US Open 2017

US Open 2017: Sharapova living the old New York dream, but Muguruza and Williams impress

Maria Sharapova is through to the third round of the US Open in New York after beating Timea Babos of Hungary

The former world No1, former US Open champion, and perhaps the only woman in tennis to vie with Serena Williams for fame and fortune, Maria Sharapova, was certainly not one of the eight women in this year’s draw who was a contender for the No1 ranking.

After 15 months off the tour for a doping violation last year, and with very little time on court since her return this April as she contended first with a thigh injury and then an arm injury, she managed just one appearance on the summer hard courts to reach the second round in Stanford.

So it was either qualifying or a wild card for the US Open, and the tournament decided on the latter, but that did not protect her from one of the toughest opening round opponents she could have wished for: Simona Halep.

It was tough, 2hrs 44mins tough, an intense three-setter worthy of a former No1 versus the woman who had been within touching distance of No1 since the clay season. Sharapova won—her first match here in three years.

The big question, though, was whether Sharapova had yet built the stamina to maintain that form deeper into the draw. She answered it with a resounding 2hrs 19mins comeback win over Timea Babos. This time, she boasted some interesting black sleeves: A fashion statement or signs of that arm problem? She later confirmed:

“Definitely not fashion! I’m not into the sleeves at all. It’s just to keep my arms warm. But, yeah, not crazy about that look. Not at all.”

A lot has been made at the tournament this year about the longevity of Roger Federer: He is 36 now, and first played in the main draw here in 2000, age 19. He has gone on to play 16 times.

Sharapova is now 30, and she was just 16 when she first played at the US Open in 2003, where she won her opening match. She went on to win the title in 2006 still age just 19, but all these years later, she had become as big a draw as ever—two straight sold-out Arthur Ashe matches—and her third tomorrow night. But more significantly, she seemed also be putting herself into the conversation about a semi-final run, especially with Halep beaten, No7 Johanna Konta losing in Round 1, and No11 Dominika Cibulkova out in Round 2.

Only two seeds remain in Sharapova’s quarter, No16 Anastasija Sevastova and No30 Julia Goerges, and her next match is against the 18-year-old fellow wild card, Sofia Kenin, who has not won a main-tour match this year. While the names who have often stymied Sharapova in New York are largely out of contention, too.

Serena Williams, the Russian’s nemesis, is expecting her first child. Not that the two rivals have ever met in the Big Apple.

Caroline Wozniacki, one of the original challengers for No1 and a finalist here twice, has halted Sharapova twice in New York, but the No5 seed lost in the second round.

Victoria Azarenka, who beat Sharapova in the semis in 2012, had to withdraw due to personal problems away from tennis. Meanwhile, Agnieszka Radwanska, who beat Sharapova in 2007, is in the other half of the draw, and has struggled with her own form and fitness this season.

So who in the Sharapova’s draw might give cause for concern?

Sevastova’s only title this year was on Mallorca’s grass but she picked up a few wins ahead of New York on the hard courts, and made a final run in Dubai. However, it remains hard to see her causing the Russian too many problems.

The unseeded Sloane Stephens, who has been returning to her early form, beat Sharapova only once, in Cincinnati four years ago, and No30 seed Julia Goerges has lost all four previous matches.

And while other players are notoriously reticent about commenting on their draw—all claiming they never look beyond the next round—Sharapova’s approach is different:

“I don’t shy away from looking at the draws before the tournament begins. I mean, I’ve always considered the draws to be fairly similar, no matter where you end up.

“If you’re not ready to beat your opponent in the first round or the second round, then I’m not sure if you’re going to be ready towards the end of the tournament. That’s how I see things. I don’t mind looking at the matchups, who is going to be playing the beginning of the event. That’s all right.”

So perhaps she had already checked out the heavy-weight names in the other bottom-half quarter, in which case, she would know that the tests would come strong and hard if she made the last four. With five seeds left, two of them are in contention for the No1 ranking and three of them are Major champions.

The other No1 contenders

Halep can still move to No1 unless: Muguruza reaches Round 4; Svitolina reaches the semis; Pliskova reaches the final; Kuznetsova or Williams win the title.

Muguruza can reach No1, but has to reach Round 4 as a minimum.

Svitolina needs to reach the SFs, but if Muguruza reaches the quarters, she has to reach the final as a minimum. [She beat Evgeniya Rodina to reach Round 3.]

Pliskova needs to reach the final as a minimum, but is then dependent on Muguruza run—who can deny Pliskova if she reaches the final. [She beat Nicole Gibbs to reach Round 3.]

Williams and Svetlana Kuznetsova have to win the title as a minimum, but can be denied by results of those above.

Top of the pile is the impressive No3 seed Garbine Muguruza, Wimbledon and Cincinnati champion and leading the Race to Singapore. With Halep’s exit, she became the prime contender to take over at the top of the tour ranking, too. Making the fourth round would only reinforce her chances.

And while Muguraza has lost to Sharapova in all three matches, that was then—2014—and this is now, when the 23-year-old is a two-time Major champion.

Then there is Petra Kvitova, who only returned to the fray this summer from her shocking hand injury, but has already won the Birmingham title and picked up a couple of good wins on the hard courts. She has been tested in New York and not been found wanting—wins over Jelena Jankovic and Alize Cornet—and she has won two of her last three matches against Sharapova.

And the solitary seed remaining in the top eighth of this half is veteran champion Venus Williams, the only woman this year to reach two Major finals. At the age of 37, the champion in 2000 and 2001 has been one of the top performers this year. Now she was back where she first shone at her brightest. Twenty years ago, Williams was runner-up in her first US Open

Should she and Sharapova reach the semis, it would set a ninth career meeting, their first in New York and their first anywhere in over four and a half years. The younger woman has a 5-3 lead, but even against super-star Sharapova, Williams will surely be the crowd favourite throughout the tournament.

The American also has the unlikely incentive, given that she dropped to No137 after contracting Sjogren’s Syndrome in 2012, of reclaiming the No1 spot for the first time since 2002. She would need to win the title, and even so the outcome will depend upon the results of Muguruza, Elina Svitolina and current No1 Karolina Pliskova. But the simple prospect of her having such a goal within her grasp is, perhaps, the biggest story of the women’s tournament.

She, as is her style, would not be drawn on any such hype, though: “For me, I’m just going on the court, practising, preparing, recovering and playing the match. I’m not out there reading press, watching TV or trying to see who said I was going to win.

“At the end of the day there’s people who are talking about the winning and there are people who are actually playing the matches. I need to play the match.”

She next plays 22-year-old Maria Sakkari, ranked 95.

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