New York | Osaka on track as Stephens and Muguruza fall
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There are no guarantees in tennis, as two former Grand Slam champions discovered to their cost on Tuesday, Day 2 of the US Open in New York.
Well, I think she levelled her game a lot. In the first set, I did play well. She made a few mistakes and I, you know, got the opportunity and I went for [it]. It was very competitive. Every game we had break points and then we were breaking each other's serves a lot. Garbiñe Muguruza
Sloane Stephens, the 2017 US Open champion, and Garbiñe Muguruza, winner in Paris in 2016 French and at Wimbledon in 2017, found themselves dispatched prematurely, but top seed Naomi Osaka, who is defending the title here, came through as Coco Gauff mania hit the Big Apple.
It was a little known Russian qualifier Anna Kalinskaya who scored the biggest win of her young career, and her first over a Top 10 player, on the game’s biggest stage, stunning Stephens, 6-3 6-4, to reach the second round at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center.
It was a night match with a raucous crowd in the house cheering on the home favourite, who could not rebuff the challenge despite the advantages of the setting.
Stephens, somewhat controversially, recently reunited with longtime coach Kamau Murray in the hopes of kickstarting an up-and-down 2019 season.
Murray had joined the team of Monica Puig, the 2014 Olympic Gold medalist and World No 59, who had not won a title since 2016, but the relationship did not last.
After losing in the first round of the Open, the Puerto Rican confided she felt deceived when Murray left her team unexpectedly to rejoin his former student Stephens.
“It really hurts,” she said in a trembling voice, blindsided by the sudden departure, adding that he had informed her a few days before the tournament that he would not come to NYC, without saying why.
She later learned that Murray had reunited with Stephens and they were ‘training in secret’.
“I deserve more than that,” Puig said.
The move didn’t help Stephens as she traded early service holds with Kalinskaya, who quickly adjusted to the glare of US Open spotlight under the Ashe lights.
Breaking at her first opportunity, the Russian, who is coached by former WTA player Patricia Tarabini, saved a break point in the next game to serve out the opening set, and shook off losing the early break in the second to hold steady with Stephens until the 9th game.
Kalinskaya narrowly lost to then-World No 9 Julia Goerges in her last US Open main draw appearance, and perhaps channeled that experience as she broke Stephens once more and clinched the upset on her 3rd match point.
Standing between the youngster and the third round is American wildcard Kristie Ahn, who stunned Western & Southern Open runner-up and 2004 US Open champion Svetlana Kuznetsova in straight sets earlier in the evening on Court 5.
“I’m very happy with my win,” Kalinskaya told the press after her victory. “I’m very happy that I played on this court and I really enjoyed the atmosphere being there.”
“That’s what I practice for: to play against big players on the big courts,” the Russian added. “I think that’s what every player practices for.”
The 20-year-old won 3 matches at the US Open’s Qualifying Tournament to make the main draw for a second straight year, and sealed her first major main draw win with a searing backhand down the line after an hour and 23 minutes on Arthur Ashe Stadium.
“I just tried to focus on my game, don’t think too much about the other person, and just do my best,” said Kalinskaya, who is edging ever closer to a Top 100 debut in the WTA Rankings.
World No 10 Stephens later took a swipe at Puig by saying her comments about coach Murray to the press were ‘a little inappropriate’.
“I think there’s two sides to every story. I don’t think that you should tell anything but the truth,” Stephens said. “I’ve seen some of the things that were said.
“I think that grownups do grownup things. We should leave it in the past and we should move on.
“If she has a problem, then she should approach me. It’s not like I don’t see her all the time.
‘Yeah, to go to you guys [in the media] and say everything that has been said, I think is a little inappropriate.
“But it is what it is. We move on.”
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The manner in which Garbiñe Muguruza struck out in her first set encounter with Alison Riske was a strong and welcome echo of why the likeable Spaniard has two major titles to her name but at the last she was outplayed.
From the very first point she had the American pinned to the Grandstand baseline, trading heavy ground strokes until the No 24 seed got the opportunity to step in and blast a winner.
