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US Open | Stephens survives to encounter Azarenka

US Open | Stephens survives to encounter Azarenka

Day 3 at the US Open dawned hotter than before, if that was even possible, driving players from the practice courts after minimal training, back into the air conditioning.

For those playing at Flushing Meadows, true grit was required, and belief that they have put in the work and hydrated sufficiently to withstand the brutal conditions.

Many think this is the hottest US Open on record. It matters not, because the heat and humidity has reached epic proportions regardless and presents the ultimate test.

The round of 64 in the women’s draw kicked off with a much anticipated clash between former World No 1, Victoria Azarenka against the 25th-seeded Australian, Daria Gavrilova on the intimate Court 17, the fourth biggest court on the grounds of the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center.

I wasn’t playing my best but I knew I had to find a way to make some plays. It was hot and I was sweating a lot, but I came out in the third set bouncing around and ready to go. I never gave up, and I fought my tail off the whole time. Sloane Stephens

Azarenka is a two-time former finalist at the US Open, although she hasn’t advanced that far in five years since she has had injuries, birthed a child, and fought a custody battle, all of which took time away from her career.

She had never played her Aussie opponent before, who has struggled a bit in 2018, and needed just 81 minutes to advance to the third round, defeating the No 25 seed, 6-1 6-2, to start Wednesday’s schedule of play.

It was a match-up of two former junior champions with a spot in the round of 32 on the line, as the 2005 US Open girls’ champion Azarenka faced off against the 2010 winner Gavrilova for the first time.

It was the 29-year-old Belarusian, however, who denied the 24-year-old Aussie her spot in the third round of the women’s singles draw for the first time in her career, as she broke serve 7 times and hit 13 winners.

“I was prepared to stay there as long as it needed to be, but it was good to see the consistent level,” Azarenka said after the match. “There were no up-and-downs today. That’s what I’m more happy about.”

Azarenka broke Gavrilova twice to lead 3-0 at the first official changeover and although she surrendered serve to love in the ensuing game, it was a minor blip and she pocketed the set’s final three games to move into the lead in just over 30 minutes.

The two-time Australian Open champion was similarly quick off the mark in the second set, and she never allowed Gavrilova a lead on the scoreboard as she broke again in the set’s fourth game.

Wildcarded into the main draw at this year’s US Open, Azarenka is back into the third round for the first time since 2015, which was also her last appearance in Flushing Meadows.

“Obviously, I played Cincinnati, played Montreal, it was a real struggle for me. I didn’t feel like I wanted to play this much. I didn’t really enjoy myself, because I feel like when you go through difficult times you sometimes have a very narrow focus on result only, and it’s hard to look outside of that,” Azarenka said.

“Right now, I feel happy on the court. I feel happy outside of the court. I feel that little by little, I am making that transition. I feel a lot more comfortable, confident on the court. I really do enjoy playing and fighting and just being here.”

It seems the women’s game could throw away its rankings and seedings, so unpredictable has it become these days.

On Monday afternoon when World No 1 Simona Halep was dumped out of the US Open by Kaia Kanepi, 6-2 6-4, she made a little bit of history because she was one of the few top-seeded women to lose in the first round of the tournament.

Her victor, the free-hitting Estonian is ranked, for what it is worth, 44th in the world and beat Halep in just 76 minutes. She advanced again with an impressive 6-4 6-3 win over Switzerland’s Jill Teichmann to reach the third round.

Interestingly, since the Australian Open in 2017, seven different women have won the last seven Grand Slams and should someone other than Angelique Kerber, Serena Williams, Jelena Ostapenko, Garbiñe Muguruza, Sloane Stephens or Caroline Wozniacki win the US Open, it will be the first time since before the war that women’s tennis doesn’t have a repeat champion across a two-year period.

The upshot is that the women’s draw is wide open and Azarenka looks to be striding through it, with a skirmish with Sloane Stephens now on the cards.

Stephens is the defending champion but she struggled early in her second-round contest against Ukrainian qualifier Anhelina Kalinina, dropping the opener and narrowly escaping the second before finding her groove to advance into the third round, 4-6 7-5 6-2.

