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"Every match is a semifinal": Record WTA consistency sets stage for blockbuster US Open women's event
“The mentality of top players and champions makes them want to play each other. They want the bragging rights, and we, as viewers, want to see it.”
Published Sep 03, 2021
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NEW YORK—Most majors will allow fans only one final in each event. The 2021 US Open women’s draw, by contrast, has managed to produce championship-round caliber matches from the very first day, starting when Sloane Stephens overcame Madison Keys in a rematch of their 2017 title bout on Monday.
The high level continued on Thursday night, as former world No. 1 Karolina Pliskova withstood an onslaught from American hopeful Amanda Anisimova, striking a record tournament record 24 aces to survive in a final-set tiebreaker.
Despite a slew of stacked early encounters, the stars navigated the chaos to clinch a third-round bracket that features all of the top 20 seeds—a line-up that includes 10 Grand Slam champions and seven No. 1s (counting the current one, Ashleigh Barty). Of those 20 women, 18 have reached at least a Grand Slam semifinal. That last list gets longer when you include No. 26 seed Danielle Collins, a 2019 Australian Open finalist who will face world No. 2 Aryna Sabalenka on Friday evening.
All this was accomplished seemingly in spite—or perhaps because—of the pandemic-effected WTA rankings, which held over points earned in 2019 and early 2020 at the presumed expense of those who emerged from the five-month lockdown to play peak tennis.
“I think that, one of the things that Barty has really articulated well, is that your results are not necessarily your level," explains Courtney Nguyen, Senior Writer for WTA Insider. "Tennis can be a hard sport to follow, with every single match, to be on the granular level, so you can wake up and look at results and think, ‘This person made the third round and lost, so they must not be playing well.’ That’s just not always true.
“Watching the top players from Wimbledon on, I feel they were all playing well, and it’s not like the seeds are holding up because they have soft draws.”
Indeed, this formidable consistency from the top women has guaranteed a thrilling climax to the first week, and promises what could well be the most intriguing conclusion to a major tournament in recent memory.
“Last night at the dinner we were watching on the schedule, and I was, like, ‘Every match is a semifinal,’” exclaimed Simona Halep after her 7-6 (11), 4-6, 6-3 win over rival Elena Rybakina. “I gave up of thinking who is going to be in the semis and finals, because I like to discuss these things. I don't include myself ever. I just like to, yeah, talk about it. Now I have no idea.
“Everybody is super strong. The matches are great, in my opinion, for everybody.”
A rematch of the 2020 Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships final, Halep vs. Rybakina was a stylistic contrast of the highest order, juxtaposing all the athleticism of the former against the raw power of the latter, and culminating in a three-set thriller.
Playing just her fifth match since a calf tear hijacked her season—and kept her from defending her 2019 Wimbledon title—the Romanian had reason to appear off-kilter at what has traditionally been her least lucky Slam, one replete with past early-round opponents that have included Maria Sharapova and famed giant-killer Kaia Kanepi.
Looking sure-footed as ever after knocking out Montreal champ Camila Giorgi to open her US Open campaign, she edged through an astounding first-set tiebreaker with Rybakina and counteracted the Kazakh’s aggressive instincts. At one point she claimed four straight games in the subsequent decider.
Last night at the dinner we were watching on the schedule, and I was, like, "Every match is a semifinal." Simona Halep
“Before the match, I was super stressed and I told Darren [Cahill] that my forehand is lost; I cannot feel it anymore,” Halep said. “I had emotions, I was nervous, and I was crazy a little bit on court, as well. The frustrations got me a little bit.
“But I fought, and this victory gives me a lot of confidence that my game is coming back and also the fighting spirit is there.”
Seamlessly transitioning from defense to offense, Halep’s forehand penetrated the court with impeccable accuracy to secure a first trip into the US Open round of 16 since 2016.
“I said three years on court and my brother wrote me that it's five years, not three years,” Halep added with a laugh. “I correct it now.”
Awaiting her there is a rematch of her victorious Wimbledon semifinal with No. 5 seed Elina Svitolina; the Ukrainian Olympic bronze medalist takes an eight-match winning streak into the third round, thanks to a 16th career title in Chicago.
Joining Halep into the fourth round is fellow former No. 1 Garbiñe Muguruza, who has been equally flummoxed by Flushing Meadows over the years, having just one prior second-week appearance to show for it.
“It's actually first Arthur Ashe win after almost 10 years,” Muguruza realized after beating Azarenka, 6-4, 3-6, 6-2. “It's kind of funny, yeah.”
Standing between her and some much-needed redemption—both for New York and her flagging season that followed a thunderous start—was Azarenka, one of the US Open’s best players in the last decade.
“I was facing Victoria, someone who had so much success in this tournament. I feel like she was comfortable in this court, in these conditions. I was very pumped for the match.”
Nguyen tagged the blockbuster early rounds as essential in galvanizing the game’s best.
“Muguruza had to play Donna Vekic in the first round, and that’s a tough match for anyone looking at the draw and knowing how well Vekic can play,” she said. “Halep had to play Giorgi, and then you look at Sloane and Madison. Having to get up and to play well in your first round can unlock something.
“It can also go badly in the other direction, where you potentially lose a trap match in the next round, but on the whole, the Top 20 is playing well, and when they have to get up for these matches, they like them. They don’t like necessarily playing lower-ranked players; they can feel dragged down to their opponent’s level and that can breed doubt and frustration where you sense they’re feeling, ‘I should be blitzing you, and I’m not. What’s wrong with me?’ You risk this mental spiral.”
Azarenka nonetheless had the Spaniard struggling after leveling their Friday afternoon clash, but when early break points went begging, Muguruza soon regained control and twice broke the Belarusian to book a long-awaited return to the second week.
I was facing Victoria, someone who had so much success in this tournament. I feel like she was comfortable in this court, in these conditions. I was very pumped for the match. Garbiñe Muguruza
The No. 9 seed’s road gets no easier with a third meeting with Barbora Krejcikova on the horizon. Krejcikova has continued her Roland Garros-winning form with a dominant US Open first week—her first US Open first week, it bears repeating—and will aim to break the tie in her head-to-head with the two-time major champion, having avenged a Dubai defeat in Cincinnati earlier this month.
“We are 1-1,” Muguruza said. “Looking forward. It's a good round of 16. It's one of the hottest players right now, so good. That's the players I want to face.”
“The mentality of top players and champions makes them want to play each other,” agreed Nguyen. “They want the bragging rights, and we, as viewers, want to see it.”
And let’s not forget Angelique Kerber, whose three-set win over Sloane Stephens—yes, that was another third rounder—sends her to a possible fourth-round collision wirth Naomi Osaka.
It would be easy to chalk these scintillating stories up to a simple luck of the draw. Full credit, however, must go to the women playing it, the athletes who have lived up to the marquee and repeatedly delivered the alchemy of sport and theater that makes tennis so addictive.
By the end of the fortnight, one will be hard pressed to pick a single match of the tournament. Rather, list this collection of final-worthy contests and call it the tournament of the decade.