Serena Bests Sloane In Battle Of First Name Stars

WASHINGTON, September 6, 2020 (by Michael Dickens)

When Saturday’s US Open order of play was posted late Friday afternoon, one match clearly stood out among all of the men’s and women’s third-round singles contests: Six-time US Open champion Serena Williams against 2017 US Open champion Sloane Stephens. Serena versus Sloane was placed second on Arthur Ashe Stadium, not before 2 p.m., both a good time for reaching North American TV audiences via ESPN as well as those watching on Amazon Prime in Great Britain and elsewhere in Europe, too.

While the 23-time Grand Slam champion Williams came in leading their career head-to-head 5-1, they had not met since 2015. In fact, the only time Stephens has beaten Williams came all the way back in the 2013 Australian Open quarterfinals. While they would play later on in the same year at the US Open, Williams won in straight sets.

When Williams arrived on Arthur Ashe Stadium Saturday afternoon, it represented her 72nd major third-round appearance in 75 majors. Coming in, she already owned a record 103 US Open match victories and this year is her 20th appearance in the American Slam.

Meanwhile, Stephens’s lack of success of any kind this season if reflected by her six opening-round losses. She began the US Open with a 1-7 win-loss record but won back-to-back straight-set matches against Mihaela Buzarnescu and Olga Govortsova. It’s worth pondering if Stephens, who was ranked 83rd when she became the fifth unseeded woman in the Open Era to win a major in 2017, could mount another serious threat.

For a set, it appeared Stephens could achieve a major upset. She won the opening set 6-2. Then, Serena decided to be Serena and pulled off a dramatic turnaround. After an hour and 43 minutes, Williams prevailed with a 2-6, 6-2, 6-2 victory thanks in part to her 12 service aces to move into the second week of the US Open for the 18th time in her storied career.

During her post-match virtual press conference, Williams was asked how important it was for her to stay calm, especially after the first set. She said, “that’s my thing is just try to stay calm and be more serene. I just knew it was important for me just to keep trying, just to keep going.”

Later in the press conference, Williams was asked how she compartmentalizes everything going on in life – on and off the court – knowing she’s carrying that weight with her. She said:

“Sometimes it’s harder than others. Every day having ‘Serena’ on your back is a massive target for the tour, for press, for stress. But as Billie Jean King said, ‘Pressure is a privilege.’ So, I wouldn’t want it any other way. I just try to think about how fortunate I am to have been in this position, and honestly, to be Serena. It feels weird to say that.” 

Williams had a big smile on her face throughout much of her press conference.

While Stephens tried to look for the positives in defeat, she admitted Williams was the better player on this day.

“I thought we played a good match,” she said. “Obviously, she raised her level and she started serving a bit better. Overall, I didn’t think I did anything wrong necessarily. Tried to stay in the match as best I could.

“Yeah, she just played better today.”

Next, Williams will face No. 15 seed Maria Sakkari of Greece, who needed just 55 minutes to put away 19-year-old 22nd seed Amanda Anisimova from the United States, 6-3, 6-1. She becomes the first Greek woman in the second week of the US Open since Eleni Daniilidou in 2004, and just the second in the Open Era.

Sakkari finished with 11 winners and eight unforced errors, while Anisimova was limited to just four winners but committed 27 unforced errors.

Last week, Sakkari bested Williams in the third round of the Western & Southern Open in their only career head-to-head meeting.

Top-seeded women’s doubles team withdrawn

Women’s No. 1 seeds Kristina Mladenovic of France and Timea Babos from Hungary were withdrawn Saturday afternoon from the US Open due to local quarantine rules imposed. They were originally scheduled to play Gaby Dabrowski of Canada and Alison Riske from the United States in a second-round match Saturday. Instead, Dabrowski and Riske were awarded a walkover victory into the quarterfinal round.

World No. 2 Mladenovic was one of those who had “prolonged exposure” to Benoit Paire, who tested positive for COVID-19 on the eve of the tournament last weekend.

In a statement issued by the U.S. Tennis Association, it said:

“Public health officials of Nassau County, N.Y., have issued quarantine notices for all individuals who had prolonged close contact to a person who previously tested positive for the COVID-19 coronavirus. As the players are staying in Nassau County, the quarantine notices prevent any of these individuals from commuting to the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in New York City. The USTA is obligated to adhere to government guidance at the State, City and County level. All persons who were identified as having prolonged close contact with the infected player will quarantine in their rooms for the remainder of their quarantine period. Kristina Mladenovic is one of these individuals, and as the Women’s Doubles competition has begun, the women’s doubles team of Kristina Mladenovic and Timea Babos has been withdrawn from the US Open.”

Medvedev continues dominance

Third seed Daniil Medvedev of Russia was dominant in his one hour and 48-minute 6-3, 6-3, 6-2 win over American J.J. Wolf, which began the day session on Arthur Ashe Stadium. Medvedev has not lost more than four games in a set through his first three matches and he’s yet to drop a set heading into his round of 16 match on Monday.

