The Promised Land

Fate of the Rebel Flag, William Bauley (1861)

It’s a curious thing, this American exceptionalism. It always has been, even before we inadvertently and loudly made this country the most exceptional nation in the world this side of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, and even that bit is becoming questionable. Ego begets ego, and the hot air balloon rises seemingly infinitely, toward the clouds, toward the moon, toward the fully-visible sun. In any case, it’s getting away from here.

Every country is exceptional from the jump, at the most basic level. Any country can be exceptional in a next-level, “people are discussing this thing’s exceptionalism to a tautological degree in a bar over high-ABV motor oil right this second” sense. The logical next phrase there should’ve been “if it tries hard enough,” but then, that’s part of what got the United States into this in the first place, constantly feeling like the lights were turned on an hour ago, but you’re still at the aforementioned bar.

There remains, however, at least one realm in which the United States holds a plausible claim on being the good kind of exceptional. Following her 6-3, 6-3 defeat of Estonia’s Kaia Kanepi in the quarterfinal Wednesday night, Madison Keys became the fourth American to reach the semifinals at this year’s US Open, following Venus Williams, Sloane Stephens and CoCo Vandeweghe. For the first time since 1981, all four slots in the semis of the woman’s draw belong to the host nation.

While the men’s draw was notably missing several key names going in – Djokovic, Wawrinka and, too late to re-seed, Murray among them[1] – the women’s draw only lacked one entrant from among the world’s top 15: Serena Williams, who gave birth on September 1, just as her older sister was sliding past Maria Sakkari in straight sets. Aunt Venus has a knack for raising her game in big moments, which surely runs in the family, but it has been nine years since her last victory at a major. More than that, it’s been sixteen years(!) since she last won the US Open, which she did without dropping a set and by defeating Serena in the final[2].

Needing a villain, the women’s side also featured the high-profile return of former world No. 1 and five-time Grand Slam champion Maria Sharapova from a PED suspension as a wild card, setting off on a redemption tour that began with a three-set victory over world No. 2 Simona Halep and ended, rather unceremoniously, at the hands of Anastasija Sevastova in the fourth round. It seems that Sharapova wasn’t…ready for it.

The dichotomy among the rest is easy to spot: Venus Williams is one of the greatest tennis players of all-time, a seven-time Slam champion and fierce competitor who is among the most dangerous servers in the game. She’s also 37 years old. Vandeweghe is 25, Stephens is 24 and Keys, 23. Between them, they share a handful of semifinal appearances in Slams, and none has made it this far at the Open. With the exception of 83rd-ranked Stephens, all are in the current top twenty. All were Olympic teammates in Rio last summer. Not unlike Lipset’s “first new nation,” this is territory both new and old.

American exceptionalism used to run parallel to American pride, one furthering the other to a point of overstated, yet reasonably understood, annoyance, though it’s doubtful whether either should have ever truly been a point of celebration. Exceptionalism is a country divided over whether other human beings are merely a means of production, and pride is giving marriage rights to people who should’ve had them the whole while. Getting nearer to a point of objective fairness, however far it remains, isn’t a point of pride, or an avenue to being exceptional.

What the American women have done at this year’s US Open, however, truly is exceptional. For all the hooting and hollering happening every nanosecond, all the bluster firing out past bluster to keep the smokescreen intact, vestiges of American pride remain on the tennis court. For so long, the Williams sisters were alone, upholding the idea that Americans could hang with, and be, the world’s best. Now, a glimmer of a brighter future continues to catch our eyes. Annoyingly, perhaps, but definitely understandably.

*     *     *

[1] That’s three of the men’s top five players in the world right now; also missing were tenth-ranked Kei Nishikori and eleventh-ranked Milos Raonic, both suffering from wrist injuries.

[2] Just for reference, in 2001, Lleyton Hewitt defeated Pete Sampras in the final; a twenty-year-old Swiss named Roger Federer had fallen in straight sets to Andre Agassi in the fourth round. Fifteen-year-old Rafael Nadal had only turned pro that year and had yet to appear at a Grand Slam.

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