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.
The bottom line is that this U.S. Open is diminished, but if you want to start affixing asterisks to Grand Slam tennis tournaments with weakened fields, you had best have a big box of asterisks.
“It is messy, and it is tricky,” said Steve Flink, an American tennis historian. “There are so many things you can look at through the years.”
First, there is the amateur era, which lasted until 1968 and prohibited professionals from taking part in the four major tournaments: the Australian Championships, French Championships, Wimbledon and U.S. Championships. These tournaments became Opens only when they became open to the pros.
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.
But leading women in the earlier years sometimes cut short or interrupted their competitive careers to raise families, depriving tournament fields of established stars.
There have also been plenty of major tournaments since 1968 with diminished fields for women and men.
The first open Grand Slam tournament — the 1968 French Open — was disrupted by protests and strikes and nearly canceled. Some stars chose not to come, including Arthur Ashe, John Newcombe and Margaret Court, the Australian who holds the record for most Grand Slam women’s singles titles, with 24.
Other players struggled to reach Paris. There were 30 walkovers in the first round of the men’s tournament, and five of the 16 seeded singles players withdrew.
In the 1970s, the French Open often had weak fields because of players’ commitments to World Team Tennis, the league co-founded by Billie Jean King, which was booming in the United States.
Navratilova lost in the French Open final in 1975 to Chris Evert and then did not play the tournament again until 1981.
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“I didn’t play because of World Team Tennis, and it just didn’t seem to be worth it,” Navratilova said. “The money was crap, and we were treated like second-class citizens, so you know, why bother?”
In 1974, Jimmy Connors won three of the four Grand Slam titles but did not play in Paris.
Evert, a seven-time French Open singles champion whose best surface was clay, did not play the tournament in 1976, 1977 or 1978.
Sue Barker of Britain won in 1976, Mima Jausovec of Yugoslavia in 1977 and Virginia Ruzici of Romania in 1978. None of them won another Grand Slam singles title.
Are asterisks in order? Perhaps, but then they would be even more appropriate for the Australian Open during the 1970s, when its shortage of prize money, remote location and inconvenient dates close to the Christmas holidays made for particularly weak fields and unlikely champions.
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.
“Kodes won two French Opens and got to a couple U.S. finals and was a great player, but the field was a huge opening for him,” Flink said. “It was just a crushing blow to lose so many crucial names.”
In comparison, this year’s U.S. Open men’s field looks robust, with No. 1 Novak Djokovic and all the main next-wave contenders, including Dominic Thiem, Daniil Medvedev and Stefanos Tsitsipas.
“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.”
If she does indeed play, the third-seeded Williams, 38, will have yet another chance to match Court’s record. Williams won her 23rd Grand Slam singles title at the Australian Open in January 2017, but has gone 0-4 in Grand Slam finals, including two losses in the U.S. Open, since returning to the tour in 2018 after giving birth to her daughter, Olympia.
Williams has looked vulnerable in her two tournaments since the end of the tour’s five-month hiatus. All five of her singles matches this month have gone to three sets. She was beaten by 116th-ranked Shelby Rogers in the quarterfinals of the Top Seed Open in Lexington, Ky., and by 21st-ranked Maria Sakkari in the third round of the Western & Southern Open last week.
Though Williams is still a favorite based on her résumé and ranking, it is hard to see her as the favorite, but if she does win No. 24, do not bother trying to put an asterisk on her share of the record.
Court won 11 of her 24 Grand Slam singles titles in Australia between 1960 and 1973 against fields that often had few non-Australian competitors and had draw sizes that ranged from 27 to 52.
Williams has won all of her Grand Slam titles against fully international fields with draw sizes of 128.
“Margaret’s 24 is still the benchmark,” Flink said. “But I think it was padded by all those Australian titles, no doubt about it. In my view, if Serena ties her, it’s almost like a victory.”
One could argue that the U.S. Open happening at all in 2020 is a victory.
There will be no spectators and fewer stars, but barring an unforeseen twist, champions will still be crowned, the latest in a very long line of players to win Grand Slam titles in flawed circumstances.