Playing in only her third WTA Tour-level match and first Grand Slam event, the 21-year-old Kalinina matched the 2017 US Open champion with a strong all-court game that left the American in shambles.

Kalinina took advantage of a sluggish Stephens to gain a 4-1 lead in the first set, but after digging out of a 15-40 hole in the sixth game, the American began to come alive and levelled the set at 4-4.

Her momentum was short-lived, however, and Kalinina earned one more break to secure the first set.

Stephens took full control to begin the second set, improving her first serve percentage and finding her range on her return game.

She broke Kalinina three times to take a 4-1 lead, but the Ukrainian earned two breaks of her own to trim the lead to 4-3, thanks to a string of uncharacteristic shanks from Stephens.

Kalinina kept the American on a string with penetrating ground strokes, pushing the set to 5-5 before Stephens broke at love and closed out the set on serve to reach a decisive third.

By then, Kalinina ran out of steam and Stephens cruised to victory, finishing with an ace and 30 winners after 2 hours and 46 minutes of play.

“I wasn’t playing my best but I knew I had to find a way to make some plays.” Stephens said after the match.

“It was hot and I was sweating a lot, but I came out in the third set bouncing around and ready to go. I never gave up, and I fought my tail off the whole time.”

Azarenka leads their head-to-head 3-2, all on hard courts, but their last two meetings this season have gone to Stephens.

Seven-time major singles champion Venus Williams was second up on the new Louis Armstrong Stadium against the wily Italian Camila Giorgi, and remains on a collision course with her younger sister Serena after scoring a 6-4 7-5 win.

The 16th seed weathered a barrage of fierce groundstrokes from Giorgi, a former World No 30 who reached the fourth round in New York five years ago.

The Italian made the quarter-finals of Wimbledon earlier this summer, but on Wednesday she lacked consistency despite occasional flashes of brilliant shot-making.

Williams recorded fewer than half as many winners as Giorgi, 13 to 29, but the Italian also committed 41 unforced errors, which accounted for exactly half of the 38-year-old’s 82 points.

A Giorgi double fault at 3-4 gave Williams the opportunity to serve out the first set, but the American squandered two opportunities to seize the early advantage, with Giorgi closing well at the net both times, before the 26-year-old right-hander got back on serve.

The reprieve was short lived, however, and Williams did eventually take the opener when Giorgi dumped a backhand into the net on her fourth set point.

A pocket dynamo who dances along razor-thin lines, Giorgi opened the second set aggressively with a break of serve, but Williams got back on track in the sixth game to level the set at 3-3.

Venus dug herself out of a 0-40 hole in saving five break points at 4-4 before wrapping up the match on her first match point when the Italian made consecutive errors from the forehand wing.

Elsewhere, Ash Barty, out on Court 17 where the sun had set, causing the temperature to plummet into the mid-90s, the 18th seed took an hour and 20 minutes to eliminate Lucie Safarova, 7-5 6-3, to advance into Round 3 of the 2018 US Open.

Barty broke Safarova’s serve in the second game to go up 2-0, and the Czech later broke back in the ninth game to draw closer at 5-4 when, all of a sudden during the changeover, the stadium PA system went haywire and blasted static at a nearly deafening level, prompting a number of fans to head for the exits and causing a delay in play.

The chair umpire alighted onto the court and the players seemed about ready to pack up and leave, when just as suddenly as it began, the problem was resolved and, without missing a beat, Safarova jumped to a 40-love lead in the tenth game, holding serve to tie the match at 5-5.

From there, Barty held serve and then broke to win the set 7-5.

In the second, the Aussie showed more confidence and picked up the pace to take a fast 3-0 lead and although Safarova did get back on the scoreboard by holding serve in the fourth game, Barty proved to be too much to handle.

In the day session, seeds Elina Svitolina (7), Karolina Pliskova (8), Elise Mertens (15) and Barbora Strycova (23) all advanced in straight sets but Germany’s Julia Goerges (9) fell at the hands of Ekaterina Makarova, 7-6(10) 6-3 and Maria Sakkari (32) from Greece succumbed to Sofia Kenin, 4-6 6-1 6-4.

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