Belarusians are making a bit of a noise at the US Open this year, particularly Anya Sabalenka, who secured her spot in the third round with a convincing win over Vera Zvonareva on Day 4 of the championships in New York.
She was one of four early wins on Thursday, joining Petra Kvitova, the 5th seed, Naomi Osaka, No 20 and the unseeded Aliaksandra Sasnovich there.
Sasnovich is a fellow Belarusian countrywoman and she took out the very talented young Russian, Daria Kasatkina, 6-3 7-6(7).
Of course this is unbelievable for me and I'm really in shock right now because it was such a great summer for me. I didn't expect it to be that good and I'm so happy with this level I show on the court. Anya Sabalenka
As for Sabalenka, who bagged her first WTA title on Sunday in New Haven, she blasted past Zvonareva out on Court 13, 6-3 7-6(7).
The big hitting Belarusian survived a second set scare to set up a brilliant match with Kvitova.
She began the season ranked 78 but now sits just inside the top 20 and, aged 20, is the youngest of that elite group.
She began to make a name for herself during Belarus’ run to the Fed Cup final last season but it is this summer where she has really hit the big time, reaching the third round in Montreal, the semi-finals in Cincinnati and then winning her first title.
She took four top-10 scalps during that sequence and, after defeating Zvonareva to reach the third round at a Grand Slam for the first time, Sabalenka said: “Of course this is unbelievable for me and I’m really in shock right now because it was such a great summer for me.
“I didn’t expect it to be that good and I’m so happy with this level I show on the court.”
The biggest question mark heading into the tournament appeared to be whether she would have the stamina for another deep run, but that does not seem an issue given she promptly headed straight back out to the practice courts.
“Actually I’m OK,” she said. “I thought I would be so tired at the US Open but, touch wood, I’m feeling really good right now and I hope I can keep it until the end.”
Next up for her is Kvitova. The pair have met once before, in Miami earlier this year, when Kvitova won in three close sets.
The Czech said: “Definitely she’s on fire right now and in great form. I think that we are playing a little bit of a similar game. I’m going to try to be the one who puts the pressure on her.”
Kvitova is showing strong form in New York and defeated China’s Wang Yafan, 7-5 6-3, after making a strong start to the match but then suffering a first-set lapse before finding the resources to get the opener on the board and running away with the second.
There were no problems for the Czech in the opening game of the match as she broke with relative ease yet, on her own delivery, there was a taste of things to come as she immediately surrendered her advantage.
In the fast paced and hectic contest, both players tried to take time away from the other, resulting in dramatic momentum swings.
Kvitova was just a little more consistent initially and opened up a 4-1 advantage.
Wang’s comeback began when a Kvitova serve was controversially ruled out.
Upon challenging, it was shown to have kissed the line, yet she was not given the ace she wished and ultimately lost the game.
Another service game would be to love as the Chinese overhauled her and moved into a 5-4 advantage.
With the odds stacked against her, Kvitova rallied to carve her way out of trouble and bag the set by winning three successive games, sealing it with a tremendous roar.
The second was not as fraught, and was a touch more consistent for Kvitova.
When her lapses came, she tended to have built a large enough advantage in the game to ensure they were not critical.
With the finishing line in sight, Kvitova powered to match point, and though the first was saved, a powerful forehand winner brought up another, which was won with a thumping backhand.
The two breaks of serve had been enough for the former Wimbledon champion as she secured victory over a deflated Wang in 1 hour and 48 minutes.
“It was a difficult match today with difficult conditions, and it was very hot on court,” Kvitova said after the match.
“There were moments when I lost myself in the first set, I was down and I tried to fight back, which I did and I’m very happy with that today.”
Naomi Osaka needed just 50 minutes to beat Julia Glushko of Israel, 6-2 6-0 and was the first to complete a match on Thursday.
Glushko’s left leg was practically mummified, taped from calf to quad, and she also sported a large bandage on her right arm, battle scars from her extraordinary 47 wins, against 9 losses since mid-March, most of them at ITF tournaments.
Prior to this encounter, she had spent 7 hours and 22 minutes on court through three rounds of qualifying and a three-set win over Monica Niculescu in the first round.
Osaka, by comparison, had logged just an hour and 18 minutes in her first-round win.
The Japanese’s weapons, her serve and forehand, misfired enough for her to land 29 errors and just 10 winners, but she was still, by far, the more consistent player, breaking serve at 3-2 in the first set and then moving Glushko from side to side to expose her hobbled condition.
The Israeli appeared to avoid planting her left foot and it showed, as she piled up errors from her backhand wing, as well as 6 double faults.
Osaka is cruising, scoring the second-shortest completed match of the tournament this year in her opening round behind Monica Puig’s bagel victory over Stefanie Voegele in 45 minutes on Tuesday.
