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The kinder, gentler US Open is here — with a few exceptions

Xinhua/Imago/Icon Sportswire

Uniqlo, the apparel company which sponsors Novak Djokovic, features a slogan — also a very popular Twitter hashtag — on its website: “#BringTheLove.”

It’s the perfect lead-in to the 2016 U.S. Open tennis tournament — and not because Djokovic is the World No. 1 or the favorite to win the event as long as his health holds up.

“Bring The Love” works as a U.S. Open slogan because — in most cases — this is not a tournament in which to be particularly harsh or unforgiving toward the competitors assembled in Flushing Meadows, New York.

This is a U.S. Open in which generally disappointing or undesirable results can be tolerated, explained away, and shrugged off.

Under normal circumstances, Djokovic would have played Cincinnati in light of his first-round loss at the Olympics to Juan Martin del Potro … but he didn’t. He’s attempting to rest and recover for the year’s final major. Serena Williams has struggled with a shoulder injury in these weeks after Wimbledon. She didn’t play in Cincinnati, either, despite the fact that in her absence, Angelique Kerber had a real chance to snag the World No. 1 ranking … and came within one win of attaining that feat.

Injuries have knocked Roger Federer and Tomas Berdych out of this event. They’ve kept Rafael Nadal out of tennis for several weeks in 2016, making it hard to predict how the (now) double Olympic gold medalist will perform in the big city.

Pregnancy has caused Victoria Azarenka — whose role in global tennis has essentially been filled by Kerber — to miss this tournament. Sloane Stephens had to pull out this past week due to injury. These are just some of the casualties in both the men’s and women’s tournaments. The top seeds face questions, and other players aren’t even able to play.

Then consider the in-form players who will make their way to the Big Apple. While playing better tennis than the competition, they could very easily fall victim to that constant enemy of professional athletes: mental fatigue.

Since Wimbledon — a two-week tournament — began, Angelique Kerber has played five full weeks of tennis in top-tier events, more than any of her WTA peers or ATP counterparts. Of all the players to play in Wimbledon, and Canada, and the Rio Olympics, and Cincinnati — it’s not a very long list, to be sure — Kerber played on the final Saturday in all of them. The German made the finals in three of those events and the semifinals in the fourth (Canada).

Playing in two continents with very little turnaround time, Kerber didn’t skip the Olympics as Simona Halep did. She didn’t pull out of Cincinnati as Petra Kvitova did after winning a bronze medal in Brazil. She didn’t pass on Canada in the lead-up to the Olympics. She took on every challenge and made a deep run in each event.

Cruelly, Kerber didn’t have a single title to show for her stellar summer, much as she didn’t lift the winner’s plate at Wimbledon despite playing a high-level final against Serena Williams. Yet, while failing to be No. 1 in all four of her summer showcases, Kerber easily crafted the most consistently shimmering resume of any WTA player this summer.

Players who play lots of tournaments simply use a lot of plane or train miles each week. Players who play lots of tennis on a weekly basis are the winners on the tour. Kerber is a winner … but that means she’s run a long distance, literally and figuratively.

If she bows out early in New York, many will pounce on her.

The backdrop to this particular U.S. Open suggests that such a merciless reaction would be entirely inappropriate and unfair.

It’s little different for the man who has been the best male tennis player of the summer.

Xinhua/Imago/Icon Sportswire

Xinhua/Imago/Icon Sportswire

Unlike Angelique Kerber, Andy Murray has some hardware to show for his efforts: Wimbledon title number two and Olympic gold number two have allowed Great Britain’s best to double his pleasure this year. Murray bravely swatted away Milos Raonic in a Cincy semifinal before losing steam in the final to Marin Cilic. He’s done a lot of heavy lifting this year, and even though he’s conspicuously underachieved at the U.S. Open ever since his 2012 title in Ashe Stadium, an early exit this year simply wouldn’t merit a stern verdict of disapproval. Murray has already produced a tremendous and historically resonant year. Anything he does these next two weeks is gravy.

This is the U.S. Open in which ordinarily disappointing performances — should they arise for many of the top players — simply wouldn’t deserve to be ripped or reamed, shredded or slammed. Too many players have arrived in New York with less than a full tank of energy, less than a full supply of belief, or both.

It brings up an interesting point with recent historical connections.

In 2015, no one anticipated the Flavia Pennetta-Roberta Vinci final. Similarly, in 2014, no one predicted a Marin Cilic-Kei Nishikori championship bout. In 2016, though, it makes all the sense in the world if the brackets blew up and the U.S. Open served us a pair of wild and exotic dishes on championship weekend. Much as the reality of logistics gave us Karolina Pliskova and Cilic as champions in Cincinnati, the landscape might not be that much different a week later.

Yes, of course: No one would be shocked at all if Djokovic reasserted himself (he’s my pick to win) or Murray found the fortitude to win a second U.S. Open in his year of supreme second championships at high-stakes tournaments.

No one would be amazed — admiring, yes, but not amazed — if Serena won major No. 23 or Kerber got back on the beam to claim her second major of the year.

Yet, this time, ambushes and abrupt departures from top players would not come across as mind-blowing plot twists. This year — things being what they are — the U.S. Open will have a hard time surprising us …

… which is why Grigor Dimitrov and Carla Suarez-Navarro will win it all, right?

Humor aside, this isn’t a year at The Open in which to excoriate players for insufficient showings. It’s “Mulligan Alley” in New York … with a few exceptions.

Two come to the forefront more than any others.

Simona Halep didn’t play in the Olympics. She played Kerber in Cincinnati under what should have been favorable circumstances, with Kerber having played a long and grueling tournament in Rio the week before. Yet, Halep littered the court with errors and lost to her German foe. The result represented another “almost” moment for an “almost” player, and given the uncertainties surrounding Serena, this is a time for the Romanian to announce her presence on tour. She hasn’t endured the precipitous decline suffered by another former major finalist, Eugenie Bouchard, which is precisely why she does — and should — bear greater present-moment expectations.

It is true that a player can play well in a tournament and yet not advance as far as s/he wants to. If Halep plays well and doesn’t reach the final, tennis — cruel beast that it is — will have claimed another victim. If she doesn’t play well, however, this U.S. Open will represent a profound missed opportunity for her.

Marc DesRosiers/Icon Sportswire

Marc DesRosiers/Icon Sportswire

Who is the men’s equivalent of Halep in this context — someone who didn’t play in the Olympics and has a real chance to make a move in New York?

 

Milos Raonic.

Djokovic could loom in the semifinals (and probably will), but Raonic definitely needs to get there and make his first U.S. Open semi. Reaching his first major final at Wimbledon enables Raonic to rightly claim that his career is moving in the right direction. Strictly as a measurement of rounds advanced, a semifinal in New York would be a step down from his journey to the final Sunday at SW19. However, we have seen that in this era of men’s tennis, the ultimate virtue is relentless consistency, not having very many “off” tournaments, even (especially) when the quality of tennis is not as high as it could be.

Raonic — in order to validate his Wimbledon run and consolidate his achievements at the majors this year (including Australia) — needs to park himself in Ashe Stadium on semifinal Friday.

For Halep and Raonic, this U.S. Open is freighted with genuine pressure in the sense that there are no excuses if the level of performance falls short of high standards.

For almost everyone else, though, this is the kinder, gentler U.S. Open, where a relatively early loss shouldn’t mean much as a measure of technical merit or competitive substance.

Bring The Love, indeed.

The kinder, gentler US Open is here — with a few exceptions



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