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2015 Tournament Recap: Novak's time, Flavia's moment

September 13, 2015 - Novak Djokovic poses with the trophy after defeating Roger Federer (not pictured) in the men's singles final match during the 2015 US Open at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in Flushing, NY. (USTA/Ned Dishman)

There will never be another US Open quite like the 2015 edition. The dominant storyline was Serena Williams’ pursuit of the Grand Slam until, suddenly, shockingly, it wasn’t. Replacing Serena and No. 2 seed Simona Halep in the women’s final was a pair of unheralded 30-something Italians, unseeded Roberta Vinci and No. 26 Flavia Pennetta, who met in the most unlikely Grand Slam final of the Open era – which was quickly followed by an equally astonishing retirement from the sport.

But for all the chaos in the women’s draw – only three of the Top 10 seeds advanced past the second round – the men’s side delivered the final that everyone wanted to see: world No. 1 Novak Djokovic versus No. 2 Roger Federer in the 42nd installment of their unrivaled rivalry

And so the men’s and women’s draws proceeded in seemingly parallel realities before finally coming together in the end, with finishes that were nothing short of spectacular. The women’s final was played before the Italian prime minister and visiting dignitaries, with Pennetta emerging as its most worthy champion, seeding be damned, and then announcing her retirement during the on-court trophy presentation. The men, meantime, dazzled with defense and shot-making, two of the very best of the Open era playing before an ardent capacity crowd – and Novak Djokovic lifting a well-earned, much-deserved men’s singles trophy.

Of course, this Flushing fortnight had room for champions of all stripes. Martina Hingis, in fact, earned two titles, in women’s doubles with Sania Mirza and with Leander Paes in mixed doubles, adding a pair of trophies to the women’s singles championship she won in 1997 and the women’s doubles title captured in 1998. That 17-year gap seemed like nothing to the French, however. For the first time in the 134-year history of the men’s doubles, women’s doubles and mixed doubles competitions at the US Open/U.S. Championships, a tandem from France took home a trophy, with Pierre-Hugues Herbert and Nicolas Mahut winning the men’s doubles title.

And that does not even include the junior, wheelchair, quad and collegiate winners, all of whom came to New York with a dream and departed as US Open champions, leaving their own indelible stamp on tennis history.

With that, here’s a recap of the tournament that was, the 2015 US Open, and a look ahead to 2016.

Player of the Tournament: Novak Djokovic is the No. 1 player in the world, himself just one match away (a four-set loss to Stan Wawrinka in the French Open final) from pursuing the calendar-year Grand Slam at the 2015 US Open. Yet for the undisputed best player in men’s tennis, he received surprisingly little attention during his two weeks in New York – the media glare reserved for Serena’s run at the Grand Slam and the exquisite play of a resurgent Roger Federer, who advanced to the men’s singles final without the loss of a single set. But when the last ball was struck at the 2015 edition of America’s Slam, it was the steady Serb who was holding his arms aloft in triumph, bringing them down just long enough to wrap them around the men’s singles trophy. In doing so, Djokovic completed arguably the greatest Grand Slam season since Rod Laver won all four majors in 1969. And in doing so, he put aside a checkered history in US Open finals – a title in 2011, yes, but also four title match defeats. Now he is a two-time US Open men’s singles champion, a three-time major champion in 2015 and a 10-time Grand Slam champion for his career. It is heady territory for a man who seems to be edging closer to his prime as he bears down on 30 – and who figures to be force at the Open for years to come.

Honorable Mentions: Flavia Pennetta and Roberta Vinci, for delivering a delightful women’s singles final; Martina Hingis, the only two-time champion out the five main events; and Serena Williams, for electrifying the tournament for 12 days in pursuit of the first calendar-year Grand Slam since 1988.

Match of the Tournament: For five sets, Rafael Nadal and Fabio Fognini traded some of most vicious ground stokes ever exchanged in Arthur Ashe Stadium. It was spellbinding tennis, both for its quality and its result. Nadal entered as the No. 8 seed, clearly not playing as transcendently as he did when he won here in 2010 and 2013. But his level was sound in this match. In fact, the Spaniard played well, exceptionally well at times. The extraordinary development was Fognini’s form. Down two sets to love and a break in the third, the Italian played flawless tennis – and most remarkably, he sustained it. Fognini hit ground strokes like they were John Isner serves, cracking blistering backhands cross court and striking forehands that should have had cartoon lightning bolts trailing behind them. The fifth set took on a virtual theater of the tennis absurd, as the two men traded howitzer strokes, miraculous shots and breaks of serve before a rapturous crowd. In fact, there were seven breaks in a row at one point in the deciding frame before Fognini finally held, closing out the match at 1:27 a.m., 3-6, 4-6, 6-4, 6-3, 6-4, raising his arms in triumph and sending Nadal to his earliest US Open exit since 2005.

