Present and Accounted For

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Ivanovic and Stosur were in complete control of their first-round matches. (Photos by Anita Aguilar)

NEW YORK—Two of the more interesting young Americans in the women’s singles draw embarked on their U.S. Opens with high hopes, having drawn high-profile but sometimes low-production seeded opponents—both Grand Slam champions, and one a former No. 1.

But the hopes of Alison Riske and Lauren Davis were cruelly dashed today by those flawed champions; they were beaten, respectively, by No. 8 seed Ana Ivanovic and No. 24 Sam Stosur. Riske and Davis are game opponents, but they combined to take a grand total of just eight games in their matches.

Ivanovic defeated Riske, 6-3, 6-0; Stosur downed Davis, 6-1, 6-4. The scores may inspire nothing more than a ho-hum or a yawn among legions of fans, and in some ways can be written off as familiar and typical first-round Grand Slam blowouts. Yet both matches were appealing, and brimful of excellent shotmaking.

For all our our 2014 U.S. Open coverage, including updated draws and video, go to our tournament page.

Riske hails from Pittsburgh, Pa., where the three most important sports are football, football, and football. Her original ambition was to play tennis at Vanderbilt University and go on to a career in medicine. But the allure of the pro tour was stronger than the prospect of spending a lifetime poking around inside of people.

Riske was a slow learner who struggled to crack the main-draw code as recently as 2012, when she fell in the first round at four WTA main tour events (including the Australian Open), and lost in qualifying events six times (including at the other three majors). But Riske’s flat, aggressive game began to pop last season, and now, at age 24, she’s in the thick of things with a ranking of No. 45.

“I’m not really that upset,” Riske admitted, braving a smile after her blowout loss to the resurgent former No. 1. “She played very well—to say the least. It was tough trying to combat what she had out there.”

Ivanovic teed off mercilessly on Riske’s second serve, on a day when when the American put just six out of every 10 first serves into play. As Riske said, “First and foremost, she was there on every single point.”

There. Present and accounted for. All in. Those were the catch phrases and watchwords for Ivanovic (as well as Stosur) today.

Ivanovic also was willing to make a surprisingly frank confession after the win today. “Winning matches helps your confidence, but confidence is something you carry inside,” the former French Open champion declared. “You have to look for it inside and to understand what you want. It's very hard for me, because sometimes I put others in front of myself.

“I put others' expectations in front of my own, and then I realize, ‘You know what? People will think that's good or bad and they will go on living their life, but you have your own path to follow.’ This is what I had to discover—what was my goal and not so much be obsessed about what other people's vision of my life or career should be.”

In other words, Ivanovic had to confront a reality familiar to many other sensitive, well-meaning young ladies out there. She learned that you don’t need to live your life as a puppet in the dreams of others. Your own expectations ought to be your lodestar.

Sam Stosur hasn’t had the same impulse to patrol the “self-help” section in the bookstores of the world (as Ivanovic admitted to doing), although there was a time when it seemed that doing so would do the Aussie some good. While Stosur has developed into a thorough professional since her WTA debut in 2000, she’s long been dogged by bouts of impotence, possessing a game with so much to recommend but which had delivered so little of its promise.

Had Stosur understood more about herself and the mental game, she might have broken through into the elite ranks before 2010, when she cracked the Top 10 in singles for the first time. She also might have remained among that vaunted company, instead of backsliding down as low as No. 20 last fall. This from a player who was top-ranked in the very competitive doubles game as far back as 2006.

It isn’t like Stosur is a doubles specialist who has a glaring, technical weakness that keeps her out of the singles hunt—she’s three years removed from winning the U.S. Open. She’s a good if not great mover, and that rock-solid backhand, topspin forehand, and vicious kick serve are equally useful in singles and doubles, as Davis discovered today.

“Of course, I practiced for that kick serve,” a chastened Davis said after the loss. “But it was still tough. I just wasn’t prepared for it. She plays like a guy. Her kick is serve is good as that of any of the guys.”

Davis is a hard case who stands 5’2” without the chip on her shoulder. When I asked her if she felt it was tough to be one of the smallest players on the tour, a chill crept into her tone as she replied, “No, it’s not tough.”

Later, when I asked if the question had offended her, she explained that she gets it “a lot”—meaning, too often—and allowed that she had proved many former coaches and others wrong when they suggested that her diminutive stature was a career killer. She’s had the last laugh on the naysayers, as she’s currently ranked No. 49.

Gifted with outstanding athleticism, grooved groundstrokes, and a terrific combative temperament, Davis is realistic and shrewd. She knows that Stosur can be unreliable. “I saw she lost to some people she shouldn’t have lost to,” Davis said. “I had faith I could win, I believed in myself.”

The latter component is essential to the success of someone who comes to the game with a liability as pervasive as Davis’. But all the self-belief in the world won’t help much when your opponent is snapping out kick serves that you practically have to take out of the air with a smash. Stosur put a mediocre 55 percent of her first serves into play, but she won 72 percent of those points—along with a healthy 62 percent of the 26 second-serve points she hit. And when she wasn’t stretching Davis to the limit with that serve, she was pounding away at the underdog with penetrating topspin forehands.

“Overall it was a pretty solid match,” Stosur said. “I think I served well; tactically I used the right serve at the right time. With the way the conditions were, I was able to use my kick serve a lot and change it up and go hard. I think I was able to make her feel uncomfortable on return, which is exactly what I wanted to do.”

It was a good start for both of the seeds, and one that might be of significant value to Stosur in particular. Granted, she’s 30 years old now, but on a good day, like today, it’s tempting to postulate that she still has unfinished business when it comes to her Grand Slam resume. Next, Stosur gets a player who can match her muscular game: 5’11” Kaia Kanepi. They are 1-1 in head-to-head meetings.

“She can be very dangerous,” Stosur admitted. “She has a big game. It's just whether or not she's putting it together.”

Funny, but Stosur sounded like she might have been talking about herself. And today, she put that game together in a convincing fashion.

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