WASHINGTON, August 29, 2017 (by Michael Dickens)
The 2017 U.S. Open fortnight began Monday on an unusually cool, late summer day by New York standards. The mild weather provided good conditions for the players and it enabled fans to enjoy the experience of being at the final grand slam of the year. While both No. 1 seeds, Rafael Nadal and Karolina Pliskova, were idle and the women’s draw is without Serena Williams, who soon with give birth to her first child, there was plenty of good tennis on display – solid wins by Garbiñe Muguruza and Sam Querrey come to mind – and it provided a few surprises, too. Then, as night fell over the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, the main event stars – Maria Sharapova and Alexander Zverev – came out to play in primetime under the stars and with stars like Pharrell Williams, Martha Stewart and Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda attending the opening night’s featured matches in Arthur Ashe Stadium.
Sharapova, who was making her first grand slam appearance in 19 months following a much-publicized drug suspension, defeated No. 2 seed Simona Halep, 6-4, 4-6, 6-3, in a match that lasted 2 hours 44 minutes and had the emotional feeling of a final. “She played with agility tonight,” said the tennis Hall of Famer Chrissie Evert, commenting on Sharapova for ESPN across the U.S. “She’s served her time. Now, it’s time It for her to enjoy this moment. … I’m glad she’s back.”
The crowd applauded wildly and gave Sharapova, who was making her first U.S. Open appearance since 2014, a standing ovation after she won match point. The victory brought tears to her eyes.
“I thought it was just another opportunity and another match, but it was so much more,” said Sharapova, during an on-court interview after her victory. She improved her U.S. Open night record to 18-0. “You sometimes wonder why you put in all this work. This is the reason why.”
Afterwards, during an interview on ESPN’s patio stage outside of Arthur Ashe Stadium, Sharapova said, “I didn’t feel alone out there. I really wanted to win it for the crowd. You never know how emotional you’re going to be until you reach that moment.”
As for Zverev, “Sascha” simply has been the hottest player in tennis this summer – and the most publicized, too. The Washington Post ran a lengthy feature of Zverev in its Sunday magazine, and as the headline read on the cover of SportsMonday in The New York Times, “Sascha Zverev Has Arrived. Can He Now Break Through?” Let’s hope so – even if it was well after 11 p.m. when he finally took the court for his match against Darian King sporting a pinstriped, white “retro” kit that featured knee-high white socks. “Zverev’s making quite a fashion statement with the old-style tube socks,” said ESPN analyst Brad Gilbert.
With the absence of many top players – five of the top 11 men are missing this year’s U.S. Open because of injuries – it promises for a more wide open tournament. A land of opportunity, if you will. While Nadal and Federer are heavy favorites to go deep into the second week – and, it’s too bad can’t meet in the final – there’s an opportunity for players like No. 4 Zverev, No. 5 Marin Cilic, and No. 8 Dominic Thiem to step up and deal. “I think he’s ready to step up,” said ESPN commentator John McEnroe in describing Zverev’s chances. “I think in a couple of years he’s going to be the No. 1 player in the world.”
Here are a few Day 1 highlights after watching more than 12 hours of U.S. Open TV coverage:
• Muguruza playing solid: In the first match of this year’s tournament in Arthur Ashe Stadium, reigning Wimbledon champion and No. 3 seed Garbiñe Muguruza easily beat Varvara Lepchenko, 6-0, 6-3. It was her first win at Arthur Ashe Stadium and it continued her solid summer season. Following her Wimbledon success, which was her second career grand slam title, Muguruza won the Western & Southern Open in Cincinnati after reaching the semifinals at Stanford and quarterfinals at Toronto. Since the beginning of Wimbledon, the 23-year-old Spaniard has compiled an impressive 17-2 win-loss record.
“I am giving everything I have on the court for every shot and I am not giving up,” said Muguruza during her post-match press conference. “So far I’m just thinking that I’m happy that I’m in the second round, and that’s what I’m going to take.”
• Cilic fills void left by Murray: No. 5 seed Marin Cilic has been idle by foot and abductor injuries since losing this year’s Wimbledon final to Roger Federer. On Monday afternoon, Cilic, who took No. 2 seed Andy Murray’s place in the lower half of the men’s draw, played his first tour match on a hard court this summer and beat Tennys Sandgren, 6-4, 6-3, 3-6, 6-3. Certainly, Cilic may benefit from the absence of Murray, Djokovic and others, as he goes after his second U.S. Open title.
