The finals of the U.S. Open this year presented an interesting tutorial on our inability to predict what people will care about in sports. After securing his place in the men’s final, all spotlights should have been focused on Novak Djokovic, who was looking to secure his 21stmajor title and become the first man since Rod Laver to achieve a calendar Grand Slam.
Djokovic failed in this endeavor, of course, losing to Daniil Medvedev in straight sets, garnering, perhaps for the first time, support from a sympathetic New York crowd who watched him come so close...only to falter.
But for me, the interesting takeaway was how few people were talking about Djokovic’s quest for potential history until after the women’s final on Saturday, in which two unseeded teens, Emma Radacanu and Leyla Fernandez, faced off in an exhilarating match that saw Radacanu need just two sets, but three championship points, to become the first qualifier in the history of the Open Era to take the title.
The anticipation that surrounded the women’s final felt, well, extraordinary, especially with the multinational, multiethnic backgrounds of these two players, veritable citizens of the world who brought with them cheering sections from Canada, Ecuador, the Philippines, China, and England.
With the win, Radacanu, who came to Flushing Meadows ranked 150th in the world, became the first British woman to win a major since Virginia Wade triumphed at Wimbledon in 1977, and the youngest to win a Grand Slam since Maria Sharapova in 2004. She never dropped a set – not in any of her qualifying matches to get into the main draw, not in any of her matches en route to victory. Twenty straight sets.
Twenty. Straight. Sets.
The delight that surrounded these two phenoms enabled women’s sport to take center stage in a way that it rarely does, with their ages and their global fanbases making the match something special. How can we make this train keep rolling, I wondered, thinking about how few moments there are when women’s sports, especially those that don’t involve figure skates or balance beams, become the main event, instead of something in which the word “ladies” or “women’s” is added to create a line of demarcation: there’s the World Cup and the Women’s World Cup; the PGA and the LPGA; the Tennessee Vols and the Tennessee Lady Vols; and, once upon a time, at Taconic High School in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, of which I am a proud alum, there were the Braves and the inexplicably stupid Lady Braves.
Taconic, of course, has rightly moved on from its Native American mascot, never mind its inane gendered offshoot.
As the 50th anniversary of Title IX looms next year, rethinking what constitutes a marquee sporting event is something that we need to do more of, with better strategies of inclusion, and better understandings of why all of it matters. Right now, for example, in the season of homecomings at colleges and high schools alike, there is a huge opportunity to re-center what we consider to be the big show during a weekend of festivities that often includes barbecues and tailgating, music and parties. Just the other day, a friend told me about homecoming at her daughter’s new school in Maine. At North Yarmouth Academy, she told me, it is the girls volleyball team that occupies the prime sports slot of homecoming, and this year was no different. In the middle of a jam-packed weekend, the gymnasium filled with cheering fans adorned in the school colors of orange and black to rally around both the JV and varsity volleyball squads, all there to support their classmates before showering up and heading to the annual Homecoming Dance.
North Yarmouth isn’t alone. A few years ago on Long Island, North High in Great Neck elevated volleyball for homecoming when its football program shut down early because of a lack of participation. As debates about the schedule shift erupted throughout the community, with some calling for the cancellation of homecoming altogether if there wasn’t going to be a football game, school spirit won the day, as did the volleyball team, with a gymnasium chockfull with fans exhibiting support.
It didn’t matter that it was volleyball. It didn’t matter that it was girls. More of this. Please. Let the U.S. Open this year be the rule, not the exception.
Amy Bass is professor of sport studies and chair of the division of social science and communication at Manhattanville College. Bass is the author of ONE GOAL: A COACH, A TEAM, AND THE GAME THAT BROUGHT A DIVDED TOWN TOGETHER, among other titles. In 2012, she won an Emmy for her work with NBC Olympic Sports on the London Olympic Games.
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