On the eve of the US Open, a young Belarusian, Aryna Sabalenka has stormed onto centre stage, exciting old hacks at the prospect of a new precocious talent in the women’s game that certainly can upset the applecart at Flushing Meadows this year.
She just won her first WTA singles title, sweeping aside Spain’s Carla Suarez Navarro 6-1 6-4 at the Connecticut Open on Saturday in the final tune-up before next week’s final Grand Slam of the year in New York, and sneaks into the draw seeded at No 26.
At 20 years old, Sabalenka already possesses an all-round arsenal of weapons and will move up to No 20 in the world rankings after becoming the youngest champion in New Haven since Caroline Wozniacki in 2010.
I will just work more, just to try to keep going, keep showing my best tennis, and we will see. Aryna Sabalenka
“This is a great feeling,” said the delighted Sabalenka, who blasted 29 winners. “I will just work more, just to try to keep going, keep showing my best tennis, and we will see.”
The final was the third of her career, losing to Maria Sharapova in Tianjin last year and defeated by Wozniacki at Eastbourne earlier this year.
“I didn’t have some [career] plan,” admitted Sabalenka. “I was just, like, ‘Keep going, keep fighting.’ Now I am 20 years old and I have my first title, so… it’s okay!”
It is more than okay, and the top contenders for the US Open title will be eyeing her with some trepidation because Sabalenka is not frightened of anybody or any occasion, a real danger in the draw.
Serena Williams, of course, is a 4-1 favourite although she faces a Herculean a task after a poor lead-up to the US Open and has a vicious draw that could have her play sister Venus in the third round, World No 1 Simona Halep in the fourth round and Garbiñe Muguruza in the quarters.
Williams traipsed to the Wimbledon finals, but has been inconsistent at best since returning after giving birth to her daughter last year, and it remains to be seen what she has left in the tank at the age of 36, despite all her success she has as a six-time US Open champion.
Halep has grown in stature since finally winning her first Grand Slam at the 2018 French Open and cruising through the summer, winning the title in Montreal.
While she now looks comfortable occupying the No 1 spot and has opened up clear water to leave her rivals in her wake, she still shows at times that she can crack at key moments, blowing the match in Cincinnati final last Sunday against Kiki Bertens.
If she can avoid mishap and dispatch Serena in the fourth round, then Halep has to be looking at getting her hands on the US Open trophy in two weeks time.
She begins against the hard-hitting Estonian Kaia Kanepi, who can be a mighty foe at times, and continues with her potential third-round matchup against even harder-hitting Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova.
The spectre of a quarter-final against either 2016 Open runner-up Karolina Pliskova, two-time Grand Slam champion Garbiñe Muguruza from Spain, or Australia’s Ash Barty will make the Rumanian’s progress a tough ask, but she is now more than able to be up for the task.
In the second quarter of the draw is the defending champion, Sloane Stephens, who has been pointing to this moment all season and has maximum points to defend.
Stephens remains an enigma, having lost eight straight matches after winning the Open last year when she had nothing to lose.
The quirky but speedy slugger now has to face the pressure and isn’t always fully motivated, but she has become a smarter player of late and shown glimpses of being a repeat Grand Slam champion with French Open and Montreal finals berths.
Judging by her recent play in Canada, where she lost a classic final to Halep, she should not have to worry about an early exit in New York, and begins against Russia’s Evgeniya Rodina, ranked 81, who stunned fellow American Madison Keys at Wimbledon this year.
The 3rd seed could face Daria Gavrilova from Australia, while the two highest seeds after her in this quarter are Ukrainian Elina Svitolina (7) and Julia Goerges (9) from Germany.
In the third round, Stephens could face Victoria Azarenka, the former World No 1 from Belarus, who is still unseeded after her maternity break and wild-carded into the draw.
The 3rd seed, however, won their two meetings in 2018, but still trails their head to head 3-2.
If Stephens survives that test, the American could face Elise Mertens, a steadily rising Belgian who beat her last week in Cincinnati.
In the third quarter, it is tough to bet against Angelique Kerber after the German beat Serena at Wimbledon in the finals and with the 2016 Open title on her résumé.
She has a good draw and enough grit to do well here, with an intriguing assortment of seeds scattered in her path: France’s Caroline Garcia (6), Jelena Ostapenko (10) from Latvia, Keys (14), Russia’s Maria Sharapova (22), and CoCo Vandeweghe (24) from the US.
Each has a legitimate shot at the semi-finals, but none is as clear a favourite as Kerber, despite her indifferent August, which ended with a defeat to Keys in Cincinnati.
Keys herself seemed to be coming into form with that win, but she couldn’t make a dent in Sabalenka in the next round.
The American possesses brute power and her wrists are healthy, so Keys, the 2017 Open finalist, could well win this whole thing.
