WASHINGTON, August 30, 2017 (by Michael Dickens)
The sights and sounds of the 2017 U.S. Open came alive on Monday night when wild card Maria Sharapova met No. 2 Simona Halep in an unlikely first-round match. The morning after, there was still a buzz heard throughout the tennis world and Sharapova remained the No. 1 topic of discussion among tennis media. The New York Times sports headline read “Sharapova Returns With Electrifying Win” and reported: “In her first Grand Slam event after a doping ban, the former world No. 1 shows no sign of rust.”
Indeed, No. 146 Sharapova handled the intensity of playing in Arthur Ashe Stadium on opening night in her biggest match – and only her 10th this year – since her return from a 19-month doping suspension very well. She beat Halep, 6-4, 4-6, 6-3, in an incredible match that was high on drama and excitement – it certainly had the feeling of a final – and it lived up to its hype over its two hour 44 minute duration.
On Tuesday morning, during Tennis Channel’s three-hour morning show, TC Live at the U.S. Open, Sharapova’s grand slam return in the U.S. Open was the lead topic discussed among a roundtable of experts, which included Sports Illustrated executive editor and Tennis Channel analyst Jon Wertheim, plus tennis greats Martina Navratilova and Jim Courier, both whom are Tennis Channel analysts (and very good ones).
“There’s so many different angles to this story, but I was really struck by the crowd’s reception,” said Wertheim. “This became a polarizing issue in tennis, plus on social media. When Maria Sharapova came out, there was no polarization in the crowd. There was a warm intro, the crowd was very supportive during the match. After she won, the crowd really was supportive, again. I think that really set the tone. She didn’t really know what to expect when she came out.”
Navratilova labeled Sharapova’s win “amazing” and said: “I think Maria shut off any discussions of whether she should have gotten a wild card. It was a power performance by Maria and she moved really well, too. She exposed some weaknesses in Halep’s game – second serve and inability to finish the points. Actually, Maria defended so well because Halep couldn’t move forward and finish the points at the net. So, kudos to Maria Sharapova. She came out and won the match.”
Courier added: “Say what you will about Maria Sharapova. She’s always been a great competitor. Always. Every day. She finally got to compete on a Grand Slam stage, again. That’s what it meant to her.
“Last night, we saw a very emotional Sharapova in her Grand Slam comeback. It wasn’t rare to see good tennis – we expected that – but to see tears coming from her, that was something different.”
• Sascha wins in the wee hours – and makes a fashion statement, too: Alexander “Sascha” Zverev‘s three-set, first-round victory over Darian King of Barbados, 7-6 (9), 7-5, 6-4, came at exactly 2:04 a.m. local time early Tuesday morning. Not bad considering the players didn’t take the court at Arthur Ashe Stadium until late – it was after 11 o’clock Monday night – but that’s what sets the U.S. Open apart from other Grand Slams. After all, New York is notorious for being the city that never sleeps. While the final score of Sascha’s first-round match was fairly predictable – considering that No. 4 Zverev has been the hottest player in tennis this year with wins over both Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic to go along with a couple of Masters 1000 titles – what wasn’t predictable was the unveiling of his new Adidas kit Monday night designed by award-winning recording artist and producer Pharrell Williams. Like it or not, it’s definitely a fashion statement – a head turner – and, yet, it’s also fun, preppy, colorful (classic white with red, blue and yellow combinations), retro, and reminiscent of something that Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe might have worn back in the seventies.
“It was a very different look, but one which I like,” said Courier. “Two thumbs up for the Bjorn Borg-type shirt. I’m in.” Wertheim chimed in, saying, “It’s all about the tube socks!” When asked, Courier admitted he no longer wears them, “but I like them.”
On a slightly more serious note, Courier said of Zverev, “He’s built a huge head of steam. You better believe that in the locker room, he’s got swagger now that he didn’t have at the beginning of the year. That also matters. And when you can walk on the court with knee socks – and own it the way that he did – two thumbs up.”
Day 2 highlights (day session):
With a steady rain falling throughout much of the afternoon, nearly all of the action was all under the closed roof inside Arthur Ashe Stadium. Thank goodness for the roof.
• No. 1 Pliskova solid in debut: Newly engaged, top seed and World No. 1 Karolina Pliskova advanced to the women’s second round with an easy 6-2, 6-1 win over No. 72 Magna Linette of Poland. The reigning U.S. Open runner-up won with an exclamation point by acing her opponent for the eighth time during their 78-minute match that opened Tuesday’s play on Arthur Ashe Stadium. Pliskova hit 28 winners – her strong service game and powerful ground strokes were a big difference – and she broke her opponent five times. Meanwhile, Linette was able to convert just one of 10 break point opportunities against Pliskova.
“I felt a little bit nervous walking out on this court this morning, but I think I played pretty solid today,” said Pliskova, during an on-court interview after her victory.
