Kenin, Mertens and Azarenka stay on track

Sofia Kenin, who is the No 2 seed at the US Open and now favourite for the title, on paper at least, overcame a sluggish start to take out Tunisian Ons Jabeur, 7-6(4) 6-3, on Saturday and move into the last 16 in New York for the first time.

 

… After Australia it obviously got to me in a way but I regrouped… and I feel like I’m just playing better. But it’s good to have this pressure … it means you’re the favourite, people look up to you so. Pressure is a privilege. Sofia Kenin

The American 21-year old is the Australian Open champion and knows a thing or two about playing on hard courts, using her aggressive style to wilt Jabeur’s ambitions on Louis Armstrong Stadium.

Kenin is super competitive too, and will fight to the bitter end so despite Jabeur’s 35 winners, including 10 aces, to her 14, the American was never going away.

“Obviously I knew it was going to be tough, but I told myself to keep fighting” Kenin said later. “I knew that she wouldn’t maintain this level if I’m going to play the way I want to play.

“If she would have maintained it, then great match to her.”

Kenin is gaining in stature by the day, and although Jabeur, ranked 31 in the world, broke to take a 4-2 lead in the opening set as Kenin struggled to control her serve, the American immediately responded with a break of her own before grabbing the early advantage in the contest via the tiebreak.

Switching gears at the start of the second set, Kenin, who held a 4-1 record over Jabeur, used her superb baseline barrage to go 2-0 up before the Tunisian broke back.

The 21-year-old, however, raised her game once again and held firm to close out the win.

Jabeur hit 35 winners to Kenin’s 14 but also made 32 unforced errors to the American’s 23.

Kenin, who admitted she had been feeling some pressure after her Melbourne triumph, had lost in straight sets in her only warm-up event before the US Open.

“… After Australia it obviously got to me in a way but I regrouped… and I feel like I’m just playing better,” Kenin said in a court-side interview. “But it’s good to have this pressure … it means you’re the favourite, people look up to you so.

“Pressure is a privilege.”

Up next for Kenin is Belgian Elise Mertens, who pushed her to 3 sets in their previous meeting in Wuhan last year.

“… It was a dramatic match. It was close and I won by like 3 points in the 3rd-set tiebreak, so it’s going to be tough… she’s got a big serve, big game,” Kenin added. “But I’m playing well, I had a great match today and I’m going to rest up as I’m cramping.”

Jabeur trotted out her entire arsenal, from her improved serve to backhands driven, sliced and dropped, to a sharp flat forehand that can instantly break open a point from any part of the court, but Kenin found answers to most of it eventually.

Kenin simply does not let go, and applies pressure on pressure.

Missed opportunity haunted Jabeur, and when serving at 4-all in the breaker, she fatefully double-faulted, which was all Kenin needed and 2 Tunisian errors later, the American won the 64-minute first set.

Kenin took charge of the second, going up 4-1, and despite Jabeur slapping a few winners, it was clear that the fight was going out of her.

“I did feel it at times [cramping],” Kenin said. “It was affecting me. But not taking anything from her, she was playing really well. I just tried to fight through it.”

At 5-3, 40-30, on Kenin’s first match point, she was nearly pulled off the court by an adroit Jabeur angle, but dashed forward with trademark urgency and ripped a down-the-line backhand winner.

Kenin will continue on her path against Elise Mertens.


Elise Mertens is Sofia Kenin's next opponent after the Belgian dispatched Catherine McNally in round 3

© Al Bello/Getty Images

Mertens fights back

Down 0-3 in the first, Belgium’s No 16 seed Elise Mertens fought back against 18-year old American, Caty McNally, to win her place in the 4th round, 7-5 6-1.

Twelve months ago in New York, McNally extended Serena Williams to 3 sets in a second round match and this time, she went one step further.

