By Barry Janoff
August 29, 2016: The 2016 U.S. Tennis Open is here,with a new roof over Arthur Ashe Stadium that can close in seven minutes in case of inclement weather, and the prime movers and shakers come into the last Grand Slam of the season with lots of motivation.
Serena Williams is seeking her 23rd career singles Grand Slam, which would put her ahead of Steffi Graf for all-time Grand Slams in the women's singles category (behind Margaret Court's 24).
Men's No 1 ranked Novak Djokovic is looking to rebound from a first-round loss in the Olympics and a finals loss to Andy Murray (who won Olympic gold in Rio earlier this month) in Wimbledon in June.
Rafael Nadal, a 14-time Grand Slam winner, is eying his first Grand Slam win since 2014 after having dealt with injuries and surgeries, Juan Martin del Potro plans to continue his strong showing in the Olympics (where he lost to Murray in the gold medal match) after enduring his own prolonged challenges to overcome injuries and a bevy of players on the women's side intend to put a roadblock in what Serena wants to be her drive to history.
Missing from the Open are usually highly visible and competitive Victoria Azarenka (pregnancy) and Maria Sharapova (PED-related suspension).
Missing from the men's side is Roger Federer, who withdrew from both the Open and Olympics due to knee injury. He still makes his presence felt via a TV spot from Mercedes-Benz, "Timeless Legends," which manages to encompass the last hundred or so years of tennis history in under two minutes (pictured below).
Supporting it all is a bevy of marketing partners looking to leave an impression on fans, consumers and TV viewers on ESPN.
"The women’s game at the moment, if you look at the fact that Serena’s obviously got some question marks about her shoulder, you look at what’s happened this year, you could certainly make the case that the women’s field is more wide open than the men’s field," Patrick McEnroe, a lead commentator and analyst for ESPN, said during a media call prior to the start of the Open.
"As has been the case for the last couple years, other than Serena, there hasn’t really been a legit No. 2 player," said McEnroe.
Patrick's brother, ESPN analyst and commentator John McEnroe, agreed that Williams situation could open the door for such top-ranked women's players as No. 2 ranked Angelique Kerber, No. 3 ranked Garbiñe Muguruza, No. 4 Agnieszka Radwanska and No. 5 Simonia Halep.
"She’s vulnerable," John McEnroe said of Serena Williams ."She’s still Serena Williams. She wants to break Steffi’s record. I don’t know the status. I’ve heard mixed things about her shoulder. I’m not sure if she’s a 100%.
"But if anyone saw her play at Wimbledon, see her once she gets going, to me if she plays up to her ability, she’s going to win this.," said McEnroe. "She’s been successful in the past not playing many matches and still winning. But she hasn’t obviously played almost any matches since Wimbledon. In addition to that, it looks at least so far, from the little I’ve seen, she doesn’t seem to be serving with the same pop.
"Her serve really went off in the Olympics (where she lost in the third round to Elina Svitolina)," said John McEnroe, who won four U.S. Open titles in singles and another four in doubles. "That would lead me to believe that something’s there. That’s the most dependable shot in the history of the women’s game. Yeah, I would say she would be vulnerable more so than she has been for quite a while."
William's marketing partners certainly would like to see her advance well into the Open, including Nike, Gatorade, OPI and Mission AthleteCare (where she is also an investor).
But however far her run goes, there still is plenty to rally around when it comes to the U.S. Open's official partners and sponsors.
For 2016 that list includes Chase, JP Morgan, American Express, Citizen, Emirates, IBM, Mercedes-Benz, Polo-Ralph Lauren, Visit Orlando, Westin, Evian, Heineken, Grey Goose, Jacob's Creek, Juice Press, Lavazza, Moet & Chandon and Wilson.
ESPN is planing 130+ hours on TV and WatchESPN and what they say is a record 1,300 hours more on WatchESPN from 12 courts during the tournament (Aug. 29-Sept. 11).
Tennis Channel will dedicate more than 175 hours to the US Open this year, with a daily morning lead-in show, all-night encore matches and a new nightly program hosted by Mary Carillo.
The U.S. Tennis Assn. has its own multi-media campaign under the umbrella theme, "Are You In?" which includes a spot, "Ball People In Training," and how they "prepare" for the Open.
As far as the new roof, which, according to the USTA, was installed at the cost of $150 million and is the size of 17 Olympic swimming pools, "We’ve long wanted — ‘we’ being the players — anytime you have the stress of playing a slam, I think it’s pretty nice," said John McEnroe. "And as a commentator watching, it’s amazing because you know on Sunday at 4 PM, whatever, you’re going to be playing.
"So I always wanted that as a player. We didn’t have that security. I often talked about wanting an indoor major. So I think that’s great . . . You notice it even when they started building it. You get significantly less wind. So I think that the level of play is going to be much easier for the players to play their best.
"The only catch is going to be the shade," said McEnroe. "The roof is so big that there’s times of the day where that shade is going to come across and be very tricky. At 11 in the morning, I remember stepping on the court three or four days ago, half the court was bright sunlight and half the court was completely shaded. That shifted obviously as the minutes went along. That’s going to make life a little bit tricky for the players. I think generally you’re going to hear that the players, both women and men, are going to love it ."
Regarding Serena Williams' drive to Grand Slam history, Patrick McEntroe said, "Serena’s almost offended if she’s not No. 1. It’s like her right. Even those years when she was working her way back and she wasn’t No. 1, it didn’t feel right. So I think for her I would say it’s probably even a bigger deal."
"Serena’s almost offended if she’s not No. 1. It’s like her right. Even those years when she was working her way back and wasn’t No. 1, it didn’t feel right."
On the men's said, McEnroe said that Djokovic has been "so good the last couple years that it hasn’t really even been in question that he would stay No. 1 until this last month, with Murray winning Wimbledon. It’s too bad Murray didn’t get points for the Olympics because that would have helped. So he’s actually got a shot in the second half of the year, the last third of the year, to get to No. 1, which hasn’t been the case for a while.
"It’s a different dynamic. I think there’s no doubt that Djokovic spent many years chasing. I think that is all the more reason he wants to keep No. 1 and also win more majors because he spent much of his early years chasing down Federer and Nadal," said McEnroe.
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