• First big upset: No. 78 Aleksandra Krunic of Serbia, whom some of you might remember as a breakout round of 16 sensation three years ago in 2014, beat No. 7 Johanna Konta of Great Britain, 4-6, 6-3, 6-4. “A couple of miserable days for Great Britain,” remarked ESPN commentator Pam Shriver after Konta’s loss. “First, Andy Murray could not take his spot in the draw at No. 2, and now Jo Konta, who had an outside chance at the No. 1 ranking, is out in the first round. That is a stunner! Konta has been so consistent most of the year. But for Krunic, there’s something about the U.S. Open every three years where she’s going to go on a run.”
During her post-match presser, Konta said, “I don’t take anything for granted. I think it would be quite obnoxious of me to come in here expecting I have a right to be in the second week.”
Meanwhile, Krunic said of her surprise win over Konta: “I can’t say I didn’t expect it; I can’t say I really expected it. But I expected to give her a hard time, at least – and I’m happy I gave her a harder time than she gave me.”
Indeed, opportunity came knocking for Krunic and it was a disappointing result for Konta, who reached this year’s Wimbledon semifinals and had advanced to the round of 16 at the U.S. Open in each of the past two years.
Also, in the first men’s upset, No. 21 seed David Ferrer was ousted by qualifier Mikhail Kukushkin, 4-6, 6-3, 6-2, 6-1. Later, No. 13 Jack Sock fell in five sets to Jordan Thompson, 6-2, 7-6 (12), 1-6, 5-7, 6-4.
• No tie-breaks for Isner: No. 10 John Isner, top-ranked among 19 American men in this year’s draw, advanced over Pierre-Hugues Herbert on Louis Armstrong Stadium without needing to play any tie-breaks. So uncharacteristic of Isner, but what was characteristic of him was his 22 service aces and 59 winners.
• First match completed: Kristyna Pliskova, sister of World No. 1 Karolina Pliskova, needed just 57 minutes to beat Misa Eguchi. Of the 64 men’s and women’s matches on Monday’s opening-day schedule, the Pliskova-Eguchi match on Court 5 was the first match to finish in the entire two-week tournament.
• Grunt-free, old-style tennis: It was refreshing to watch two-time Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova‘s 7-5, 7-5 victory over Jelena Jankovic, playing in her 14th consecutive U.S. Open draw, without having to mute the TV sound. It was Kvitova’s third major and eighth tournament overall since coming back from extensive surgery on her left hand following the brutal knife attack at her home last December.
• All those decades ago: American Venus Williams made her U.S. Open debut at age 17, the same year that Arthur Ashe Stadium opened 20 years ago. On Monday, playing in her 19th U.S. Open, the No. 9 seed Williams looked right at home as she won her opening-round match over No. 135 Viktoria Kuzmova, 6-3, 3-6, 6-2, to close the day session in Arthur Ashe Stadium. It was the 19-year-old Kuzmova’s first career WTA Tour main draw match and she acquitted herself well in the second set. When it mattered, Williams played well, too – she won 80% of her first-serve points and broke her underdog opponent four times. After dropping the second set, the two-time U.S. Open champion Williams got her rhythm back in the third set.
“It’s been a beautiful 20 years,” said Williams during an on-court interview after her victory. “I love this place. I not sure if this is my last year, but I’m sure going to enjoy it. I just want to win.”
• Happy 20th anniversary Arthur Ashe Stadium: In 1997, the finishing touches were put on the largest tennis-only venue in the world, Arthur Ashe Stadium, in Flushing Meadow, New York. It was named after Arthur Ashe, the American player who changed the game of tennis forever with both his grace and with his dignity. At a cost of $254 million, Arthur Ashe Stadium, which is the crown jewel of the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, seats more than 22,000 spectators and it features 90 luxury suites. While some critics argue that it’s too big and too tall for a tennis stadium – certainly when compared to the intimacy of Centre Court at Wimbledon – it’s deemed the perfect place to capture the electricity and excitement of America’s national tennis tournament. At the U.S. Open, it’s said, the stars come out at night in more ways than one. Celebrating 20 years in style, the U.S. Open celebrated the 20th anniversary of Arthur Ashe Stadium Monday night with an on-court show featuring special guest Shania Twain and a heartfelt speech by Billie Jean King before the start of the Halep-Sharapova match.
• The U.S. Open set an all-time Opening Day and Night attendance record on Monday, with a crowd of 61,839, surpassing the previous record of 61,392 set in 2015. The night session was announced as a sellout with 23,771 in attendance.
About the author
Michael Dickens is a Washington, D.C.-area freelance journalist who writes and blogs about tennis.