New York | First round blockbuster – Serena v Sharapova
The draw for the fourth Grand Slam of the year, the US Open, due to begin on Monday, was made on Thursday and produced some mouth-watering first round encounters.
Leading the cream of the crop of the opening-round matches is a meeting between the No 8 seed Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova, who meet for the first time in over three-and-a-half years.
Williams, 37, and Sharapova, 32, have both have been champions in New York, Serena on six occasions while Maria won in 2006.
Although they have met 21 times, they have never met prior to the Round of 16 at any tournament and have never gone head-to-head in New York.
Serena has dominated their meetings, holding a 19-2 record against the Russian, whose wins came in 2004, when she stunned Serena in the Wimbledon final, and won again at the WTA Finals.
The pair were set to square off at the 2018 French Open, but Serena was forced to pull out with a pectoral injury.
At this year’s French Open and Wimbledon, Williams played her way into top form, advancing in three sets against unseeded opposition in the early rounds.
This time, as she recovers from the back spasms that forced her to retire from the Rogers Cup final, she will not have that luxury while the pressure of chasing Margaret Court’s record 24 Grand Slam titles has lost her the last three major finals.
They are in the bottom half of the women’s draw, along with 2nd seed and French Open champion Ashleigh Barty, who will face Kazakh Zarina Diyas first up.
Barty could potentially meet 2016 champion Angelique Kerber in the fourth round, while Williams or Sharapova could be quarter-final opponents.
Third seed Karolina Pliskova is also in the bottom half of the draw and will open against a qualifier, with British No 1 and 16th seed Johanna Konta also in her section.
British hopes are pinned, once again, on Konta, the 16th seed, who is up against Daria Kasatkina, the talented 22-year old Russian ranked No 42 in the world, in her opener.
The 28-year-old has been struggling for results since a surprise quarter-final defeat to Barbora Strycova at Wimbledon earlier in the summer.
Konta reacted angrily to questions about her game in the immediate aftermath of the loss on Centre Court and has since slipped to defeats in Toronto and Cincinnati as she steps up preparation for Flushing Meadows.
The World No 16 has reached the 4th round of the US Open twice, in 2015 and 2016, and is looking for a good run here this year.
Hopes that Konta will be joined by Harriet Dart in the main draw rest with the Brit’s final qualifying match on Friday.
Dart reached the final qualifying round at the US Open after beating America’s Hailey Baptiste, 7-5 6-4, and plays China’s 18-year-old Wang Xiyu for a spot in the main draw of the US Open for the first time.
Ranked 140 in the world, Dart overcame Baptiste in an hour and 40 minutes on Thursday.
World No 1 and top seed Naomi Osaka, who heads into the tournament under an injury cloud, leads the top half and will kick off the defence of her title against Russian Anna Blinkova, while 13th seed Belinda Bencic and Wimbledon sensation Coco Gauff are also in the section.
Wild-card Gauff takes on Anastasia Potapova as Coco-mania arrives in New York.
The 15-year-old sensation makes her US Open main-draw debut in somewhat controversial circumstances as her appearances on tour are strictly limited but stretched age eligibility rules, but this rare talent will be welcomed with open arms.
This is a battle of former junior World No 1s, pitting Gauff, the 2017 US Open girls’ singles champion, against 18-year-old Potapova, the 2016 Wimbledon girls’ champ.
Both have already made their mark at the senior level.
While Gauff stole the headlines for the youth movement with her dream fourth-round Wimbledon run, Potapova has quietly advanced to the second round of each of the year’s first three majors, her French Open victory over Angelique Kerber providing her signature victory thus far.
The Russian reached a career high of No 64 in July.
The New York atmosphere will be super-charged as Gauff steps onto what will surely be one of the stadium courts next week.
After enjoying strong support from the traditionally reserved British crowd at Wimbledon, she’s in store for a raucous welcome in Flushing.
Should all go well for Coco, a potential showdown with defending champ Osaka awaits in Round 3.
Aryna Sabalenka, seeded 9, meets her compatriot Victoria Azarenka, a former World No 1, in her opener.
Making her US Open debut last year as the 28th seed, Sabalenka reached the fourth round before losing to Osaka in three tight sets, the 21-year-old Belarusian being the only woman to take a set off of the eventual champion in the fortnight.
This year, she opens her campaign Azarenka, currently ranked 41, a two-time Australian Open champion who has also reached the US Open finals twice and sat at the top of the rankings for 51 weeks.
Sabalenka’s rise gained steam in the second half of 2018, when she won the first 2 of her 3 WTA titles.
Named the US Open Series Breakout Performer for last year, she has again had a strong run on the US hard courts this season, reaching the final at the Mubadala Silicon Valley Classic and the Round of 16 in Cincinnati.
Speaking with USOpenSeries.com earlier this month, she discussed how she has changed her mentality after struggling early in 2019 with the pressure of being a Top-10 player
Kiki Bertens is the other dangerous player in the top quarter.
Wimbledon champion Simona Halep leads the second quarter, and will face a qualifier in the opening round, with two-time Grand Slam winner and 6th seed Petra Kvitova a possible quarter-final opponent.
Halep is living the dream after her Wimbledon triumph and the Romanian heads into the Open hoping for a new dawn after early exits in the last two years.
Halep scorched 23-times Grand Slam winner Serena Williams 6-2 6-2 in less than an hour in this year’s Wimbledon final to add a second major title to her trophy cabinet after last year’s French Open crown.
The 27-year-old’s near-flawless display at the All England Club marked a spectacular return to form after her world ranking dropped from No 1 to 7 between mid-January and July.
Flushing Meadows represents a different challenge for the Romanian, who has been knocked out in the first round on her last two visits, falling to Russian wildcard Maria Sharapova in 2017 and Estonia’s Kaia Kanepi last year.
Halep’s best showing at the tournament was in 2015 when she was beaten by eventual champion Flavia Pennetta in the semi-finals, and the US Open is the only Grand Slam where she has failed to reach the final.
Halep, who reached the Australian Open final in 2018, has not had the ideal preparation heading into the final Grand Slam of the season.
The World No 4 was forced to retire with a left Achilles injury in the Rogers Cup quarter-finals in Toronto earlier this month and lost to American Madison Keys in the Cincinnati third round.
Halep enjoys a better career head-to-head record over the three players ranked above her — Naomi Osaka (4-1), Ash Barty (3-1) and Karolina Pliskova (7-3) — making her one of the bookmakers’ favourites at Flushing Meadows, behind Williams.
Other notable first round main draw matches include:
No 15 Bianca Andreescu vs. Katie Volynets
No 20 Sofia Kenin vs. CoCo Vandeweghe
No 24 Garbiñe Muguruza vs. Alison Riske
No 30 Maria Sakkari vs. Camila Giorgi
Round 1 will play out over the course of the first two days of the US Open, on Monday, 26 August and Tuesday, 27 August, while the tournament runs through 8 September.