“It’s good that I managed to win in three sets and I didn’t even have to play [to] 7-5 because six months of not playing tennis, it’s not easy to recover from playing five or four-set matches,” said Medvedev during an on-court interview. “With a day off and just a three-setter to play, I’m feeling good.”

Next, Medvedev will face the last American male standing, Frances Tiafoe. On Saturday afternoon, Tiafoe beat his friend and hitting partner, Marton Fucsovics of Hungary, 6-2, 6-3, 6-2. He did it by hitting 22 winners while Fucsovics committed 31 unforced errors. It was Tiafoe’s first win over the Hungarian in three career meetings.

After his win, Tiafoe expressed the challenge of playing without fans. Obviously I’m a guy who kind of feeds off the crowd,” he said. “It’s not easy, for sure, especially because you’re out there putting it all on the line and you can’t get that energy from the crowd. You can hit like a between-the-legs winner or a horrendous shot to the fence, and it’s the same reaction you’re going to get. That’s some adjustments I’ve got to get used to.”

Tiafoe was asked about what it meant to him being the last American male left in this year’s US Open draws. He said: “As far as me being the last one left, I’m just worried about myself and worried about trying to win a tennis match.”

Berrettini powers past Ruud

Sixth seed Matteo Berrettini of Italy powered his way past No. 30 seed Casper Ruud of Norway, 6-4, 6-4, 6-2. Berrettini’s bruising baseline attack contributed to his hitting 40 winners against just 12 for 21-year-old Ruud. Berrettini has not lost a set in three rounds.

Next, Berrettini will take a 3-1 career head-to-head into his fourth-round match against 10th seed Andrey Rublev of Russia, who crushed 35 winners during an 84-minute 6-0, 6-4, 6-0 victory over Italy’s Salvatore Caruso to reach the US Open fourth round for the third time.

“I was quite happy with my performance today that I was quite focused, that I didn’t really give a chance to my opponent to come back,” Rublev said. “In the second set he came back, but then I played again one good game at 5-4. … [From] the beginning of the third set until the end of the match I was completely focused.”

Pospisil adds to his upset tally

Two days after he knocked out fellow countryman Milos Raonic, 94th-ranked Canadian Vasek Pospisil added his second upset of the US Open fortnight when he came back from two-sets-to-one down and beat eighth seed Roberto Bautista Agut of Spain, 7-5, 2-6, 4-6, 6-3, 6-2, on Louis Armstrong Stadium.

Pospisil hit 70 winners – 40 of them in the fourth set, alone – en route to claiming his initial round of 16 appearance at the US Open. It’s been five years since his first run to a fourth round at a major, which came when he reached the 2015 Wimbledon quarterfinals.

“[I am] thrilled. I was playing great tennis all the way through,” said Pospisil. “I had a little bit of a physical dip in the second and third sets and then the shade came in, which really helped me. … I played solid all the way through. I was very relaxed, going for my shots and sticking to my game plan, my strengths. It worked out really well.”

Next, Pospisil will face 21st seed Alex de Minaur from Australia, who went the distance against 11th seed Karen Khachanov of Russia. De Minaur rallied from two-sets-to-one down to win 6-4, 0-6, 4-6, 6-3, 6-1 in three hours and two minutes. He capitalized on six service breaks against his Russian opponent.

Before the US Open, de Minaur’s last win was during January’s ATP Cup in his home country. However, he’s persevered during the first week after playing nine sets of tennis in three days. His second-round win over France’s Richard Gasquet lasted four sets.

“I’m very happy. I feel like I have played against some quality opponents,” de Minaur said. “I’m happy to get these wins. Definitely building some confidence, and hopefully I can keep this momentum going and just keep playing some good tennis.”

Auger-Aliassime steps it up against Moutet

Two days after he beat 2012 US Open champion Andy Murray, 15th seed Felix Auger-Aliassime of Canada went back to work and picked up where he left off Thursday. He beat fellow Next-Gen ATP player Corentin Moutet of France, 6-1, 6-0, 6-4 to reach the second week of a major for the first time.

“With my physical abilities, my psychological abilities have to match it,” said Auger-Aliassime during his on-court interview. “I have to set it up and show confidence. I’m here to impose myself.

“Outside the court, I think I’m a pretty kind person. But once I step on court, it’s the best man that wins. You’ve got to step it up with that killer instinct.”

Auger-Aliassime jumped out to a 5-0 lead in the opening set and never let up. He finished with 34 winners.

Next, Auger-Aliassime will face second seed Dominic Thiem. The World No. 3, defeated No. 31 seed Marin Cilic, winner of the 2014 US Open, 6-2, 6-2, 3-6, 6-3, in two hours and 27 minutes to reach his fifth round of 16. Thiem hit 40 winners, saved seven of eight break points and converted five of his 10 break-point chances against Cilic. He outpointed his opponent 109-92.

