Kicking off proceedings on Day 4 under a bright, sunny sky with the temperature in the low 20s, was a contest pitting the exciting young talent in the women’s game, Jelena Ostapenko, against a 27-year old ‘veteran’, Sorana Cirstea.
The French Open champion and No 12 seed passed a stern test from Spain’s Lara Arruabarrena, and the weather, to open her US Open campaign on Tuesday with a 6-2 1-6 6-1 victory.
In a match that began on Court 17, Ostapenko overpowered her Spanish opponent in the opener, sputtered in the second, and finished it off on Ashe stadium under the roof by reeling off the final three games, with the loss of just two points, to punch her ticket into the second round and make her brief debut there.
I think I was probably playing better on the big points although I wasn’t serving too well. Amazing to be here in New York City, and very special to be doing well Jelena Ostapenko
Cirstea, from Romanian, easily dispatched a qualifier, Lesley Kerkhove of the Netherlands, 6-1 6-3, to reach her appointment with Ostapenko on the temporary Louis Armstrong Stadium, both experiencing the new arena for the first time.
Ostapenko’s ascension to the ranks of Grand Slam champion has been so meteoric that it is easy to forget just how inexperienced the 20-year-old is.
She has only played 10 Grand Slams in total, the US Open just twice, qualifying for the main draw in 2015 and beating Annika Beck before losing to Sara Errani, and ousted by Petra Kvitova 5-7 3-6 in the first round last year.
Cirstea’s run to the round of 16 at the Australian Open boosted her ranking and she went on to make the third round of the Miami Open and the quarter-finals in Istanbul and Madrid.
She then made the semi-finals in Nurnberg and the third round of Wimbledon before successfully qualifying for the Rogers Cup in Toronto, beating three good players to do so and losing in the first round to Caroline Garcia.
Both women play very powerful, error-prone, aggressive tennis, but Ostapenko has the better serve and a much greater weight of shot.
She is, however, much less experienced and would have to stay aggressive but balanced through the match to book her place in the third round at the US Open.
The favourite took an early break and held to go up 4-2, but when she served again at 4-3, she delivered an extraordinary 5 double faults and yet still managed to save six break points to hold for 5-3, testimony to her aggressive ground play.
Cristea held to 15 and asked the question of the Latvian again.
It was a different player who took to the line, as Ostapenko found her first serve again and took it on her second set point after 48 minutes.
Cristea responded by breaking at the start of the second that was followed by a rash of dropped service games, four in a row, but she held for 3-2 and attacked the Ostapenko delivery again.
When the Latvian’s first serve landed in, the pint was in little doubt but her success rate was way too low, just 54%%, and her costly two double faults, her 11th and 12th, offered up another break point opportunity.
She saved it with a powerful forehand drive into the corner but followed it with her 13th double and was lucky to survive the weak second delivery as Cristea nailed her angled backhand drive into the top of the net.
Ostapenko scored an ad point but, again, the serve was swatted away for for a winner by the Romanian, and she made no mistake on her next chance to hold by serving a long-awaited ace and levelled the set at 3 games all.
Helped by two aces, Cristea stemmed the flow by holding for 4-3, as did the Latvian for 4 all.
At 30-30 after two double faults of her own, Cristea face a break point and Ostapenko made no mistake, drilling the weak second serve away for an angled winner to go up 5-4 and serve for the match.
Despite the fragility of her serving, the Latvian held firm and closed it out 6-4 6-4 in 90 minutes.
“I was fighting to the end, trying to show my best,” she told the packed stadium.
“I think I was probably playing better on the big points although I wasn’t serving too well. Amazing to be here in New York City, and very special to be doing well.”
The match stats are what nightmares are made of: 13 doubles for Ostapenko against Cristea’s 6, both struck 24 winners but the unforced error count was 29-22.
The only difference was that Ostapenko won 78 points to Cristea’s 70 and the Latvian won the most important ones.
Brady blasts away Strycova
Playing on the Grandstand on Thursday, the 23rd-seeded Barbora Strycova and Jennifer Brady locked horns until the second game of the second set, after which it was pretty much over.
Strycova blocked a return into the net on break point while down 6-1 and 1-0 down, and that was as close as she could get to battling her way back into the match.
It was all Brady all the time, as the former UCLA Bruin cruised into the third round of her first US Open main draw, with a 6-1 6-1 over Strycova in a tidy 55 minutes.
Unbelievably, the young American won 68 percent of the points against a player she lost to in straight sets just four months ago, capturing 56 points to the seed’s 26.
“I came out with lots of energy. I played her before and knew what to expect,” Brady said.
“I knew it was going to be a tough match. I brought my ‘A’ game, and I’m happy I played well.”
There was not a particular moment at which Brady took control, but Strycova’s forehand error into the net facing break point down at 0-1 in the opening set was a good example of how the match went.
Brady used a strong kick serve and heavy, deep-bouncing ground strokes to control rallies, and Strycova couldn’t find a way to avoid making mistakes.
The world No 25 made 24 unforced errors, while hitting just 6 winners in 14 games, and while she did hold a break point in the third game of the match, she struck a forehand long, losing the first and perhaps most important opportunity she had.
Strycova did manage to salvage a game while down 5-0 in both sets, but it was always too little, too late.
Brady should have a good opportunity to make the fourth round as she will play the winner of two unseeded Romanians, Ana Bogdan and Monica Niculescu.
Osaka moves on
World No 45 Naomi Osaka, who saw off the defending champion Angie Kerber in the opening round, continued her run with a three set win over Denisa Allertova, securing her place the third round.
She scored a 6-3 4-6 7-4 victory over the Czech.
She is not a newcomer to squaring off against some of the biggest contenders in the game.
2014 was her first major victory, when she upended 2011 US Open champion Sam Stosur at the Bank of the West Classic in Stanford when just 16 years old and ranked 406, clocking serves averaging 120 mph.
She posted an impressive run at the Australian Open last year, making it through qualifying before falling to two-time Grand Slam champion Victoria Azarenka, 6-1 6-1, in the third round.
Success followed her to the clay courts that year, when at Roland Garros, Osaka cruised past No 32 seed Jelena Ostapenko, who would claim the French Open title a year later, in two sets, 6-4 7-5.
She went on to take No 6 seed Simona Halep to three sets in the third round before finally falling, 4-6 6-2, 6-3.
2016 was Osaka’s first Top 40 year-end finish, and she was the recipient of the WTA Newcomer of the Year Award.
She started 2017 on a high, defeating longtime idol Venus Williams in Auckland before losing in the quarter-finals to No 8 seed Ana Konjuh, but the rest of the year has been less fruitful.
She qualified for the main draw in Toronto, reaching the third round and stealing a set from top seed Karolina Pliskova before having to retire due to an abdominal injury.
“Yeah, well, having to withdraw really hurt my feelings,” Osaka told the press at her post-match conference on Tuesday, “especially since I was playing the No 1 and felt like I was doing really well.”
She is one of just four teenagers in the world’s Top 100, entering the US Open ranked No 51, and even though she has only appeared in six Grand Slam main draws coming into the 2017 US Open, she has already reached the third round in all four majors.
In other results, Kaia Kanepi from Estonia defeated Belgium’s Yanina Wickmayer, 6-4 6-2.