Early on Day 4 in the Big Apple, World No 1 Iga Swiatek cruised into the 3rd-round of the US Open alongside Jessica Pegula, Garbiñe Muguruza and Belinda Bencic, while 4th-seeded Paula Badosa was upset in 3 sets by Petra Martic.
Serena totally deserves it and it's pretty obvious for me that she's going to be in the spotlight in this tournament. That's kind of her time right now. I'm just, you know, playing and focusing on that, and that's the most important thing for me. Serena is a great example of knowing that the sky is the limit,” she said. “Hopefully we’re gonna meet in the final! Iga Świątek
Swiatek arrived in New York as the tournament favourite and sailed past former US Open champion Sloane Stephens, 6-3 6-2, with barely a hiccup.
Her chances of landing the title have improved considerably with the early departure of seeds numbered 2-4, Anett Kontaveit, Maria Sakkari and Badosa, while she is back to her dominant self, dictating from the get-go and using her power and relentless consistency to outpace her opponents.
Stephens, now 29 and ranked 51, came in as a very dangerous floater, and she was also unseeded, ranked just 83, when she won the US Open in 2017.
On Thursday, the 21-year old Pole went up an early break in the first set, but Stephens fired back with a break of her own, only for Swiatek to bounce back with 3 break-point opportunities in the next game before winning the 4th to bound ahead 3-1, and then holding serve the rest of the way.
The second was all Swiatek, who went up 4-0 after breaking Stephens twice en route to a comfortable win in just an hour and 14 minutes on Arthur Ashe Stadium, the first time she had ever played on the biggest stage in tennis.
Speaking on the court where she had watched 23-time Grand Slam champion Serena Williams as a junior, Swiatek uttered a ‘Wow!” when she heard her voice over the sound system, and gazed around with a sense of wonder.
“I’m pretty happy with my focus today,” she said. “I think I did better than in Cincinnati.
““I’ve had ups and downs, but here I was pretty solid from the beginning.”
“Just being on a stadium here downstairs, not there [in the stands], is pretty awesome.”
Stephens saved 8 of 12 break points but could not fend off the Pole’s offensive barrage, having also lost to her in straight sets last month in the Cincinnati 3rd-round.
Swiatek, who collected her second Roland Garros title this year amid an extraordinary 37-match winning streak, sent 14 winners over the net, which was twice as many as the American, and won more than three-quarters of her first-serve points, 23 of 30.
The Pole is flying under the radar, playing her matches early and watching the hype and razzmatazz surrounding Williams as the American prepares to ‘evolve away from the sport’ in a blaze of glory.
“Serena totally deserves it and it’s pretty obvious for me that she’s going to be in the spotlight in this tournament,” said Swiatek. “That’s kind of her time right now.
“I’m just, you know, playing and focusing on that, and that’s the most important thing for me.”
Earlier in the week Swiatek finally worked up the courage to meet Williams.
“Serena is a great example of knowing that the sky is the limit,” she said. “Hopefully we’re gonna meet in the final!”
The World No 1 will focus now on another American, though, playing in front of the home crowd, when she faces Lauren Davis in the next round.
Davis defeated the No 28 seed Ekaterina Alexandrova, 0-6 6-4 7-6[10-5], after a 2 hour 12 minute battle out on Court 13.
Another American, 8th-seeded Pegula, took out Aliaksandra Sasnovich, 6-4 6-4, to reach the 3rd round of the US Open for a 3rd straight year.
Sasnovich came into the year’s last major in good form, having reached the Cleveland final last week and narrowly missed being seeded in New York.
Pegula, a quarter-finalist at this year’s Australian Open and Roland Garros and the American No 1, brought Sasnovich back down to earth in 1 hour and 19 minutes on Louis Armstrong Stadium on Thursday.
“I’m glad I got through my first two matches doing what I needed to do and playing smart,” Pegula said afterwards. “It’s only going to get tougher from here, so I’m just happy with each match and hoping the next match kind of goes the same way. Try not to get too ahead of myself.”
The World No 8 fired 6 aces and converted 5 of her 10 break points, and finished the match by sweeping 12 of the last 13 points.
Pegula, who is seeking her first trip to the Round of 16, will next face qualifier Yuan Yue of China, who beat Romania’s Irina-Camelia Begu, 6-3 7-6(6).
Later, Muguruza, the 9th seed from Spain, successfully dealt with talented teenager Linda Fruhvirtova from the Czech Republic, 6-0 6-4, on Armstrong, showing a return to form at the only major event where she has yet to reach the final.
