The night session of the US Open saw Coco Gauff and Belinda Bencic advance to the Last 16, both in 3 sets, but former Wimbledon champion Elena Rybakina met her match in Sorana Cirstea, who sent her home after a 2 hour 48 minute battle.
A matchup I thought I would never have to play [against Caroline Wozniacki]. When she retired, I said in an interview that I wish I would have played her. And my wish came true.
For the second time under the lights of Arthur Ashe Stadium, Gauff, the 19-year old 6th-seeded American, had to rally from a set down to stay alive in her home Grand Slam.
The teenager found herself on the wrong end of the first set, but then saved break points early in the second to spark a dominant finish in a 3-6 6-3 6-0 win over Belgian Elise Mertens, the No 32 seed.
“When you lose the first set, you have to show that you have to leave that energy in the first set,” Gauff said. “The three setters show that I’m not going down without a fight.
“She was playing a little bit more aggressive than the last time I played her. Also I had some areas where I was not missing by a lot, it was a little bit on balls that I probably could have ended the point on.”
Gauff pulled off the win despite not playing her best, as she had done in her 1st-round match on Monday, when she also had to come back from a set down to take out Laura Siegemund from Germany amidst another equally emotionally-charged night inside Ashe Stadium.
She came into the match with a 2-0 record over Mertens, who was a two-time quarter-finalist in New York, and had paved her way to the 3rd-round by saving match points in back-to-back wins.
The first set rolled along with the server for the first 6 games before Gauff capitulated first after failing to convert 2 break points in the previous game, and coughing up 2 double-faults, including on break point, to hand Mertens the advantage at 4-3.
The Belgian upped her intensity from there, besting Gauff in 2 protracted rallies to hold before she broke again to seal the opening set.
“She’s the type of player where she steps in, if you give her something short, especially on the backhand side, she was doing well of attacking on that end,” Gauff said. “Even on the forehand she was being aggressive.
“I think in the second I tried to keep her playing back and off her back foot, also coming in a little bit more so she knew I wasn’t going to stay back every time she was playing defence.”
The teenager scrapped, defended, cracked some exquisite winners, threw in more double-faults, screamed into the sky at some of her unforced errors, urged the crowd to lift her up when she did find the range and, eventually, squeezed out the game and the second set.
Playing as one tipped for the title for the first time in her career, Gauff steeled herself, and saved 5 break points to get through a 6-deuce game and hold to 1-1, before gradually reeling in the Belgian.
She broke Mertens for a 4-3 lead and then, again facing pressure on her own serve, Gauff saved another break point to consolidate, and she took the match into a deciding set by breaking again, this time with a perfectly placed backhand pass that brought the partisan crowd on Ashe to their feet.
The precision and execution that had lifted Mertens in the first set quickly evaporated, and Gauff won the last 8 games of the match and closed it out after 2 hours and 4 minutes, finishing with 33 winners to 25 unforced errors.
“I think, maybe, that could have been a match that I could have lost in the past, especially breaking her, then immediately getting broken back,” Gauff said. “I’m figuring out these situations, making it easier and easier as the matches go.”
With a US Open quarter-final spot on the line, next up for Gauff is Caroline Wozniacki, the 33-year-old 2-time US Open finalist who continued her come-back by beating American Jennifer Brady, 4-6 6-3 6-1, earlier in the day.
“A matchup I thought I would never have to play,” Gauff said during the court-side interview about her upcoming match with the former World No 1. “When she retired, I said in an interview that I wish I would have played her. And my wish came true.”
Gauff has extended her active win streak to 8 matches, while the 19-year-old has been the hottest player of the hard-court summer, sweeping the two biggest titles of her career in Washington DC and Cincinnati, and winning 14 of her last 15 matches.
A little earlier, as the evening closed in, Bencic, the 15th seed from Switzerland, out-slugged China’s Lin Zhu in a 3-set thriller on the Grandstand.
The reigning Olympic champion endured her toughest test of this year’s Open, edging the in-form Zhu, 7-6(1) 2-6 6-3, in a 3rd-round slugfest that lasted 2 hours and 39 minutes.
