US Open 2020

US Open 2020: Muguruza follows top-seed Pliskova out of draw, but No2 Kenin through

Osaka, Kerber, Kvitova into third round, but Briton Konta falls short

Marianne Bevis
By Marianne Bevis
Naomi Osaka
Naomi Osaka (Photo: Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships)

Even before play got underway at this year’s US Open, there were some gaping holes in the women’s draw.

World Nos 1 and 2, Ash Barty and Simona Halep, along with defending champion Bianca Andreescu, were among no fewer than six of the current top 10 players to bypass New York—most of them opting to stay put amid global uncertainties caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

By the time the 128-strong main draw was made, no fewer than 28 women had formally withdrawn, and that made room for players ranked as low as 145 to make the cut without playing qualifying rounds. Indeed, there are no qualifying draws, nor junior draws, nor mixed doubles draws, and the doubles pairs have been cut from 64 to 32.

With heavily restricted team sizes, media, and officials—Hawkeye line-calling is being used across the tournament except on the two show courts—plus no paying public, there is space aplenty for those who have made the journey. And for seeded players and former champions, there are even personal locker rooms with the best view at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center—from the VIP boxes around the Arthur Ashe arena.

But not only is there space to spare around the grounds at Flushing Meadows, there is, on paper at least, room to make a significant mark in the draw. Of course, it is No3 seed Serena Williams who has, and continues to create, the biggest buzz: Can she finally equal that elusive record of Margaret Court and win her 24th Major title?

But open the draw beyond Williams, and there are other former US champions—Naomi Osaka, Angelique Kerber, Sloane Stephens—who could score the $3 million top prize, or a champion from one of the other Majors—perhaps Petra Kvitova, Sofia Kenin or Victoria Azarenka?

As Day 4 got under way, all of them were still involved. However, the top seed, Karolina Pliskova, a former No1—currently No3—and winner of 16 titles, was out of contention.

The tall Czech was certainly in the frame as one of the contenders: She had, after all, reached the final of the US Open in 2016 and went on to make two further quarter-finals.

However, she lost her opener on these same New York courts in the Western and Southern Open last week. Then there was her draw, a tough one after her initial win over one of the lowest-ranked women, No145 Anhelina Kalinina. Caroline Garcia is a former No4, with flare to spare, and recaptured all her form to blast past Pliskova.

In the 6-1 first set, the French woman hit 15 winners to just one from Pliskova, though the second set was more competitive after the Czech pulled back from a break down to take it to a tie-break. But she would rue missing a set point, and Garcia raced to the win, 7-6(2).

It was certainly a subdued top seed who faced the ‘remote’ media:

“I maybe didn’t play my best. I didn’t serve that great, especially early in the match. But that’s how it is sometimes. I’m not a robot, so I don’t have to play amazing every day.”

Pliskova was not the only seed to fall, either. She was followed by No11 Elena Rybakina, No12 Marketa Vondrousova, and No13 Alison Riske. All of which opens up the top half of the draw nicely for Osaka—who dropped only three games to Camila Georgi—and two of the most popular Major stars in the draw.

Kerber won one of her three Major titles in New York in 2016, and is playing this week for the first time since the Australian Open. She has looked in good form, too, and now has only the 20-year-old No128 Ann Li in her path to the fourth round, with either No28 seed Jennifer Brady or Garcia blocking her route to the quarters.

In the other quarter, former Wimbledon champion Kvitova, seeded No6, came from a break down to reach the third round in two sets, and cannot now face a seed before the quarter-finals. Next up is Jessica Pegula, who may be feeling the pressure after winning five matches in the Cincinnati draw via qualifying before losing in the quarters. The American, who until this week had just one Major match-win to her name, back in New York in 2015, has had to play two tough three-setters already to reach the third round.

But she is a player on the rise, and told the USOpen.org that she had spent her time during the tour closure working on her fitness and playing a lot of doubles. She credits that work with her improved movement, and she may also be inspired in this segment of fellow unseeded Americans, Shelby Rogers and Madison Brengle, who play one another before facing Pegula or Kvitova.

One of the key early matches at the bottom of the draw placed No2 seed Kenin against Canadian teenager Leylah Fernandez, who turns 18 this weekend. Kenin aimed to reach the third round at her home Major for the fourth straight year, and did so, 6-4, 6-3, to set a meet with the fast-improving Ons Jabeur, who scored a big win over Kaia Kanepi, 7-6(8), 6-0.

Another cracker in this quarter is between two Belarusian players, No5 seed Aryna Sabalenka and Victoria Azarenka. The former beat her compatriot in their only previous meeting, on these same courts last year. This time around, Azarenka has looked increasingly like the player who won two Australian Opens and made two US Open finals.

The former No1 won her first title in four years at the Western & Southern Open, so it will be an intriguing Belarusian tie, however there will be no repeat of Azarenka’s recent meeting with No9 seed Johanna Konta after Sorana Cirstea beat the Briton in three compelling sets, 2-6, 7-6(5), 6-4.

The other quarter featured three Major champions, topped by Williams. However, that was whittled down by one when Muguruza encountered the returning Tsvetana Pironkova, playing her first tournament in three years after leaving to have a baby.

She admitted that, when the WTA changed its special rankings for returning mothers, it was a prompt for the almost-33-year-old to come back. She said:

“To be honest I wasn’t sure if I ever was going to come back, but at one point, I just started really missing the tour and missing the competition. I didn’t want to miss my chance to use my special ranking because I realised that was a huge opportunity.”

She will surely have no doubts now: She beat Muguruza 7-5, 6-3, and will next play No18 seed Donna Vekic.

In this same segment, it looked as though yet another seed was on the way home, but the pugnacious tennis of No15 Maria Sakkari overcame an error-strewn start to beat Bernarda Pera, 2-6, 6-3, 6-2. The Greek will next meet No22 seed Amanda Anisimova, who also had a tough battle against the youngest woman left in the draw, 16-year-old Katrina Scott, finally winning 4-6, 6-4, 6-1.

But the fortunes of Williams, who is making her 20th appearance at the US Open, will have a huge bearing on the rest. The six-time US champion is scheduled to meet former champion Stephens in the third round, then Sakkari or Anisimova in the fourth. Madison Keys is lined up for the quarters.

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