US Open 2018: Double delight as Mertens beats Strycova; Stephens wins champions’ tussle over Azarenka
Elise Mertens will take on American Sloane Stephens in the last 16 of the US Open in New York
The US Open has whittled its 128 women down to the 32 who are still in with a chance of winning the 50th title of the tournament’s Open history.
For the first time in that half-century, the top two seeds, in the shape of Simona Halep and Caroline Wozniacki, failed to make the third round.
They lost on the brand-new Louis Armstrong stadium in a week that had seen brutally hot and humid conditions—and another Major champion, Garbine Muguruza, also failed to make the 32 cut on the same court.
But there was no need to worry: plenty of Major champions and former No1s were ready and eager for much more competition.
No22 seed and 2006 US Open champion Maria Sharapova came through her two matches without dropping a set to face fellow Major champion, the No10 seed Jelena Ostapenko, who had taken three sets in both hers to make it through. A battle of the generations, too: Sharapova 31, Ostapenko still only 21.
The 2016 US champion and reigning Wimbledon champion, Angelique Kerber, seeded No4, had to battle hard against Johanna Larsson, but showed all her fitness and grit to hold off the Swede after failing to serve out the match at 5-3 in the second set.
Larsson went on a four-game tear, and twice broke back in the third set, but Kerber produced two cracking forehand winners for one final and decisive break in the third: 6-2, 5-7, 6-4.
No5 seed Petra Kvitova, back to her best form this season after her playing hand was stabbed 18 months ago, is also yet to drop a set, but her tests are about to grow as she takes on the fast-rising 20-year-old star Aryna Sabalenka, who won in New Haven before New York.
And Kvitova’s section also contains one of the biggest improvers on the big stage this year, Aliaksandra Sasnovich, who started the season at 88 but missed a seeding by one place in New York. She beat No11 seed Daria Kasatkina to meet 20-year-old Naomi Osaka, winner in Indian Wells and into her third US Open third round.
And if this year’s tournament wanted any more from the women’s draw, it got its dream match—though unseasonably early. Super sisters, Serena and Venus Williams, both multiple US Open champions and No1s, would meet for the 30th time. They last played in Indian Wells just five months ago, which was only six months after Serena came through the difficult birth of her daughter. Venus won, but Serena went on to reach the final of Wimbledon—and had taken the easier route to this latest meeting.
Naturally the two great American champions would play the Friday night session on Arthur Ashe—a rather different setting from their first meeting, in the second round of the Australian Open in 1998. That one went to Venus, but since then Serena had taken a 17-12 lead—and won 23 Majors. Now, the women with a combined age of 74, were separated by just one seeding place, 16 and 17.
But the first match of the day on Arthur Ashe would prove to be as compelling as any on this first Friday, pitting another Major winner, former No1 and returning mother, Victoria Azarenka, against the defending champion—and American—Sloane Stephens. It would be a cracker, and far closer than their rankings, No3 and No79 respectively, and the score, 6-3, 6-4, suggested.
Azarenka, twice a finalist in New York, faced a Stephens determined to assert her big-hitting authority on her home stage, and had to make a long, tough hold in the first game. The pressure told in the third game, though, with a double fault on break point, and Stephens took a lead that she would not give up. Serving at a near-perfect level—she won 22 out of 23 first serves, and at a percentage of 96—she gave Azarenka little room for manoeuvre.
With a 6-3 lead, she had the momentum and the hugely vocal support of the crowd, but Azarenka battled to a hold in the second game. Stephens got the break for 3-1, and then the tension cranked up as Azarenka broke straight back with her familiar aggressive baseline shot-making.
That fighting spirit was clear as the former Australian champion saved four break points and then pounced to take advantage of a wayward game from Stephens to grab the lead. Now, the weather that has played such a part in this tournament so far, took a different turn, and the match was delayed for the roof to close against the rain. And the momentum shifted again.
Stephens broke back, and then resisted a break point to hold for 5-4. Offered one more break chance, the defending champion pounded a forehand out of the air to take set and match after an hour and three-quarters, 6-4.
But who would Stephens play next? For an equally compelling battle had unfolded on Armstrong between No15 seed Elise Mertens and No23 seed Barbora Strycova.
It is not too often that a pair of women contesting a fourth-round place in the singles draw of a Major have arrived at their first meeting with more doubles than singles titles. But that was the case for 32-year-old Strycova and 22-year-old Mertens.
The former had won two this year, out of a career tally of 22—compared with just two singles titles through her lengthy career—while the latter boasted three titles in both singles and doubles this season, she had one more doubles title across her considerably shorter time on the tour.
And the variety and all-court tactical nous of both was on show right from the off in the long, high-quality, opening games. By the time Mertens broke to lead 3-1, they had played for almost half an hour, with few errors and enough all-court variety to satisfy the most jaded tennis fan.
The late-comers for the 11am start were missing a treat. The tactical guile, honed by years of success on the doubles court, ensured plenty of net-attacks from Strycova, and Mertens had to battle hard to consolidate her lead. She did so, but not in the ninth game, and Strycova got the break back.
However, it was short-lived, and a double fault gave the advantage back to the Belgian, who closed out her serve with two winning net plays, 6-3, after a fine 47 minutes of tennis.
Already they had combined to make 18 points at the net, and they would continue to mix it up with drop shots, lobs, volleys and more in a terrific hour-and-a-quarter-long second set.
Mertens got the early lead, 3-1, but Strycova levelled at 4-4 and had the crowds on their feet with her bold tennis and passionate outbursts as she held off four break points for 5-4. But again, Mertens found the answer to level for 5-5, only to see Strycova make a love hold for the first time in the match. And if that was gutsy, Merten’s hold to take it to a tie-break was more of the same: five deuces, three break points, over eight minutes, but she survived.
With two hours on the clock, Strycova took a 3-1 lead, but could not hold off the younger woman, and Mertens ran away the winner in the closing minutes, 7-6(4).
The Australian Open semi-finalist, now into the fourth round in New York for the first time, may meet Strycova again—in the semis of the women’s doubles. Another over-30 doubles specialist, Ekaterina Makarova, a Major and Olympic doubles champion, will also hope for success in the women’s doubles draw, and she looked as though she may cause an upset in singles, too.
A semi-finalist in singles in New York in 2014, Makarova stole a march over No19 seed Anastasija Sevastova to lead 4-2, but was broken back in the seventh game. No problem: She broke again for the set, 6-4.
But Makarova’s error rate crept up, and Sevastova, a quarter-finalist at the US Open in the last two years, swept through the next two sets, 6-1, 6-2. She will play No7 seed Elina Svitolina, for a repeat quarter-final run.
Serena Williams beat Venus Williams 6-1 6-2 to reach the last 16.