The night session would bring three-time champion and No2 seed Rafael Nadal to the same court, where he would be followed by another former US champion and American darling, Sloane Stephens.
And scattered through the schedule were more US champions, Marin Cilic and Svetlana Kuznetsova, multiple Major champions Simona Halep, Victoria Azarenka, Petra Kvitova and Garbine Muguruza, plus some of the most exciting young stars in the tennis landscape.
Toronto champion Bianca Andreescu, who also won Indian Wells in March, Dubai champion Belinda Bencic, and 15-year-old Coco Gauff, who came through qualifying to reach the fourth round of Wimbledon, all began their campaigns.
Meanwhile in the men’s draw, two of the most compelling opening matches brought together four 21-and-under players destined to form great rivalries in the coming years; Stefanos Tsitsipas against Andrey Rublev, and Felix Augur-Aliassime against friend and compatriot Denis Shapovalov
It took her two and a half hours and a tough three sets, but defending champion Osaka beat Anna Blinkova—and thumped 44 winners in the process. Her next challenge will be Magda Linette, who is in New York after winning her first title at the Bronx Open two days ago. Osaka needs to defend her title to retain the No1 ranking, though for now that is not her primary concern. She was forced to retire in her Cincinnati quarter-finals with a knee injury, and after her stern opening test, she asserted that all seemed well. She also admitted of her return to Arthur Ashe: “I don’t think I’ve ever been so nervous in my life!”
No4 seed Halep ended the last two years at No1, and has the chance to return there if she adds the US title to her Wimbledon one. Since Halep’s first residency at No1, three other women have held the top spot, among them Caroline Wozniacki. The Dane first hit the top almost nine years ago, and though currently ranked 19 and without a title this year—she was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis nearly a year ago—she joined Halep in Round 2 and is a possible fourth-round opponent for the Romanian.
Halep, Wozniacki and Osaka all had to survive three setters, but they were far from alone. There were 13 three-setters in this top half of the women’s draw, 10 of which lasted over two hours, and the longest won by unseeded Kaia Kanepi, 2hrs35mins.
And the bottom half of the men’s draw was equally demanding, with 10 matches going the full five sets. All lasted well over three hours, with the two longest victories notched up by Pablo Andujar over No30 seed, Briton Kyle Edmund—4hrs21mins—and by Marius Copil over Ugo Humbert—4hrs15mins.
The rise of charismatic Greek Tsitsipas, the youngest man in the top 10, has been so fast and impressive that he has been tipped as perhaps the first of the new generation to break the ‘Big Three’ stranglehold on Major titles. He reached No5 this summer, made the semis of the Australian Open via Roger Federer, reached his second Masters final in Madrid, and beat each of ‘The Three’ before his 21st birthday. But his form and confidence seemed to waver with the arrival of the grass season, as he posted four first-round losses, including Montreal and Cincinnati before the US Open, where the draw certainly did him no favours.
He played fellow 21-year-old Rublev in the first round, and while the Russian is ranked just 43, that belies his true ability. For he endured a long absence from the tour with a stress fracture in his lower back after making a breakout run to the quarters in New York a full two years ago. And Rublev would seal victory, after almost four hours, and in dramatic style.
The Greek left court midway through the third set, and after then failing to convert set point in the tie-break, needed more attention for cramping.
His physical labours against the aggressive baseline attack of Rublev forced some bold and blistering one-strike tennis from Tsitsipas, and he broke the Russian as he served for the match in the fourth set. However, Rublev, increasingly distracted by his opponents struggles and consequent delays, refocused to serve out the win in some style, 7-5, with 51 winners to his name—his third top-10 of the year after beating Federer in Cincinnati and Dominc Thiem in Hamburg.
Tsitsipas notched up 65 winners, but his growing tally of errors reached 81 by the end of a clash that carried Rublev to what is sure to be another long, testing match with Gilles Simon. The 34-year-old Frenchman beat Bjorn Fratangelo in four sets after a gruelling 4hrs19mins.
Later in the day, Augur-Aliassime was also undone by his unseeded opponent, but could barely get into the match as Shapovalov burst from the gates with some blistering, aggressive tennis. The two met at the same stage last year, when Auger-Aliassime was forced to retire in the third set, but since then, the teenager has gone from strength to strength, making the semis in Miami and at Queen’s to rise 90 places in the ranks.
So this time, the younger man was the seed, but 20-year-old Shapovalov looked every inch the top-20 player he was earlier this year in a 6-1, 6-1, 6-4 win that boasted 28 winners to Auger-Aliassime’s nine, with 16-18 won at the net. He next plays Henri Laaksonen, who survived a fifth-set tie-break in beating Marco Cecchinato.
A quarter that looked packed with possibilities before the tournament, then, was fast being cracked open. Tsitsipas, Augur-Aliassime and Edmund were out, and by the end of the day, four top-10 seeds had left the bottom half of the draw. No10 Roberto Bautista Agut lost a five-setter to Mikhail Kukushkin, and then No4 seed Thiem fell to the 87-ranked Thomas Fabbiano.
Nadal’s semi-final, should he reach that stage, will therefore present three possible seeds: No13 Gael Monfils, No24 Matteo Berrettini, or No28 Nick Kyrgios, though Shapovalov and Rublev must fancy their chances in such company.
Nadal also saw No9 Karen Khachanov ousted from his quarter by Vasek Pospisil, marking the injury-blighted Canadian’s first tour-level win of the season after 3hrs51mins. Pospisil, in the main draw with a protected ranking, will next play Tennys Sandgren, who took even longer to beat Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in his five-setter. Nadal does, however, still have John Isner and Marin Cilic scheduled for Round 4, with Alexander Zverev in the quarters after the 22-year-old pulled out his own five-set win.
The three-time champion had no such scares against John Millman, beating the Aussie 6-3, 6-2, 6-2 in around two hours, and extending his record in the first round at the Open to 15-0.
The quarter topped by Halep seemed packed with trip-wires, but saw some key seeds fall at the first hurdle. Muguruza was beaten after winning the first set by Alison Riske, one of the highest ranked players not to get a seeding at the Open. It was the American’s first win at Flushing Meadows since 2013, and set a contest against Jelena Ostapenko.
In the same segment, No11 seed Stephens was beaten in short order by 20-year-old Anna Kalinskaya, ranked 127. And the Russian will not play her illustrious compatriot Svetlana Kuznetsova but wild card Kristie Ahn.
It is, in the short-term then, No6 seed Kvitova who sees the path cleared en route to a possible quarter-final against Halep. The popular Czech beat Denisa Allertova, 6-2, 6-4, to set a tough contest with Andrea Petkovic, but considering her last few months, everything is a plus for Kvitova. An arm injury forced her to miss Roland Garros, and she has played just Wimbledon and Cincinnati since May, losing her opener at the latter.
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BIOGRAPHY: Ethan Hazard
BIOGRAPHY: Daniel Sturridge