Honorable Mention: Serena Williams defeating Venus in three sets in the quarterfinals, 6-2, 1-6, 6-3, in the 27th meeting between the two title-winning sisters.

Upset of the Tournament: It was, perhaps, the greatest upset in the history of tennis and almost certainly the biggest in the history of the US Open. First, consider the players: Roberta Vinci, an unseeded, 32-year-old Italian who a week before the US Open was playing in qualifying at the WTA event in New Haven, going up against world No. 1 Serena Williams, the six-time US Open and 21-time Grand Slam tournament champion. Next, consider the stakes: Serena was pursuing the first calendar-year Grand Slam since Steffi Graf in 1988 – a feat accomplished by only five players in tennis history – at her home Slam, no less. And finally, the history: The two had played four times previously, with Serena never coming close to losing a set. The three-time defending champion rolled through the first set and appeared on her way to an easy victory, but Vinci, playing in her first career Grand Slam semifinal in her 44th attempt, righted the ship, leveling the match at a set apiece as the crowd sat stunned. A 2-0 lead for Serena in the third set seemed to restore order, but Vinci was undeterred. The world No. 43 continued to charge the net and play with a tactical abandon that confounded Serena, who seemed to tighten as the match did the same. Still, tennis fans for years had watched Serena escape third-set deficits in the grandest of situations – all of which made it all the more incredible when, at the end, Vinci held at love to close out a 2-6, 6-4, 6-4 victory that will be remembered for generations to come.

Honorable Mention: Unseeded Benoit Paire defeating 2014 finalist and No. 4 seed Kei Nishikori, 6-4, 3-6, 4-6, 7-6, 6-4, in the opening match of the tournament in Louis Armstrong Stadium.

Quote of the Tournament: “Before I started this tournament, one month ago, I made a big decision in my life. And this is why I would like to say goodbye to tennis. I’m really happy. It’s what all players want to do, go home with one of these big trophies.” – Flavia Pennetta, announcing her retirement during her on-court acceptance speech after winning the women’s singles title

Honorable Mention: “It’s good, I’m losing weight then.” – Stan Wawrinka, after being told that he had covered more miles to that point in the tournament than any of the other men’s quarterfinalists

Looking Ahead: We know this much: there won’t be a repeat women’s singles winner in 2016. Flavia Pennetta is walking away at the top of the game, kicking off the chase for a new champion. And once again, all eyes will be on Serena Williams. Whether or not she is pursuing a Grand Slam again in 2016, she’ll still be on the cusp of history – one women’s singles championship away from setting the record for most US Open singles titles by any player, man or woman, in the Open era.

For the men, the focus figures to fall for at least one more year on the Big Four of Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray, most particularly on whether Nadal can regain his form and challenge for a third US Open crown. Another top storyline will be to see who else can emerge as a title contender, whether it’s the return of 2009 champion Juan Martin del Potro, another run by Marin Cilic or perhaps a breakthrough from one of the young stars in the men’s game, such as Borna Coric or Nick Kyrgios.

Unquestionably, it will be grand, with the grounds featuring a sparkling new Grandstand and a fully operational roof over Arthur Ashe Stadium. Rain delays will be a thing of the past, great tennis and memorable moments both continuing hallmarks of the season’s final Slam.

2015 US Open Honor Roll:

Men’s Singles Champion: Novak Djokovic, Serbia
Women’s Singles Champion: Flavia Pennetta, Italy
Men’s Doubles Champions: Pierre-Hugues Herbert and Nicolas Mahut, France
Women’s Doubles Champions: Martina Hingis, Switzerland, and Sania Mirza, India
Mixed Doubles Champions: Martina Hingis, Switzerland, and Leander Paes, India
Boys’ Singles Champion: Taylor Fritz, United States
Girls’ Singles Champion: Dalmi Galfi, Hungary
Boys’ Doubles Champion: Felix Auger Aliassime and Denis Shapovalov, Canada
Girls’ Doubles Champion: Viktoria Kuzmova, Slovakia, and Aleksandra Pospelova, Russia
American Collegiate Invitational Men’s Champion: Mackenzie McDonald, UCLA
American Collegiate Invitational Women’s Champion: Robin Anderson, UCLA
Men’s Wheelchair Singles: Shingo Kunieda, Japan
Women’s Wheelchair Singles: Jordanne Whiley, Great Britain
Men’s Wheelchair Doubles: Stephane Houdet, France, and Gordon Reid, Great Britain
Women’s Wheelchair Doubles: Jiske Griffioen and Aniek Van Koot, Netherlands
Quad Wheelchair Singles: Dylan Alcott, Australia
Quad Wheelchair Doubles: Nick Taylor and David Wagner, United States

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