It took her an hour and 9 minutes to see off the 17-year-old qualifier, who was making her Grand Slam main-draw debut this week.
Muguruza is still only 11-10 at the US Open, and she is just 11-14 for the 2022 season, but after 2 straight-sets wins over two of the rising teenagers on tour this week, the former World No 1 has some momentum behind her.
The Spaniard was unbothered in the opening set, where Fruhvirtova hit zero winners and won only 5 points in total.
The Czech teen rebounded to take a 4-1 lead in the second, but Muguruza’s experience served her well as she claimed the next 5 games to triumph.
Muguruza will meet another Czech next, her fellow two-time Grand Slam champion Petra Kvitova in a blockbuster 3rd-round encounter.
Kvitova, the No 21 seed, advanced by way of a walk-over after Anhelina Kalinina withdrew from their scheduled 2nd-round match due to illness.
The Czech left-hander leads Muguruza 5-1 in their head-to-head, with their most recent meeting coming in the 2021 Doha final, which Kvitova won, 6-2 6-1.
Elsewhere, No 13 seed Belinda Bencic from Switzerland found her way past Romanian Sorana Cirstea, 3-6 7-5 6-2, out on Court 11 on a cloudless Thursday morning.
The only Swiss woman left in the singles draw came from behind to beat Cirstea for the first time in her career, but the road into the 3rd-round was not smooth, and the reigning Olympic singles gold medalist was within one game from elimination.
Cirstea took the first set and built a 5-3 lead in the second, when Bencic held serve for 4-5 and converted on her 4th break point in the following game with a backhand winner down the line to level.
After holding serve, Bencic broke Cirstea again to take the second set, and then went up 3-1 in the third by converting her 4th break point, of 15, in the match
Leading 5-2 on Cirstea’s serve, Bencic raced to a 40-0 lead, thanks in part to Cirstea’s 9th double-fault of the match, and although the Romanian won the next 3 points, she double-faulted again.
Bencic shanked her first match point, then hit a forehand winner to earn a second, which she won when Cirstea dumped a backhand into the net.
“It was a very tough win,” Bencic admitted. “I felt she was putting me a lot under pressure in the first and the second sets.
“I was doing a lot of mistakes, especially with my forehand. I told myself I just fight and we see how it goes.
“Playing with [my] back to the wall, it’s easier to kind of relax, and say, ‘I try everything and we see’ because you almost lost already.”
Bencic takes on No 22 seed Karolina Pliskova, the 2016 US Open runner-up, who won the all-Czech battle with Marie Bouzkova, 6-3 6-2.
It took Pliskova 68 minutes to defeat the 24-year-old, the match played at dusk.
In the first set, both held serve until the 8th game when Pliskova went up 40-0 on Bouzkova’s serve, and took a 5-3 lead by converting her 3rd break point before holding to take the set.
In the second, Pliskova uncorked 14 winners, took a 4-2 lead, and won the last 8 points in a row to seal the match.
“Kaja is a very aggressive player,” Bouzkova said, referring to Pliskova by her nickname. “She served really well from the beginning until the end. I tried to defend as much as I could today, but obviously it wasn’t enough and she played a really good match.”
Pliskova agreed with that assessment: “I think I was quite solid, both serve, and return.
“Of course it was not easy conditions, a bit windy, then the sun from the side. Not the best feeling, but I had it under my control.”
For the second straight day, a top-5 seed was ousted early as Spain’s Badosa fell in 2 sets to Croatia’s Martic, 6-7(5) 6-1 6-2.
The former Top 15 player has reached the Round of 16 or better at each of the 4 Grand Slam tournaments, 9 times in total including 4th-round runs at the US Open in 2019 and 2020.
Once Badosa eked out the hour-long first set, improving to a splendid 13-2 in tiebreaks this season, Martic was close to an exit, but she rebounded with aplomb to sweep through the last two sets and earn the 4th Top 5 win of her career after 2 hours and 5 minutes of play.
The 31-year-old was overwhelming down the stretch, striking 20 winners to just 9 unforced errors spanning the second and third sets.
Martic will face another marquee name in the 3rd-round, No 26 seed Victoria Azarenka, after the Belarusian beat Ukraine’s Marta Kostyuk, 6-2 6-3.
Azarenka, a former World No 1, was the US Open runner-up in 2012 and 2013, and won her only prior meeting with Martic, which was 10 years ago on the indoor hard courts of Linz.