NEW YORK, September 2, 2019 (by Michael Dickens)
World No. 1 Naomi Osaka came into her round of 16 match against No. 13 seed Belinda Bencic at the United States Open on Labor Day Monday afternoon controlling her own destiny.
Thanks to Sunday’s twin losses by the No. 2 and No 3 seeds, Ashleigh Barty and Karolina Pliskova, Osaka knew she could retain her No. 1 ranking if she successfully defended her US Open title. However, if she didn’t, it meant Barty would return to No. 1.
As it happened, Bencic dethroned the two-time Grand Slam champion Osaka, 7-5, 6-4, in one hour and 27 minutes, to reach the US Open quarterfinals for the first time since 2014. Come next week, Barty will regain the No. 1 ranking.
Osaka could be forgiven if she came into Monday’s mid-day match a little less focused than she was on Saturday night against Coco Gauff, in what turned out to be a very emotional third-round encounter that electrified a sold-out Arthur Ashe Stadium audience. After all, it seems, the bigger the match, the better Osaka plays.
“She’s a natural champion,” said Hall of Famer Lindsay Davenport, now a TV analyst for Tennis Channel, before the Osaka-Bencic match. “She was ready to go against Gauff.
“Today, day match on Ashe. It won’t be packed. There won’t be the same amount of energy there was the other night. It’s understandable if she’s a little bit flat.”
Davenport’s pre-match analysis was spot on. The only things missing from it was that because of rain, the match was played with the roof closed. Also, midway through the final set, Osaka needed a medical evaluation.
With five Top 5 victories and eight Top 10 wins this season prior to Monday’s encounter – more than anyone on the WTA Tour – the Swiss No. 1 Bencic proved a very formidable opponent for Osaka from Japan. Bencic is used to facing reigning World No. 1 players – and has won these kinds of matches before. After today, she’s beaten Osaka three times this season – at Indian Wells, Madrid, and now the US Open.
“I was so excited to come on the court. The challenge cannot be bigger than Naomi,” said Bencic during a post-match TV interview with ESPN after garnering her tour-best ninth Top 10 win of 2019. “I had to be at the top of my game. I’m pleased how I managed my nerves.
“I had to take her serve early, try to anticipate, because she has a lot of power. … I tried to play it a little bit like chess and tried to anticipate on the court.”
Bencic finished with 29 winners against 12 unforced errors. She was 10-for-10 in points won at the net and outpointed Osaka 69-55.
Osaka was trying to be the first woman to defend her US Open title since Serena Williams won three consecutive titles from 2012-14.
Vekic reaches first major quarterfinal
Coming into their fourth-round match on Louis Armstrong Stadium Monday, both Julia Goerges of Germany and Donna Vekic from Croatia successfully navigated the first week of this year’s US Open women’s singles draw – albeit under the radar. The No. 26 seed Goerges arrived as pre-match favorite against 23rd seed Vekic, leading their career head-to-head 3-0. The hard-hitting German jumped out to an early 3-0 lead in the opening set and came ready to inflict damage.
However, when opportunity came knocking – and it did for Vekic, who saved a match point at 4-5 in the second set – the 23-year-old Croatian played with new-found enthusiasm and tenacity. Vekic won 6-7 (5), 7-5, 6-3 to reach her first major quarterfinal in her 25th Grand Slam appearance. She will face No. 13 seeded Belinda Bencic in Wednesday’s quarterfinal round.
“I don’t know how I won this match,” Vekic admitted during a TV interview after her victory. “She served for it, she had match points. I kept fighting and believing I could win.
“I was just trying to get a return in the court. She served amazing today. I felt confident in the rallies and I felt that if I got the ball in, I’d have a good chance.”
Indeed, Goerges fired 21 aces – most in a women’s singles match since 1998 – and she hit 57 winners. But, it wasn’t enough to achieve victory during the two hour and 43 minute match played with the roof closed on Armstrong. Instead, Vekic kept battling her way through each trouble spot she found herself in and took advantage of 50 unforced errors by the 30-year-old Goerges, who was trying to reach her first US Open quarterfinal.
Vekic’s 22 winners were matched by 22 unforced errors. At 4-3 in the final set, she broke Goerges for the fourth time and fought off two break points to pull out the victory. It was the fifth time this year that Vekic had come back to win a match after losing the first set.
By the numbers
With both Novak Djokovic and Naomi Osaka departed from the men’s and women’s singles draws, respectively, it marks just the fourth time in the Open Era (since 1968) that both the top men’s and women’s seeds failed to reach the quarterfinals of a major.
What they’re saying
Martina Navratilova, Hall of Famer and Tennis Channel analyst, looking back on Saturday’s Coco Gauff-Naomi Osaka third-round match: “What an amazing match – this is going to be iconic. This is going to be one of those things that you show your kids. This is how you behave – this is how you act – win or lose. You need to be a champion human being. These two (Coco and Naomi) are that. I’m so looking forward to the future.”