• Champion one year, out in the first round the next: Defending U.S. Open champion and No. 6 seed Angelique Keber remains a mystery. She came into this year’s U.S. Open with zero Top 20 wins and hasn’t won a tournament since last year’s U.S. Open triumph. She needed a big tournament here to turn things around and to get her confidence back. Instead, the German lost to unheralded No. 45 Naomi Osaka of Japan, 6-3, 6-1, in Arthur Ashe Stadium with the roof closed. Kerber became the first defending woman’s champion – and second overall – to lose in the first round of the U.S. Open since Svetlana Kuznetsova in 2005. Meanwhile, the victory represented Osaka’s first win against a Top 10 player.
“A star is born right in front of us,” said tennis Hall of Famer Chrissie Evert, describing the 19-year-old Osaka’s big achievement on Arthur Ashe Stadium during ESPN’s Tuesday afternoon telecast. It prompted her play-by-play partner, fellow Hall of Famer Cliff Drysdale, to remark: “You have to feel kind of sad for how badly Kerber played. She had no answer for Osaka’s game.”
Indeed, Kerber struggled with her second serve, winning just seven of 19 opportunities, and she doubled faulted five times while committing 23 unforced errors.
Evert added, “I think Angelique Kerber has to go back to the drawing board, and I hope she finds her game. I hope she rebounds. She’s a champion – a really nice person – and this is the ups and downs of a tennis player. I hope she can get it back.
“When she beat Serina (Williams) at the Australian Open last year, she had talent, she had angles, she had weapons. Something’s different this year.”
After staying focused during her 64-minute upset of Kerber, the underdog Osaka beamed a big smile as she was interviewed on court after her victory. “It means a lot to win,” she said. Osaka holds dual U.S./Japan citizenship. Her mother is Japanese, her father is Haitian, and the family lives in Boca Raton, Florida.
Perhaps, Osaka was just a bit nervous and in awe of what happened in beating Kerber. A year ago on the same court, Osaka imploded in the third set against Madison Keys, blowing a 5-1 third-set lead in a 7-5, 4-6, 7-6 loss to the American. On Tuesday, she hit 22 winners, broke Kerber’s serve four times, and won 79% of her first-serve points (23 of 29). It added up to a solid performance for Osaka. Although she’s played in just six total Grand Slam main draws prior to this year’s U.S. Open, Osaka has reached the third round in all four majors. She’s one of four teenagers currently ranked in the Top 100.
Said Osaka: “I had to concentrate a lot against Angelique because she’s really good. I played good today and I hope to carry it on to my next match.”
• No. 1 Nadal takes his time to find himself, then wins: Regardless of whether you’re World No. 1 or No. 50, there’s always a bit of nervousness when you step on court for the first time in a major. Even if your name is Rafael Nadal. This year’s top seed in the men’s draw – and the current World No. 1 – earned his 50th win of the year under the closed roof of Arthur Ashe Stadium by defeating No. 84 Dusan Lajovic of Serbia, 7-6 (6), 6-2, 6-2. Once Nadal found his forehand – and refined his rhythm – it was only a matter of time for the Spaniard to prevail and move on to the second round.
“Is there anyone better who bounces back from a little bit of adversity than Rafa?” asked ESPN analyst Darren Cahill, after Nadal came back from down 4-5 in the first set, then blistered a forehand winner near the end of his first-set tie-break. Nadal outcompeted and outmatched Lajovic en route to his straight-set win. The result is what’s counts for Nadal while the journey is merely what everyone watching in person or on TV can appreciate. “There’s always determination from Nadal,” said Cahill, who moonlights as Simona Halep’s coach when he’s not commenting for ESPN.
After his victory, Nadal admitted he didn’t play well at the beginning of the match. “That’s part of the nerves a little bit, and you need to win matches, no?,” he said. Later in his post-match presser, Nadal said, “I am confident I am ready to play much better than what I did today, and I believe that I gonna do it.”
• Rain washes out most of Day 2 schedule, but inside Ashe the show goes on: At about 3:45 p.m. local time Tuesday, with a forecast of continuous rain the rest of the day, play was called off except for the matches scheduled inside Arthur Ashe Stadium. The announcement by the U.S. Tennis Association came after three hours of steady rain. Of the 64 singles matches scheduled, 44 were cancelled that never made it on court, and 11 matches were in progress that were suspended and will be resumed on Wednesday. Only seven matches were completed during the day session, including the final three games of the first-round match between No. 12 Jelena Ostapenko and Lara Arruabarrena, which started on Court 17 at 11 a.m. and finished six and a half hours later inside on Arthur Ashe Stadium following the conclusion of the day session. It took just seven minutes to complete the rain-delayed match.
About the author
Michael Dickens is a Washington, D.C.-area freelance journalist who writes and blogs about tennis.