US Open 2021: Former Major champions Muguruza and Halep battle into fourth round
French Open champion Krejcikova cruises to Muguruza rematch in Czech’s first New York singles draw
The US Open’s favourite daughters Serena and Venus Williams may be missing from this year’s tournament, but the breadth and depth of the women’s draw is proving to be as good as they come.
For a start, this year marks the first time since 32 seeds were introduced (2001 Wimbledon) that none of the top-20 seeds have lost in the opening two rounds.
The draw also celebrates old and new names: four women age over 30, including the 33-year-old Angelique Kerber, plus two teenagers, Emma Raducanu and Leylah Fernandez. The latter, though, would soon be taking on defending champion Naomi Osaka for a place in the fourth round.
At the top, of course, Ashleigh Barty continues to tot up her weeks as No1, continues to tick off some of the tour’s biggest titles—Miami, Stuttgart, Wimbledon, and Cincinnati to name some of them—and continues to delight tennis fans with her modest personality and creative, all-court skills. No surprise then that she has headed to the third round in New York with her 42nd match-win of the year.
The popular Australian, for all her successes, has yet to reach the quarters of the US Open, but it so happens that her segment of draw has opened up with the loss of two seeds, which is not something that can be said for most sections of the draw.
For only four seeds in the top half failed to reach their allotted third round spot, leaving a high-quality array of opponents: Five former Major champions or No1s plus this year’s Olympic gold medallist, Belinda Bencic.
However, the bottom half of the draw would take to court first on Friday, a half topped by No2 Aryna Sabalenka. The Belarusian is not yet a Major winner, nor a No1, but is up to 40 match-wins this season. She started the year with her third title on the bounce, Abu Dhabi, before winning the Madrid 1000 and making the semis at Wimbledon.
However, she is slotted into a half that boasts seven former Major champions, five of them also former No1s, though perhaps the favourite to win her third US Open, Osaka, is in the opposite quarter.
But two contests in particular jumped off the page. First, No12 seed Simona Halep took on No19 seed Elena Rybakina, and few who saw it would forget their two-and-a-half hour title match in Dubai last year, won in a final-set tie-break by Halep.
The popular Romanian, though, had been sidelined by injury for a long stretch this summer, missing both Roland Garros and Wimbledon. Yet she survived another marathon effort against Rybakina, just three minutes short of that Dubai final, 7-6(11), 4-6, 6-3.
The fighting spirit for which Halep is so renowned, brought her back from 0-3 and 3-5 down in the first set, saved her four set points, and then won her the longest tie-break of her career.
She then fought back from a deficit in the second set, but this time Rybakina held off the challenge, taking eight of the last nine points in the set. The Kazakh continued in similar vein in the third, breaking straight away, but too many errors opened the door for Halep to break back, and then break again. That was enough for her to seal the deal, much to the delight of the Armstrong crowd.
Not that things get any easier, and Halep’s considerably fanbase may also be concerned that she carries such heavy strapping to her thigh before she takes on No5 seed Elina Svitolina in the fourth round. The Ukrainian beat Daria Kasatkina, 6-4, 6-2, her third straight two-set win.
But perhaps the headline match brought together two tall, big-hitting women who already owned two Majors apiece, as well as the No1 ranking. No10 seed Garbine Muguruza played No19 seed Victoria Azarenka for the fourth time, and they split their previous contests 2-2.
This was their first meeting in New York, and while Azarenka had three times been a runner-up at the tournament, including last year, Muguruza had enjoyed the better form this season, winning Dubai among three finals. She also got the better of two dangerous early players, Donna Vekic and Andrea Petkovic.
The Spaniard conceded the first break against Azarenka, but broke back, and went on to win 11 straight points, sealing the set with her fifth ace, 6-4.
The Spaniard, though, went off the boil in the second, as her first serve took a dive to just 32 percent, including four double faults. Azarenka took full advantage and a 4-0 lead, and although Muguruza got a break back, the Belarusian served it out, helped by a couple of outstanding drop shots, to take the set, 6-3.
The Spaniard got back on track in the third, as both women began to find their best play at the same time with some heavyweight hitting from on the baseline. Muguruza saved early break points to keep things on level peggings, but the key moment came in the sixth game, with multiple deuces against the Azarenka serve.
It took more than eight minutes, but finally the Belarusian hit wide, smashed her racket to the court in frustration, and faced a 2-4 deficit. That took the brakes off Muguruza’s serve as the match headed into the third hour, and she hammered down four big serves to hold for 5-2. In contrast, Azarenka’s serve let her down, and what had been a high-quality match ended on a double fault, 6-2.
The win took Muguruza to the fourth round in New York for only the second time, but if she is to reach her first quarter-final at Flushing Meadows, she will have to better one of the star players of the year, French Open champion, No8 seed Barbora Krejcikova, who has cruised to the fourth round.
The Czech beat the Spaniard just weeks ago at the same stage of the Cincinnati 1000, in three sets, though Muguruza won their only previous meeting on her way to the Dubai title in March.
Krejcikova is playing in the main singles draw in New York for the first time, having lost in qualifying five times. Indeed this is just her seventh Major main draw, but the multiple Major doubles champion won her first three singles titles this year, Roland Garros among them, and has been near unstoppable since. Only eventual champions Ash Barty and Belinda Bencic have halted her since the Rome 1000 in May.
Later, No16 seed Angelique Kerber would take a 17-from-19 win streak into her match against former US champion Sloane Stephens, dating back to the title at Bad Homburg. Kerber has since been beaten only by Barty in the Wimbledon final and then the Cincinnati semis.
The winner would take on the winner between teenager Fernandez and Osaka.