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Rafa and Serena Triumph in Upset-Filled U.S. Open

The 2013 U.S. Open will be remembered for the upsets that took place just as much as Rafael Nadal and Serena Williams winning their respective finals.  While it was no surprise to see the top two seeds meet in both finals, it was equally surprising not to see the usual suspects making a challenge.  On the men’s side, sixth-seeded Juan Martin Del Potro (2009 U.S. Open champ) was the first casualty, losing in five sets to veteran Lleyton Hewitt in the second round.  Then, 17-time, major champ Roger Federer lost to Tommy Robredo in three sets in the fourth round.  Finally, Andy Murray, the defending champion and winner of Wimbledon in July, suffered a complete letdown against Stan Wawrinka in the quarterfinals.

There might have been more uncertainty in the women’s draw.  One of the pre-tournament favorites, Maria Sharapova, did not compete due to a recurring shoulder injury.  Third-seeded Agnieszka Radwanska was upset in the fourth round, while sixth-seeded Caroline Wozniacki lost in the third round.  Fourth-seeded Sara Errani lost in the second round to unseeded Flavia Pennetta, who progressed all the way to the semifinals, where she lost to eventual runner-up Victoria Azarenka.  Unfortunately for those American fans rooting for more red, white, and blue in the later rounds, eventual champion Williams defeated fellow country woman Sloane Stephens in the fourth round.

The men’s final between Nadal and Novak Djokovic almost didn’t happen.  Djokovic was pushed to the limit in the semifinals against Wawrinka, with the Serbian winning the final two sets to stave off a huge upset.  Nadal had a relatively easy time with Richard Gasquet, winning in three sets.  Prior to the final, Nadal owned a 21-15 record against his greatest challenger over the past few seasons.  Outside of the second and third sets, which Djokovic won 6-3 and lost 4-6, respectively, the match favored the Spaniard heavily.  Most viewers will remember the epic 54-shot rally in the second set which led to a 1-1 tie going into the third set.  In the end, it was the 13th Grand Slam title for the man they call “Rafa” and his second U.S. Open.  Djokovic, the winner of the Australian Open in January, will wonder what could have been with back-to-back runner-up finishes in the year’s final two majors.

Williams and Azarenka provided more entertainment, at least for the first two sets.  Williams, winner of the French Open earlier this year, was able to use her power and composure to win the first set 7-5.  Azarenka, however, failed to back down and fought back to square the match by winning 7-6 (8-6) in the second.  The third was just a case of desire and toughness, as the wind was playing havoc and the grueling nature of the match was hard on both competitors.  Williams prevailed very convincingly, winning 6-1 to claim her 17th Grand Slam and fifth U.S. Open.  With the win, the world #1 became the oldest U.S. Open champion in the Open era (since 1968).  On the flip side, Azarenka continues to look for that elusive first major.

The failure of an American man to reach the Round of 16 was actually one of the least-surprising side stories, even though it was the first time in the tournament’s history (133 years) in which that had taken place.  The state of American tennis, at least on the men’s side, has been severely lacking behind its European rivals for at least the last five years.  On the whole, tennis participation across the country has steadily declined.  Over the course of the four Grand Slams this season, no American man made it to the Round of 16.  The days of Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi, and Andy Roddick (the last American male to win a major, the 2003 U.S. Open) seem so far away.  The highest-ranked American is John Isner, at number 15.  Up-and-comers like Jack Sock, Denis Kudla, Ryan Harrison, and Donald Young are hovering around the top-100 mark and need to take that next step.

Despite competing with the NFL on both Sunday (women’s final) and Monday (men’s final), the TV ratings were an improvement since last year.  The women’s final drew a 4.9 rating, up 26 percent from last year and the highest in 11 years for a U.S. Open women’s final.  It was also the highest rating for any U.S. Open final since 2006.  The men’s final earned a rating of 2.8, up 22 percent from last year.

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