Her next opponent is World No 35 Sasnovich, who upset No 11 seed Kasatkina.
The Russian made an uncharacteristic number of unforced errors in the first set, but Kasatkina’s usual guile failed her despite turning it around in the second set, leading by a break for a large majority of it.
It was Sasnovich who hung around long enough to force the tiebreak, despite her opponent serving for the set on two occasions, to win through.
The 24-year-old was able to save 4 of the 7 break points she faced, hitting 21 winners in the match while Kasatkina struck just 14 winners against 33 unforced errors.
As for Caroline Garcia, she didn’t blink, holding serve in a marathon game lasting almost 20 minutes to key her 6-2 1-6 6-4 victory over Puig.
“This game was crazy!” the 6th-seeded Garcia said after surviving 6 break points in a game that went to deuce 11 times to give herself a 5-4 lead in the final set.
She knew it was crucial to hang on, defying not only Rio Olympics gold medalist Puig but also energy sapping heat and humidity to put herself in position to win.
“Even if it was difficult, I knew if I could get this one the next one could be difficult for her,” said Garcia, who had lost three prior matches against the Puerto Rican.
So it proved, Puig bowing out meekly with a loss of serve.
Garcia, a five-time winner on the WTA tour whose best Grand Slam result was a quarter-final run at last year’s French Open, next faces Spain’s Carla Suarez Navarro, the No 30 seed who survived a marathon against Kristina Mladenovic, 6-1 4-6 6-4, for a place in the last 16.
In perhaps the match of the day, reigning Wimbledon champion Angelique Kerber kept her bid for a second US Open title on track, outlasting Sweden’s Johanna Larsson 6-2 5-7 6-4 in Ashe Stadium.
Germany’s Kerber was knocked out in the first round last year in her defence of a 2016 US Open title that pushed her to number one in the world.
Thanks to her comprehensive victory over Serena Williams in the Wimbledon final, she returned to the Big Apple back in the top five in the world, aiming to join Serena and her sister Venus as the only women in the last 20 years to win both Wimbledon and the US Open in the same season.
Kerber was cruising with a 5-2 lead in the second set when Larsson, seeking a first win over a top-five player, found her range.
Larsson won the next five games, fending off two match points against her own serve, to take the second set.
It was a dogfight the rest of the way in a third set that featured 5 breaks of serve.
Kerber secured the last one for a 5-4 lead and, after falling behind 0-30, roared back to take the game on her third match point, letting out a cry of mingled triumph and relief when Larsson sent a groundstroke long.
“I think we both really played on a really high level from the first point,” Kerber said. “At the end it was just one or two points that decided the match.
“I think it was really a tough match and a tough battle, especially in the third set. I think that I played good until 5-2 in the second set, and I was really trying to playing the game I was planned to play.
“I think it is tennis that you have to play until the last point. She came back. She played good when she was down, and she had nothing to lose then.”
Kerber will take on Dominika Cibulkova for a spot in the round of 16 after the Slovakian beat Taiwan’s Hsieh Su-Wei, 7-6(3) 4-6 6-4.
Latvia’s Jelena Ostapenko had to fire herself up to get past Taylor Townsend, 4-6 6-3 6-4, to advance.
The American lefty caused trouble early on as the 21-year-old started the match sluggishly with three unforced errors and a double fault to gift Townsend the opening break and, more importantly, confidence.
Ostapenko is made of sterner stuff, though, and shook off her lethargy to fight her way through to await the winner of the night match between Maria Sharapova and Sorana Cristea.
Madison Keys has her sights set firmly on a return to the title match in 2018, only this time with a different ending.
She remained on course on Thursday in Louis Armstrong Stadium, outhitting Croatian-American Bernarda Pera, 6-4 6-1, in an efficient 72 minutes.
“I think I served well. I was down a couple of break points, but other than that I had solid service games and put pressure on her,” said Keys, who smacked down 8 aces and converted 3 of 9 break points on the day.
“I obviously want to do well here again,” she added. “It’s feeling good that I made the final last year, and also wanting to get there again, maybe putting a little bit of extra pressure on myself.”
A vocal Marketa Vondrousova stepped up in the key moments to edge out Eugenie Bouchard, 6-4 6-3, on Court 17.
The 19-year-old Czech, who has reached the second round at every Grand Slam except Wimbledon, has now advanced to the third round for the first time in her major career.
A clever backhand-volley lob ended a match that was certainly not as routine as the scoreboard showed.
Despite winning 5 more games than her opponent in the straight-sets victory, Vondrousova won only 3 more total points, 64 to 61, and ended the Canadian’s run from the qualifying.
Vondrousova will now face a seeded opponent for the first time in the fortnight when she takes on Cincinnati champion Kiki Bertens, the No 13 seed, in Round 3.