“Tennis is usually a rollercoaster. Sometimes it’s more enjoyable and sometimes it’s not, but I’m really happy with how I fought at the end,” Bencic said, adding that she enjoyed the energy of the music between games and animated night crowd, even the fan who repeatedly offered his ‘coaching’.
So many times early in the match, it seemed that 26-year-old Bencic was about to grasp control, only for World No 44 Zhu to snatch it back.
After trading breaks with her opponent, the Swiss became visibly invigorated when she angled a forehand winner to earn a double game point at 1-1, but she was left gaping on the very next point as Zhu not only reached her deft drop-shot, but whipped a winner that landed on the outer edge of the line.
At 3-3, Bencic denied her Chinese opponent a double break opportunity with a groundstroke winner on the run, followed by a 110-mile-per-hour ace.
Zhu hung on to earn the break anyway, with a return winner, only for Bencic to immediately level the set, and so it went until the tiebreak, in which the Swiss refused to yield her lead and closed out with the loss of just 1 point.
The Chinese responded by cutting her errors, and, when she smashed an overhead winner to go ahead 4-2, 30-0, Bencic leaned against the backstop, rested her head in her hand and unleashed a stream of animated commentary to her player box.
Zhu kept up the pressure, along with a barrage of winners, culminating with a forehand volley put-away to clinch the second set.
The decider featured early drama at 1-1, 30-30 when Bencic smacked a drop-shot return into Zhu’s body, knocking her to the court, and the Swiss immediately stepped over the net to apologise to Zhu, who took a minute but recovered to claim the game.
The Olympic gold medalist at the 2021 Tokyo Games summoned all her experience on the world’s greatest stages to finish off her her opponent, while clinching her 12th three-set tussle of the year.
“It’s just the experience you get with every year,” Bencic reflected afterwards. “Sometimes you play well at 17 and sometimes you play well at 28—you never know. It’s always ups and downs anyway.”
Bencic, a former Top 5 player, is aiming to improve on her two US Open quarter-final appearances and her run to the semi-finals in 2019, but she will have to get past Romanian Sorana Cirstea to do so.
Cirstea pulled off the biggest upset of the tournament so far, sending the big-hitting 4th seed Elena Rybakina tumbling out of the US Open with a thrilling 6-3 6-7(6) 6-4 win late on Friday on Louis Armstrong Stadium to reach the 4th round at Flushing Meadows for the first time in her career.
Rybakina came into the clash the fresher of the two after her 2nd-round opponent, Australia’s Ajla Tomljanovic, pulled out, but the Indian Wells and Rome champion, who had strapping on her right shoulder, made a sluggish start.
Cirstea broke the former Wimbledon champion in the 4th game of the first set, and the seasoned World No 30 continued to dictate points from the centre of the court while taking an early lead in the contest.
The 33-year-old, who had lost her previous 2 meetings with Moscow-born Kazakh Rybakina, pounced early in the second set, but dropped serve immediately as her opponent found her range again with some blistering groundstrokes.
The Australian Open runner-up, though, failed to make the most of 2 set points at 6-5, and squandered 2 more chances to draw level in the tiebreak but got across the line with a cross-court winner, much to the joy of the Armstrong crowd.
Cirstea composed herself to take charge of the decider, and went up 4-1 before staving off a late come-back attempt by Rybakina, and closing out the match with a decisive late break after a double-fault from her opponent.
“I’ve been paying for quite a few years and this was the best crowd I’ve ever played in front of,” Cirstea said. “Thank you for the support, it’s 12 o’clock, so thank you for hanging out and making this amazing atmosphere.
“I’m very happy with the win today. I’ve lost twice against her and she’s a good player, number four in the world and I knew it was going to be a tough battle. I’m just so happy, it’s a great moment for me.”
Up next for Cirstea is her clash with Bencic, but the Romanian said she was not looking too far ahead.
“It’s one match at a time,” Cirstea said. “At this stage in the tournament, everyone plays great and I’m glad that the work is paying off.
“Never stop believing in the things you do and the work you do because sooner or later if you put in the right energy… the things you want in life will come to you.”