“I’m happy with the way I handled my past three matches, losing very little energy and winning in straight sets,” said Auger-Aliassime, who became the third Canadian male to reach the round of 16. “Both [players] would be tough, but I think Thiem would be an interesting match for the future years.”

Dream run continues for Pironkova

It’s been a dream first week at the US Open for Bulgaria’s Tsvetana Pironkova. Her comeback run continued on Saturday as she took care of 18th seed Donna Vekic of Croatia, 6-4, 6-1, in 63 minutes to reach the fourth round of the major for the second time. It was Pironkova’s fourth career win over Vekic, the first three were prior to 2017.

After her latest victory, which came two days after she upset 10th seed Garbiñe Muguruza, she said, “It feels great. It feels amazing. Of course, unexpected. But just super happy.”

In Pironkova’s first pro event of any kind since the 2017 Wimbledon, she’s made everyone take notice of her accomplishments. A 2010 Wimbledon semifinalist, Pironkova took more than three years off the tour while raising her now two-year-old son Alexander.

“It feels the same to me, it feels normal to me,” Pironkova suggested in talking about her return to the tour. “I’ve been doing that for more than 15 years. I just had three years’ break. That’s kind of how I grew up, what I have been doing for a long, long time. You cannot just forget it like that. It just doesn’ happen that way.”

In the next round, Pironkova will oppose No. 56 Alizé Cornet of France, who won by retirement over American seventh seed Madison Keys. Cornet was ahead 7-6 (4), 3-2 when Keys pulled out one hour and 29 minutes into the match, after earlier seeking treatment on her neck and shoulder.

“I really want to enjoy the one and a half sets that I did really good,” said Cornet during her virtual press conference. “Of course, I’m sad it ended this way, that Madison was in pain.

“I really deserved this first set. I was really solid in the beginning of the second set. I’m happy that the hard work is paying off.”

Azarenka reaches second week for first time since 2015

Last week’s Western & Southern Open champion, Victoria Azarenka, has advanced to the second week of the US Open for the first time in five years after she beat Polish teenager Iga Swiatek, 6-4, 6-2, Saturday evening in Louis Armstrong Stadium.

Azarenka’s latest win was her eighth straight in a two-week stretch since the WTA relaunched last month. She delivered 25 winners, including four service aces, and outpointed Swiatek 77-63.

“Well, I feel like sometimes this quick turnaround can work in your favor,” Azarenka said during her virtual press conference. “I feel like a quick turnaround of this tournament being in one place, it’s a pretty good advantage I would say for me. I’m playing a lot of matches, kind of getting better and better from one match to another.

“So, I’ve been really happy that I’ve been able to play so many matches because that’s where I feel like I can progress the most. I practiced a lot. I worked a lot on my game. But really to bring it up, I needed to play a lot of matches.

“This run, like continuous run, has been really good for me.”

Next, Azarenka will face 20th seed Karolina Muchova of the Czech Republic, who pulled out a 6-3, 2-6, 7-6 (7) win over Romania’s Sorana Cirstea, after looking defeat in the face during the two hour and 17-minute match. She saved three match points during the final-set tie-break. Earlier this week, Muchova eliminated two-time US Open Venus Williams in the first round. Now, she’s into the fourth round for the first time after back-to back third-round losses.

Mertens wins 22nd match of year

No. 16 seed Elise Mertens of Belgium garnered a 7-5, 6-1 victory in one hour and 24 minutes over American Caty McNally, at age 18, the youngest left in the women’s draw. A quarterfinalist at last year’s US Open, Mertens now has won 22 matches this year, tied for most on tour with Elena Rybakina.

Next, Mertens will play No. 2 seed Sofia Kenin of the United States. The World No. 4 eliminated 27th seed Ons Jabeur of Tunisia, 7-6 (4), 6-3, in one hour and 39 minutes on Louis Armstrong Stadium. In outpointing Jabeur 88-74, Kenin won 73 percent of her first serves and backed it with a 52 percent efficiency on her second-serve points. She finished with 14 winners against 23 unforced errors. Jabeur hit 10 aces and 35 winners but was undone by committing 32 unforced errors.

Around the US Open

• Defending men’s doubles champions and No. 1 seeds Juan Sebastian Cabal and Robert Farah, both from Columbia, were upset by the unseeded pair of Jean-Julien Rojer from the Netherlands and Horia Tecau of Romania, 4-6, 6-3, 6-4, in the second round.

• German doubles pair Kevin Krawietz and Andreas Mies, seeded sixth, lost their second-round match to Rohan Bopanna of India and Denis Shapovalov from Canada, 4-6, 6-4, 6-3.

• Defending women’s doubles champions Elise Mertens of Belgium and Aryna Sabalenka from Belarus, seeded second, reached the quarterfinals with a 6-3, 7-6 (5) win over American pair Jessica Pegula and Shelby Rogers. Next, Mertens and Sabalenka will face Laura Siegemund of Germany and Vera Zvonareva from Russia.

Saturday’s results

Sunday’s order of play