While Riske’s combination of controlled aggression and pinpoint accuracy created chances, the heavily favoured Muguruza claimed the set on the strength of her variety, consistency and experience.
Riske’s ground strokes, however, found their mark in the second set, when she more than doubled her winners, from 9 to 17.
Although Muguruza reduced her unforced error count in the third, Riske kept the pressure on by continuing to paint the lines.
The American rode the momentum rollercoaster to the finish line for her second win against the Spaniard in 4 career meetings, 2-6 6-1 6-3.
“Muguruza came out playing really solid and not making a lot of mistakes. But I had a lot of opportunities. I just didn’t take them,” Riske said. “I just had to tighten up a little. I knew if I did that, I’d have a chance.”
She claimed the last game in emphatic fashion, blasting a cross-court winner and notching her first ace of the match en route to the 2-hour, 3-minute victory.
“Well, I think she levelled her game a lot,” Muguruza said. “In the first set, I did play well. She made a few mistakes and I, you know, got the opportunity and I went for [it].
“It was very competitive. Every game we had break points and then we were breaking each other’s serves a lot.
“She found very good shots in the second and third sets, a lot of lines. We always have tough matches, and I think she’s playing great now.”
It was Muguruza’s 3rd first-round loss at the US Open, having gone out on her main draw debut against Sara Errani in 2012, and succumbing to qualifier Mirjana Lucic-Baroni in 2014.
The loss compounds the Spaniard’s disappointing hard-court season in which she was forced to withdraw from San Jose and Toronto with a right leg injury and, at Cincinnati, she lost to eventual champion Madison Keys after being within 2 points of victory in the second set tiebreak.
Her best result in her 7 trips to the US Open is a Round of 16 berth in 2017.
After a shaky start top seed Naomi Osaka opened her US Open title defence with a much-needed 6-4 6-7(5) 6-2 win over 20-year-old Russian Anna Blinkova.
The 21-year-old Osaka fell behind, quickly, 4-1 before coming back to take the first.
In the second, despite continued to spray errors, the World No 1 reached match point but couldn’t finish and after losing a nervous breaker, Osaka pulled away in the third for her 8th straight win in New York.
“I don’t think I’ve ever been so nervous in my life,” Osaka told the crowd. “I don’t think I ever really found my rhythm, but I just fought as hard as I can.”
The Japanese will next face Poland’s Magda Linette, who lifted her first career WTA trophy at the Bronx Open last weekend.
Linette defeated Astra Sharma of Australia to advance to set up clash against Osaka.
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Later in the day, No 4 seed Simona Halep also went the distance in a three-set win over American 26-year-old Nicole Gibbs, 6-3 3-6 6-2.
Gibbs, a ‘lucky loser’, made things interesting in the second before Halep simply outplayed the former Stanford standout in the third.
The reigning Wimbledon champion was a first-round US Open loser the past two years, and felt a load had been lifted after advancing to the second round.
“Definitely I feel lighter now,” Halep said. “I feel much better that I could win a match finally in this tournament.”
The Romanian lost to Russian 5-time Grand Slam champion Maria Sharapova in the 2017 first round, and fell to Estonia’s Kaia Kanepi last year.
“Well, the pressure was tricky today. Winning 1 match in 3 years, it’s pretty tough,” she said with a smile. “But it’s good that I could go over that.
“I was stressed before the match, also on this court [Louis Armstrong Stadium] that I lost last year. Was not easy. But I’m really happy that I could manage in the end to play better than before.”
Halep said she was thankful for a tough fight in her opener, thinking it better prepares her for the tests to come.
“I’m not feeling great at the beginning of the tournament, but always when I played tough matches at the beginning, then I went through the semi-finals or quarter-finals,” Halep said.
“So I’m confident. I feel like my game, it’s there. I’m moving well. I just need a little bit of mental confidence. Now I’m trying to get it.”
Halep hopes to match the level she reached in last month’s Wimbledon final, where she outplayed 23-time major champion Serena Williams to collect her second Grand Slam title after the 2018 French Open.
