nadal returned to the council is because they wanted to be in position to have a more direct influence after Djokovic and his supporters pushed out the former chief executive, Chris Kermode, last year.
But Djokovic is not one to easily abandon what he believes is right. Raised with limited means in an era of conflict in Serbia, he has never minded sliding into the corners and scrapping for a point.
“To be honest, even though maybe some people think that I always try to fit in — and I always try to be liked or something like this — for me it’s more important to really be my authentic self,” he said in an interview before the Western & Southern Open. “Just do, think, speak, feel what I feel deep inside resonates the most with my life values and the way I grew up, and the way I think it’s going to be reflecting on my legacy tomorrow.”
He added: “That, in a lot of cases throughout my career, has not impacted my reputation or my image or my brand so positively. But I know I’m doing the right thing, so I’m going to do it.”
Of the Big Three, Djokovic is also the only one in New York; Federer is recovering from two knee surgeries and Nadal is preparing to return on clay after the U.S. Open.
Djokovic’s ability to be a labor organizer on site could spell trouble in the bubble for the ATP. But the scenario also seems perfectly in tune with this period in sports, as the actual competitions are being overshadowed by larger issues no matter how much some of the lockdown-weary public might have been yearning for mere fun and games.
Sports are not an escape at this stage, but a megaphone, and though professional tennis does not have as large and imposing a platform as international soccer or the N.B.A., its stars already have raised their voices.
Osaka, the daughter of a Japanese mother and Haitian father, initially withdrew from her semifinal against Elise Mertens, causing tournament organizers to postpone an entire day’s play to honor her protest against racial injustice.
On Saturday, after losing to Djokovic, Raonic, a thoughtful and urbane Canadian, accepted his trophy and congratulated Djokovic — “honestly, if I start out the year 3-0 I am pretty happy” — and then talked politics.
“It’s been a tough few months,” he said. “And I’m a strong believer that we’re very lucky up in Canada that every single person walking on a street can feel safe. And I hope there is some serious change that goes on through the U.S., and that every Black man, woman, child can feel safe in their own community on the street.”
His words reverberated through Louis Armstrong Stadium, all the more cavernous with only a few hundred spectators in the stands, all accredited personnel and players rather than fans.
It is easy to imagine more such gestures during the U.S. Open over the next two weeks. The tournament will begin quickly for Djokovic and Osaka, who are both scheduled to play their first-round matches on opening night in Arthur Ashe Stadium.
That is not much time to heal a hamstring or calm tennis’s choppy political waters.
Both Osaka and Djokovic looked weary on Saturday — even though this was her first tour event since January and his first since February. But this is a time like no other, just as it will be a U.S. Open like no other.
“It’s strange to see empty stands,” Djokovic said. “The circumstances are very unusual, but we have to accept that, we have to deal with it and try to embrace it.”