Both Sharapova and Keys are each represented by New Jersey agent Max Eisenbud, who now also boasts a third standout talent on his list, 16-year-old American Amanda Anisimova.
Sharapova is a former champion here, but in recent months her flashes of brilliance have often been followed by flashes of mediocrity, while Ostapenko made the Wimbledon semis, but has not won a match since and Garcia, the 6th seed, who faces Britain’s hope, Johanna Konta, in ehr opener, has never been past the third round at the Open.
The upshot is a section that should feel like an opportunity for all of these women.
Denmark’s Caroline Wozniacki is the 2nd seed and tops the last quarter of the draw, but the momentum, as well as the ground-stroke power, resides in the other half of this section.
That’s where the Czech, Petra Kvitova, and Sabalenka would seem set for a titanic third-round clash.
Kvitova has never loved summer tennis in the US and is nursing a shoulder injury, but she has slowly pushed deeper into the Open draw, making the quarters last year, only to lose a third-set tiebreak to Venus Williams.
Elsewhere in this quarter, Japan’s Naomi Osaka (20) and Daria Kasatkina (11) from Russia, finalists in Indian Wells, are scheduled to meet in the third round.
The same goes for the Dutchwoman Kiki Bertens (13) and Mihaela Buzarnescu (21) from Rumania, two of 2018’s standout players, provided that Buzarnescu, who was wheeled off court after injuring her ankle in Montreal, can play.
As for Wozniacki, who defaulted to Bertens with a knee injury in Cincinnati, she might have her hands full in her opener with the 2011 US Open champion, the Aussie Sam Stosur.
In terms of British hopes, Johanna Konta, who last year was ranked No 7 going into the US Open and had an outside chance of becoming the World No 1, arrives in New York having dropped to 46th in the rankings and recovering from a virus that saw her default in Cinci.
Unseeded, the British No 1 suffered a dip in form after her great run to the Wimbledon semi-finals in 2017, but says she has learned from her experience of ‘burning out’ as she tries to climb back up the rankings with a strong run at the US Open.
“I’m in a better mental and emotional space,” the 27-year old told BBC Sport. “That sticky period at the end of last year was a good opportunity for a lot of self-discovery.
“I feel I definitely understood myself more and what is important to me and what areas of my work and life I need to take care of.
“I’d also like to think it has made me wiser – and if I’m ever approaching that situation again of feeling burned out then I could recognise it sooner and be able to act in an appropriate way.”
Konta faces the 6th seeded Garcia, whom she leads 3-2 in the head-to-heads, having taken out the Frenchwoman at Wimbledon that year in three sets in the round of 16, but since then, Garcia’s fortunes have soared, seeing her secure that elusive last berth at the WTA Finals in Singapore.
Garcia looked to be troubled with an arm injury in New Haven, losing in the quarter-final, but comes into New York with some good wins behind her.
Konta arrives on the back of some impressive victories herself, against former Grand Slam champions Serena Williams, Ostapenko and Azarenka, but she is still recovering from a virus that forced her to pull out of the Connecticut Open last week.
“I’m doing much better now. I’m still a bit bunged up, but that should clear up with time,” she said. “I’m definitely at the back end of whatever nasty virus I had.”
Joining Konta in main draw action is Heather Watson, who has slipped to No 3 nationally and was the only Brit to make it through qualifying at the expense of Katie Swan in round three.
In fact, seven Brits battled it out in the 128 qualifying draw in which Naomie Broady dispatched the British No 2, Katie Boulter, 6-4 4-6 6-1, only to fall to Spain’s Georgina Garcia Perez, 6-4 7-6(3), while Harriet Dart, Katy Dunne and Gabriella Taylor all failed to make it past the opening round.
Watson, the 11th seed in qualifying, defeated the young American hope, Cori Gauff, 6-4 6-1, Ayano Shimizu of Japan, 6-1 6-2 and then ended Swan’s run, 6-2 6-4.
Swan had previously overcome Italy’s Deborah Chiesa, 3-6 6-4 6-4, and the 17th seed, Nao Hibino from Japan, 6-1 6-4.
Although she won the Junior title in New York, Watson has never been able to translate that into senior wins on the US hard courts, until now, that is, after having dropped down to a couple of ITF events after San Jose, including reaching the Vancouver final, before reeling off her three impressive wins in qualifying.
She now faces Ekaterina Makarova, who had a slow start to her hard court summer with a couple of wins apiece in Cincinnati and New Haven.
The Russian is a solid baseliner with plenty of power in her groundstrokes, and has been a semi-finalist in the past at the US Open, so should not be underestimated.
All eyes are on the Big Apple as the women’s field appears wide open again but, in truth has some fine contenders finding their form just at the right moment in time.