“The good thing is that I believe I can touch that level,” Halep said. “If I keep working every day really hard, I’m able to do it again.
“So that’s why I’m motivated. I’m still hungry of results, of titles. I’m sure that with matches and with tournaments I can get back there.”
Halep says winning at Wimbledon has made her more relaxed.
“You just have to believe and go ahead. You have nothing to lose now in my position,” she said. “I’ve done everything I wanted, extra winning Wimbledon.
“I’m pretty relaxed. But still I have expectations for myself. I’m trying to get better day by day.”
Halep could become the World No 1 by winning the US Open title and could chase for the year-end number one ranking she held last year.
“If I’m healthy, I will go for it 100 percent,” Halep said. “I want to finish number one. I still have chances, so I’m going to work for them. I’m confident I have actually a big chance. I will fight.”
American teen sensation, Coco Gauff, made her US Open debut on Tuesday, and once again she lit up the event.
Playing the main draw is a new experience for Gauff, who did not quite realise she only has to play every other day at the US Open.
“I’m still used to playing juniors,” the American said with a chuckle, “So I forgot about the day off.”
She is still just 15 and already competing in just her second Grand Slam tournament.
With her parents jumping out of their front-row seats over and over again, and a raucous partisan crowd backing her at Louis Armstrong Stadium, Gauff trailed by a set and a break, then again by a break in the third set, before coming up big down the stretch to get past Anastasia Potapova of Russia, 3-6 6-2 6-4.
“Honestly, I mean, I really don’t remember the match too well,” Gauff admitted, “Because everything is still a blur…”
Gauff simply does not give in or give up and displayed the same sort of gumption she did while saving match points in a Centre Court comeback at Wimbledon during her captivating run to the fourth round there last month.
As strong as her serve and other strokes are, she is already showing an ability to make adjustments during a match and figure out ways to win, time and again.
Gauff was ranked 313th when she got a wild-card invitation into qualifying at Wimbledon, then became the youngest player in history to make it through those preliminary rounds at that prestigious tournament.
After beating Venus Williams in the first round, then a 2017 Wimbledon semi-finalist in the second, Gauff got to Week 2 before her surprising showing there ended with a loss to eventual champion Simona Halep.
It was enough to persuade the USTA to provide a wild card into its event, a special entry she needed because her ranking is 140th.
In her contest with 18-year-old Anastasia Potapova, the Russian was hammering winners off both sides but, in the second, the winners slowly turned into errors and the Armstrong crowd lifted Gauff to force a third.
Both continued to strike errors, but Potapova was the bigger mess, quickly going down 4-1.
After a medical timeout for a shoulder, the Russian got back on track and levelled, but Gauff was too strong scoring the 3-set win.
“It was crazy,” said Gauff. “Obviously I was nervous going out on the court. It’s such a big court. Then my home slam, so I wanted to do well.
“The crowd really helped me the whole match. Like, it was really a great atmosphere to play in and a great experience for me.
“I think it was a good match on such a big stage so a lot of people could see it,” she added. “She’s young, too. She’s only a couple years older than me.
“I know we’re going to see each other a lot in the future. I hope we do see each other in the future, but hopefully in the finals, not in the first round.”
Gauff faces Hungarian qualifier Timea Babos on Thursday, with a possible showdown against top-ranked defending champion Naomi Osaka of Japan in the third round.
“I first met Naomi [when] I hit with her at the Miami Open maybe three years ago,” Gauff said. “Our dads always knew each other. When I talked to her, we do have similarities.
“She’s doing amazing, obviously. Hopefully I can get to her level. I mean, she’s amazing.
“She’s a nice person. I can’t even say anything bad about her, her family, because they’ve always been super nice, even since I was 12.”
Also on Armstrong, in the first-ever battle between two Belarusian women, Aryna Sabalenka, the 9th seed, took down 2-time US Open finalist Victoria Azarenka, 3-6 6-3 6-4, while Petra Kvitova, seeded 6th, the great Dane, Caroline Wozniacki (19), and Canadian sensation Bianca Andreescu (15) were also winners on Day 2.