On Friday, in a match suspended overnight from Thursday due to rain, McNally beat 21st-seeded Ekaterina Alexandrova in a third-set tiebreak, but on Saturday Mertens proved a step too far and playing out on a soulless Court 11, she was effectively dismantled by the wily veteran in straight sets.

The start of the match gave little indication of outcome as McNally swiftly took the first 3 games, showcasing her talent as one of America’s best young prospects.

A slice backhand approach, a fine lob and several penetrating forehands all put Mertens on the defensive, most notably on her weaker forehand.

Mertens adapted and overcame her any frustrations she have felt, moving up the court to capture 12 of the next 14 points and levelling the set.

McNally weathered it with a pair of fine games on her serve and as Mertens served at 4-5, 30-30, another constricted forehand lined its way into the net to give the American a set point.

The Belgian struck a service winner down the T, netted another forehand but on set point No 2 McNally netted her backhand return.

Her opportunities evaporated, McNally began to unravel as Mertens raised her game.

At 5-all, 30-40, Mertens hung tough, extracting an error through a 15-ball rally and closing out the 56-minute set in the next game.

It was all Mertens after that as she broke McNally to start the second, and earned a double break at 1-3, aided by McNally’s 7th double-fault of the match and 2 badly misfired forehands.


Unseeded Victoria Azarenka is living a renaissance, beating Iga Swiatek on her way to meet Karolina Muchova in the last 16

© Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

Azarenka solves Swiatek

Victoria Azarenka is back into the second week at the US Open for the first time since 2015 after unraveling the rising Iga Swiatek in straight sets.

The two-time Grand Slam winner was in dominant form continued on Armstrong, raining down 25 winners and four aces to win 6-4 6-2 after just over an hour and a half.

Coming into the New York bubble a few weeks ago, Azarenka was flying under the radar as she was searching for her first match win in a year.

Her efforts were rewarded when finished the week with the Western & Southern title.

She has kept her momentum going at the Open, dropping just 3 games in her opening match against Barbara Haas, and claiming sweet revenge over fellow Belarusian Aryna Sabalenka, the N 5 seed, with an emphatic 6-1 6-3 victory.

“I feel like sometimes this quick turnaround can work in your favour,” Azarenka said of playing Cincy and the US Open back-to-back. “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.”

Azarenka, 31, had a fight on her hands from the start against Swiatek, the rising Polish teenager who has previously reached the 4th round at the Australian Open and French Open.

She had to recover from an early 0-2 deficit in the first set, but a marathon effort a few games later set the tone for the match, with Azarenka, the 2012 and 2013 finalist breaking through on an epic, 10-minute 4th game before winning 6 of the next 8 games to take the opening set.

In the second, Swiatek continued to apply the pressure on Azarenka as she covered the court and targeted the Belarusian’s vulnerable second serves.

The strategy kept Azarenka from running away with it, as Swiatek traded breaks twice, but the Belarusian was on a roll, and reeled off the last 3 games in a row to book her spot in the last 16.

“I want to say problem solving, I would rather say finding right answers because she came out playing incredible, like winners coming from all angles, from all sides,” Azarenka explained. “I’ve never played against her. I haven’t really seen much of her play…

“I was really surprised but in a really good way of how she plays. I think she’s super talented. She has a beautiful game, very smart. She has unique movement of sliding and getting into that position. She can mix up her serve.

“She’s only 19, so I really hope she’s going to turn up her game. But I was really pleased with her attitude on the court, trying to find solutions, and very positive. I’m very impressed by her game.”

The two-times Australian Open winner returned to the Tour in 2018 after the birth of her son Leo but had not lifted a title until winning the Western & Southern Open, the warm-up event for the US. Open, which was held in New York this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Azarenka next takes on the No 20 seed Karolina Muchova, who survived a mid-match letdown but edged through in 3 sets to defeat Sorana Cirstea 6-3 2-6 7-6(7) earlier in the day to advance.


Ons Jabeur could not find a way past Sofia Kenin in R3 of the US Open

© Matthew Stockman/Getty Images


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