A Day Of Firsts As Cincinnati Comes To New York

WASHINGTON, August 23, 2020 (by Michael Dickens)

August 22 is a date that many had marked on their calendar denoting the return of the ATP Tour after five months. It arrived with much fanfare even if there were no fans in the stands to appreciate it.

The Western & Southern Open moved into its temporary digs at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in Flushing Meadows, N.Y., longtime site of the US Open. While players have been in the quarantine “bubble” for about a week, they’ve been raring and ready to go and did just that on Saturday.

Throughout Opening Day, there was an eerie silence throughout the grounds for this ATP Masters 1000 and WTA Premier 5 combined event as no fans are allowed – the new normal at least in the United States. However, it was made up for with plenty of “popcorn” matches on Day 1 of the week-long tournament for fans watching at home on worldwide TV to enjoy. There were a few surprises along the way, too.

The first ATP singles match to be completed was on Court 17 – the fourth largest on the NTC grounds and featured as the second show court this week. It was easily won by 15th seed Felix Auger-Aliassime. The 20th-ranked Canadian easily beat Nikolaz Basilashvili of Georgia, 6-4, 6-1, in a comprehensive 76-minute thrashing. Despite three double-faults in his opening service game, which can probably be attributed to Opening Day nerves, the 20-year-old Auger-Aliassime recovered nicely. He broke his opponent five times and outpointed him 66-45 to advance to the second round.

“I am the first winner of 2020 Part 2, post COVID,” Auger-Aliassime told the ATP Tour website. “I am happy to be playing again and to get a win. I felt really good. Even though I had some nerves, starting again indifferent conditions than we are used to, I did the work in the last month and I felt like I had the resources in me to get the win today.”

What this match suggested is that winning ugly is going to be key – who can grind it out without their best stuff. Auger-Aliassime hit just 10 winners while making 22 unforced errors, but Basilashvili finished with just eight winners and hit 36 unforced errors.

The same can be said about some other uneven performances, such as for 34th-ranked Jan-Lennard Struff of Germany, who beat 26th-ranked ATP Next Gen star Alex de Minaur of Australia, 6-2, 6-4, and 25th-ranked Pablo Carreño Busta of Spain, who took out Serbia’s 23rd-ranked Dusan Lajovic, 7-5, 6-1. On a day in which the mercury reached 90º F under clear skies, the first retirement of the tournament occurred early on when No. 22 Benoit Paire of France was unable to continue against Borna Coric of Croatia. The 33rd-ranked Coric was ahead 6-0, 1-0 on games and 33-13 on points. Paire had required medical attention after just three games.

According to L’Equipe’s Quentin Moynet, Paire could be heard saying, “I’m going to die on the court. Give me vitamins.”

Murray wins in his official return

Later, playing in his first official singles match since the Davis Cup Finals nine months ago, 129th-ranked wild card Andy Murray of Great Britain beat No. 81 Frances Tiafoe of the United States, 7-6 (6), 3-6, 6-1, in two hours and 28 minutes. On an afternoon that otherwise wasn’t very kind to other Britons, Murray had gas in the tank to spare at the end. He fired eight aces, won 72 percent of his service points and outpointed Tiafoe 91-83. It was Murray’s 100th singles appearance at an ATP Masters 1000 event and earned him a second-round matchup with fifth seed Alexander Zverev of Germany.

“I thought I moved well today,” said Murray via a Zoom video conference with reporters. “That was probably the thing I was most happy with and probably the thing I was most apprehensive about going into the match. I thought I moved pretty well. My tennis could have been better. I did some things well at the end, but I could definitely improve in terms of my game.”

Other first round winners include: No. 24 Taylor Fritz of the United States, who beat 98th-ranked qualifier Lloyd Harris of South Africa, 6-1, 6-3, in under an hour; No. 39 Riley Opelka of the United States, the tallest player on the ATP Tour, fired 18 service aces in his 6-3, 6-4 win over 77th-ranked British qualifier Cameron Norrie; and 123rd-ranked Kevin Anderson of South Africa, who blasted 20 aces and won 81 percent of his first serve points, and bested No. 44 Kyle Edmund, 7-6 (3), 4-6, 6-3, in two hours and 58 minutes. It was Anderson’s first match since early February when he lost in the first round at the New York Open and his first Masters 1000 win since 2019. Both he and Edmund fought off cramps near the end. Next, he will face No. 4 seed Stefanos Tsitsipas of Greece in the second round on Sunday.

Also, 72nd-ranked qualifier Ricardas Berankis of Lithuania defeated 57th-ranked American wild card Tommy Paul, 6-7 (4), 6-4, 7-5; No. 30 Milos Raonic of Canada beat 45th-ranked Sam Querrey of the United States, 6-4, 6-4; No. 32 Filip Krajinovic of Serbia advanced 7-5, 6-4 over 100th-ranked Italian qualifier Salvatore Caruso and No. 13 seed Denis Shapovalov of Canada defeated No. 37 Marin Cilic of Croatia, 6-3, 6-3.

Big upsets in women’s draw

Meanwhile, in a day of upsets in the women’s draw, the first big one came when unseeded Ekaterina Alexandrova of Russia upset 17th-ranked and ninth seed Elena Rybakina of Kazakhstan, 7-5, 7-6 (6), in one hour and 37 minutes. She saved two set points in the second set to advance. Rybakina, 21, had garnered lots of attention before the pro tour hiatus by going 21-4, reaching four finals and winning one out of the six tournaments she played.

