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The 2021 U.S. Open Has Hit Its Stride

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

The 2021 U.S. Open has hit its stride in Queens with lots of memorable moments and a slew of up-and-coming players. Joining us now is sports reporter Howard Bryant.

Howard, welcome back to the show.

HOWARD BRYANT: It's good to be here.

CORNISH: We're going to get into some of the ups and downs of this tournament so far. But let's just start with last night. There was a men's match that felt much closer than the final score. Tell us about it.

BRYANT: Well, it was between - it was a North American battle between two of the up and coming rising stars, Felix Auger-Aliassime from Canada and Frances Tiafoe of the United States. And FAA, as he's called, Auger-Aliassime, made the quarterfinals at Wimbledon just a few months ago. And it was a really, really tight fight won by FAA. And he's going on to his second quarterfinal of the year.

But it was a really nice battle because you could see the future. This whole U.S. Open has been marked by Serena Williams not being there, by Venus Williams not being there, by Roger Federer and Rafa Nadal not being there. But a little bit during this tournament, you can see a little bit of the future, a little bit of hope that all is not lost when the big guys retire.

CORNISH: A side note to this is you had two Black players under the lights at Arthur Ashe Stadium. Significant moment?

BRYANT: I think so. I try not to overemphasize that simply because there are so many great players. And when you think about having an African American presence, you have had Venus and Serena for almost 30 years. So it's not as though you can't see it. On the men's side, however, it is significant. On the men's side, there aren't many African American players and there aren't many Black players in North America that are really playing at a high level. So to see those two players perform at Arthur Ashe Stadium of all places, it is significant, even though it's a little bittersweet, because it's not as though the sport couldn't use what we saw under the lights last night.

CORNISH: The reason why I ask is not because they are rare as players, but because we heard from Sloane Stephens, right? She had a third-round loss to Angelique Kerber. She said after that, she found that she got something like 2,000 messages, abusive ones on social media that, you know, cited her race and talked about her as a woman. And can you talk about kind of how that was received, how the tennis press covered it?

BRYANT: Well, this is hostile territory. I think Sloane Stephens has been one of the more brave players on the women's tour. And these examples really do show the other side of social media, and especially generationally, when you're somebody at Sloane Stephens' age, where this is very much the cultural currency of their generation. And...

CORNISH: Well, 2,000 abusive messages is a lot of messages, whether you get them in the mail or you get them on your phone.

BRYANT: Well, exactly - no matter how you do it. But the difference here is that it's such a two-way communication and so much of it is public. It is really devastating and really, really damaging. And the players have to figure out ways to sort of navigate what is an incredibly hostile environment. It's one thing when I'm working at a newspaper and get 100 letters or something. It's not two-way. I open it or I don't open it. But here, it floods your inbox, it floods your timelines and everything else. And it's very, very difficult to escape. And this generation of players has to deal with that sort of unwanted level of interaction in a way that none of us had ever had to deal with in the past.

CORNISH: And you saying that reminds me that there are actually even teenagers making a splash in this major, right? Carlos Alcaraz is one of them. And as you mentioned, people were kind of hand-wringing over the lack of big names in the tournament this year.

BRYANT: We talk about this during the tournament. And I think one of the great things about sports is sometimes you have to ask yourself, are you watching for the player or are you watching for the game? And when you've had a generation of Serena and Venus and you've had a generation of Rafa and Roger and all these phenomenal players, you seem - sometimes you realize that it is about the player. And it's kind of hard to say goodbye, but the one thing that I have enjoyed about this tournament is that you realize how much you love the game, because these young players are showing you the way that the sport is in really good hands.

CORNISH: Howard Bryant of Meadowlark Media. You can hear him on NPR's Weekend Edition.

Thank you for sharing your love of tennis with us.

BRYANT: Oh, my pleasure. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.