September 1, 2015

Rife With Upsets

The first couple of days of the U.S. Open were not very good for the seeded players, and even some of the true contenders for the title proved vulnerable in their first rounds.

Of course, most of the heavy favorites sailed -- both Serena Williams and Simona Halep were squarely in control of their matches when their opponents retired, and players like Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer -- even embattled Rafael Nadal -- got through their opening rounds with little drama. Others were not so lucky.

The upsets actually started even before any balls were hit in New York, but perhaps that set the stage. Maria Sharapova announced Sunday that the leg injury that forced her out of Cincinnati and Toronto would keep her from playing at the Open too. That should have been a huge break for her slated first round opponent, Daria Gavrilova, the Girls' champion here in 2010 -- the twenty-one year old Russian stunned her compatriot in Miami and made it all the way to the semis in Rome. She came to Flushing Meadows near a career-high ranking of #38 in the world and now, instead of playing a former champion, was gifted a match-up against lucky loser Daria Kasatkina. Unfortunately for Gavrilova, she wasn't able to capitalize -- her namesake grabbed the first set and stayed tougher after being pushed to a third. She now has a huge opportunity of her own -- with Svetlana Kuznetsova already ousted by giant-killer Kristina Mladenovic, she won't face a seed until at least the fourth round. And the way things are going, maybe even after that.

After all, one of the first matches played resulted in the biggest upset we've seen so far. Ana Ivanovic, who reached the semis in Paris and came oh-so-close to defeating Serena in Cincinnati, carried the seventh seed in New York and could have been a dark horse this fortnight. But she was dealt a tough blow, drawing former Australian Open finalist Dominika Cibulkova in the first round. The Slovakian had been a little quiet this year, taking a break during the spring due to injury and only winning a couple matches since her return -- the lack of play sent her ranking out of the top fifty. But Domi didn't have much to lose at the Open -- she was unceremoniously ousted in her opener last year by teenage phenom Cici Bellis, and so could take her chances. After taking the first set from Ivanovic, Cibulkova could have easily let the match slip away from her -- she often does -- but for once she stayed strong, finishing out the match in just under two hours. Next up for the one-time top-tenner -- qualifier Jessica Pegula. The young American may get the crowd on her side, but maybe this time Domi will be able to power through.

It hasn't been just the top women who were susceptible to early exits either. Kei Nishikori, the surprise runner-up in 2014, this year made as surprising a move when he dropped his first round. Maybe it shouldn't have been that shocking, though -- after a solid run to the title in D.C. and a win over Nadal in Montreal, the fourth seed was demolished in the Rogers Cup semis and pulled out of Cincinnati with injury. So on day one in New York, Benoit Paire, who won his first title last month in Bastad, was able to take advantage -- he came back from two-sets-to-one down to notch what was just his third win over a top-ten player. The Frenchman now has a pretty decent path paved for him -- with Gael Monfils retiring from his first round, far short of his performance from last year, the only seeds in Paire's immediate section of the draw are wholly beatable Tommy Robredo and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. He's never gotten out of the second round at this Major, but this might just be his best shot at doing it.

The upsets, of course, continued on Tuesday. Czech veteran Lucie Safarova had been having an incredible run already this year, picking up a title in Doha and a putting in a top-rate performance in the Roland Garros final. She did well during the summer too, narrowly losing in the New Haven final last Saturday. And with a win over her first round opponent Lesia Tsurenko in the Connecticut semis, she might have had momentum on her side. But the Ukrainian underdog was out for revenge -- having also lost to Safarova in the U.S. Open first round two years ago, this time she was able to turn the tables and in just about an hour scored her fifth top ten win of the year. She too has seen her section of the draw open up nicely -- with Irina-Camelia Begu losing in three today to Olga Govortsova, her first real threat will likely be either 2011 standout Angelique Kerber or two-time runner-up Victoria Azarenka. And with those two likely to put up a big fight against each other, it wouldn't be out of the question to see Tsurenko pounce on whoever comes out the winner.

Gilles Simon may not have been as highly favored as some of these other guys, but ranked just outside the top ten, he could have been a very dangerous second tier threat. The Frenchman had put together a pretty solid season, picking up a title to start the year in Marseille and reaching the quarterfinals at Wimbledon with wins over Gael Monfils and Tomas Berdych. He'd never made it out of the fourth round in New York, but it seemed like this could be his opportunity to change that. Unfortunately for him, though, brash American Donald Young had other plans. The one time prodigy turned bitter disappointment has clawed himself back to #68 in the world, and though he did score a nice win over Berdych himself in Montreal, it's been years since he's done anything notable at a Slam. That changed today though -- after dropping the first two sets to Simon, he roared back to take the next three in the three and a half hour match. He might have had a tricky next match, too, but Britain's Aljaz Bedene dispatched a struggling Ernests Gulbis for him, and potential third round opponent Viktor Troicki, despite a strong 2014 comeback season, hasn't been so impressive this year. If Young can keep his cool he might finally live up to the potential he once so clearly had.

There have been other upsets worth mentioning too, of course -- U.S. Open Series winner Karolina Pliskova was demolished in her first round and one-time finalist Jelena Jankovic lost her lead to little-known Oceane Dodin. And there will be plenty more to come. But the big question, as always, will be whether the vanquishers can keep their performances up as the stakes get higher.

After all, there's a lot on the line for everyone in New York. And whoever can take advantage will be hugely rewarded.

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