The 27th-ranked Alexandrova previously had beaten Rybakina in straight sets to win her first WTA tournament in Shenzhen in January. “Maybe in some way it helped, but it was so long ago… I think today’s match was completely different,” she said. “It feels great, it gives me a lot of confidence to beat players like her. Every match right now gives you confidence, because it was such a long pause. Every match is important now.”

Soon after Alexandrova’s victory, 21st-ranked Maria Sakkari of Greece took a commanding 6-1 lead over 16-year-old American teen sensation Coco Gauff on the same Grandstand court, in their first-time matchup. Sakkari overpowered Gauff with her solid ground stroke returns – playing first-strike proactive tennis – that enabled her to break her opponent twice during the 26-minute first set. There was very little letting up by the No. 13 seed during the second set and in just 65 minutes Sakkari had dismissed the 50th-ranked Gauff, 6-1, 6-3, with a solid win. Next, she will take on the winner between Yulia Putintseva of Kazakhstan and China’s Zhang Shuai.

A double-fault by Gauff set up match point and the 25-year-old Sakkari was up to the task of putting away the first-round match. She was solid throughout, winning 84 percent of her first serves and 67 percent of her service points overall. The rising Greek star broke Gauff’s serve four times and saved the only break point she faced, which came in the second set. Gauff hit just six winners and committed 24 unforced errors. It was a master class of a performance by Sakkari.

During an on-court interview after her triumph, Sakkari said: “I think I really played a good match. I played a match in Palermo [two weeks ago], but for me, it doesn’t count. It was even a match [there], the way I played. Coming back the way I did, it’s really important, and [I take] a lot of confidence from this.”

Later in a Zoom video press conference, Sakkari was asked by a reporter how she was adapting to the “bubble.” She said: “I love the bubble. It’s like a school trip. I hope all tournaments are like this.” When Gauff was asked to describe what it’s been like, she said “It’s more relaxed. Everyone is trying to get used to a relaxed vibe.”

In other matches, No. 43 Kristina Mladenovic of France was impressive in racking up 30 winners despite hitting 24 unforced errors and she beat Latvia’s No. 44 Anastasija Sevastova, 6-3, 6-4;  No. 61 Bernarda Pera of the United States pulled out a 6-1, 3-6, 6-3 upset over No. 52 Heather Watson of Great Britain; No. 41 Veronika Kudermetova of Russia beat Australia’s Ajla Tomljanovic, 5-7, 6-3, 7-5; No. 26 Karolina Muchova of the Czech Republic defeated 133rd-ranked qualifier Ann Li of the United States, 6-4, 6-4; and No. 60 Alizé Cornet of France bested 124th-ranked American wild card Caty McNally, 6-0, 6-4.

Also, in an all-American matchup, No. 28 Amanda Anisimova upset 11th seed Alison Riske, ranked 19th, 6-3, 6-3. Anisimova capitalized on five service breaks and won more than half of her return points during the 70-minute match.

Finally, No. 16 seed Dayana Yastremska of Ukraine pulled out a 5-7, 6-2, 7-5 win over 40-year-old wild card Venus Williams of the United States, ranked 65th. Just 20 and half the age of Williams, the 25th-ranked Yastremska overcame a twisted ankle to win. “Something told me I had to fight through the pain,” she said during an on-court interview after her victory. “I wanted to finish the match. I really wanted to win.”

Azarenka gains first win in a year 

In just her third match of 2020, No. 59 Victoria Azarenka of Belarus, who won the Western & Southern Open in 2013, put on a clinic and was the Vika of old in beating No. 15 seed Donna Vekic from Croatia, 6-2, 6-3. Azarenka fired seven aces, won five of six break-point opportunities and outpointed Vekic 62-39. The victory snapped a four-match losing streak and was the former No. 1 Azarenka’s first victory of the year and first since the 2019 Western & Southern Open. It was her first win over a Top 30 player since Rome last year.

“I’m very happy honestly to win a match,” said Azarenka, who improved to 1-2 this season. “I haven’t played a lot, but it’s still like finally to get over that mid-hump a little bit and be able to close out the match and stay strong throughout the match was important to me.

“I really enjoyed myself on the court. Every opportunity to compete is valuable. I don’t like to lose. Today showed what I can do.”

Around the Western & Southern Open

• With its new – albeit temporary venue – the Western & Southern Open is being held for the 85th straight year and 119th time overall. Since its inaugural in 1899, the Western & Southern Open has been held every year except 1918, 1921 and 1935.

• Because of the coronavirus pandemic, which postponed or cancelled five months-worth of the 2020 ATP Tour schedule, this is the first Masters 1000 event of the year.

• There are 27 countries represented in the Western & Southern Open men’s singles draw and 19 in the women’s singles draw. The United States has the most men’s entrants with 11 and there are 13 women’s entrants. The oldest player in the men’s draw is John Isner at age 34, while the women’s oldest player is 40-year-old Venus Williams. The youngest player in either draw is 16-year-old Coco Gauff. With Gauff out after the first round, youth will be served by 17-year-old Canadian Leylah Fernandez.

• This year’s Western & Southern Open ends with its final scheduled on August 28. The US Open begins three days later on August 31, making it the shortest gap between the tournaments since 1986. That year, the Western & Southern Open ended two days before the start of the US Open.