Attach an Asterisk to This U.S. Open? Tennis History Mocks That Idea

The United States Open that is set to begin in New York on Monday will be far from full strength, extraordinarily far, but will it really be the Asterisk Open?

As of Sunday evening, 24 of the top 100 women were missing, including six of the top eight and three of the four reigning Grand Slam singles champions: Ashleigh Barty, Simona Halep and Bianca Andreescu. Though Serena Williams and Naomi Osaka will be in the field, it will have the fewest top 10 players — four — of any U.S. Open since the WTA rankings began in 1975.

On the men’s side, only 12 of the top 100 were out as of Sunday, but this will be the first Grand Slam tournament of the 21st century without both Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer. Stan Wawrinka, a three-time major singles champion, will be missing, too.

The absences are primarily due to concerns about traveling and scheduling during the coronavirus pandemic. Some stars are still recovering from injuries. Federer, the Swiss superstar, has had two knee operations this year. Andreescu has struggled to stay healthy since winning the Open in New York last year.

Until 1968, leading men’s players — like Jack Kramer, Ken Rosewall and Rod Laver — would often turn professional after making their mark in the amateur game, which meant Grand Slam events seldom featured all of the best men in the world, only the best “amateurs,” some of whom received under-the-table payments to help them afford to remain amateurs.

The hypocrisy helped lead to change, but it also skewed the record book. Laver, who won all four major tournaments in 1962 and 1969, was ineligible for Grand Slam play for five full seasons in between. Rosewall was ineligible for 11 full seasons. Pancho Gonzales, the charismatic American who won back-to-back U.S. Championships in 1948 and 1949, missed 18 seasons of Grand Slam tennis before returning in 1968 at age 40 to reach the semifinals of the French Open.

“There were still a lot of great amateurs, but the public knew who was missing during those years,” Flink said. “They were thinking what would have happened if Gonzales was here? Or Laver or Rosewall? They were missing giants of the game.”

That was not an issue in the women’s game, which had no professional circuit.

“In women’s tennis, there really should be no distinction between amateur and Open era because everybody played,” said Martina Navratilova, who became one of the greatest champions of any era by winning 167 WTA Tour singles titles, including 18 Grand Slams, and 177 doubles titles.

Bjorn Borg, the great Swedish player who won six French Opens and five consecutive Wimbledons, made the trip to the Australian Open once: in 1974, when he was 17 and lost in the third round. John McEnroe, Borg’s archrival, did not play in the tournament until 1983.

Evert played the Australian Open just once between 1971 and 1980, reaching the final in 1974. Navratilova played there once in the 1970s before becoming a regular in the 1980s.

“You also have to remember that the majors, and how many majors you won, were not that important during that time,” Navratilova said in an interview on Thursday. “I didn’t even know how many I had. We were supporting our tour, which was the most important thing to us. Wimbledon was the crowning jewel of course, and so was the U.S. Open, but the third biggest tournament of the year was our season-ending championship, the Virginia Slims championship. That was our third major.”

Even Wimbledon had a weak-link year. In 1973 Niki Pilic, a Yugoslavian player, declined to play the Davis Cup team event for his country because of a scheduling conflict and was suspended from Grand Slam play for nine months. The newly formed men’s player group, the ATP, backed Pilic in the dispute, and 81 of the world’s leading men boycotted Wimbledon, including the two most recent Wimbledon champions: John Newcombe and Stan Smith.

There is no doubt the men’s tournament, won by Jan Kodes of Czechoslovakia, deserves at least an explanation if not an asterisk.

“Most of the top players are here,” Djokovic said in a recent interview, arguing that the tournament and title should not be devalued.

Flink compares it to 1971, when the reigning champion Rosewall, the previous year’s finalist Tony Roche and Laver all missed the U.S. Open.

The women, though, have never had a field comparable to this year’s in New York.

“I think this whole year deserves an asterisk,” Williams said in a recent interview. “Because it’s such a special year, history we have never been through in this world, to be honest, not this generation, not this lifetime.”

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