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Friday of Week 1 at the US Open Brought the Atmospheres Back to Tennis–and Reminded us of What We Missed

Eighteen-year-old Leylah Fernandez dethroned defending-champion Naomi Osaka in a US Open shocker. EPA-EFE/PETER FOLEY

By Ricky Dimon

The return of fans–at least to some degree–at the Australian Open, French Open, and Wimbledon was nice.

But it wasn’t until Friday at the U.S. Open when, for the first time since the Covid-19 pandemic struck last March, when professional tennis truly returned to its best self. 

It doesn’t matter that there is no Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, or Serena Williams involved this year in New York. The fans are back on the biggest stage in the sport–the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, and more specifically Arthur Ashe Stadium–and they are especially thirsty for tennis after the 2020 U.S. Open was played behind closed doors.

They are thirsty for dramatic tennis to be exact, and that is exactly what they got on Friday. Final-set thrillers graced the BJKNTC grounds left and right, producing raucous atmospheres not only in Arthur Ashe Stadium but also in Louis Armstrong, the Grandstand, and on Court 17.
You need more than one hand to count up the amazing matches. There was Dan Evans vs. Alexei Popyrin on 17. Angelique Kerber vs. Sloane Stephens in the Grandstand. Felix Auger-Aliassime vs. Roberto Bautista Agut in Armstrong. And a memorable stretch of three consecutive matches in Ashe: Carlos Alcaraz vs. Stefanos Tsitsipas, Leylah Fernandez vs. Naomi Osaka, and Frances Tiafoe vs. Andrey Rublev.

The combination of a delayed night session because of the Alcaraz-Tsitsipas match followed by Fernandez-Osaka and Tiafoe-Rublev marathons resulted in one of the latest finishes in tournament history: 2:14 AM.

Among the highlights was a beer-chugging girl, undoubtedly going viral on social media, at the Auger-Aliassime vs. Bautista Agut match. At Evans’ comeback from two sets down against Popyrin, dozens and dozens of fans climbed to the top of Court 12 to overlook Court 17. For Alcaraz-Tsitsipas (mostly for Alcaraz, it has to be said), Ashe was the loudest it has been since the Rafael Nadal vs. Daniil Medvedev final in 2019.

Frances Tiafoe upset Andrey Rublev in a late-night US Open epic. EPA-EFE/PETER FOLEY

There is no doubt the fans influenced the outcomes of Alcaraz vs. Tsitsipas, Fernandez vs. Osaka, and Tiafoe vs. Rublev. They arguably did the same in the other thrillers, too.

Here are what some of the players had to say.

Evans, after beating Popyrin 4-6, 3-6, 6-3, 6-4, 7-6(1): “You take it in. You know it’s something pretty special you’ve been a part of. It was an amazing atmosphere. That’s why you want to be out on that court playing such a good match.”

Fernandez, after beating Osaka 5-7, 7-6(2), 6-4: “Having the crowd there supporting me and backing me up after every point, it’s amazing. It gave me the energy to keep fighting, to keep working, and keep running for those balls that she hit. I was just glad that I was able to put on a show for everyone that came to watch.”

Alcaraz, after beating Tsitsipas 6-3, 4-6, 7-6(2), 0-6, 7-6(5): “It surprised me, really. I didn’t think that (I would get that kind of support). Yeah, the crowd was behind me all the time, supporting me, pushing me up in every moment. I think the crowd was important for me. I think without the crowd, I couldn’t have the opportunity to play a great fifth set and be able to beat Stefanos. I think the crowd was really amazing. I really loved it.”

Felix Auger-Aliassime of Canada credited the crowd after beating Roberto Bautista Agut. EPA-EFE/JASON SZENES

Auger-Aliassime, after beating Bautista Agut 6-3, 6-4, 4-6, 3-6, 6-3, : “You guys really pushed me to dig deep in my stomach to get that fifth set. Thank you.”

Tiafoe, after beating Rublev 4-6, 6-3, 7-6(6), 4-6, 6-1: “You guys are the reason I got it done tonight. You guys stuck with me all the way through. You all did it.”

Players have been bringing out the cliched and obligatory “you are so great” comments to the fans throughout this 2021 season.

On Friday at the U.S. Open, they really meant it.

Ricky contributes to10sballs.com and also maintains his own tennis website, The Grandstand. You can follow him on twitter at @Dimonator.