September 6, 2015

U.S. Open Catch-Up: Week One Standouts

Okay, I realize I've been a little out of pocket the last few days, but that definitely doesn't mean there wasn't a ton going on at the U.S. Open's early rounds. And now with the battle for the quarterfinals about to start, you can't help but notice a few unexpected faces still in contention.

So far it seems Serena Williams is well in control of her destiny -- though she was well-tested by doubles specialist Bethanie Mattek-Sands in her third round, she came back strong to close out the match with a bagel set. Other favorites in the top half of the women's draw weren't so fortunate, though -- Belinda Bencic, one of my dark horse picks to win this tournament was stunned by an in-form Venus Williams on Friday, punching the American veteran's ticket to the fourth round in New York for the first time since 2010. And Aga Radwanska fell too, maybe not so surprisingly, to a tough Madison Keys, the first time she's lost to the twenty-year-old in five meetings. Other players, though, have really stepped up to the plate -- Genie Bouchard, who'd put together a more-than-disappointing 9-17 record this season before the Open, seems to have finally found her game again. While she hasn't faced another seed yet, she's taken out tough opponents from Alison Riske to former Australian Open finalist Dominika Cibulkova. Next up she'll face Roberta Vinci, another woman who's looking for a comeback, but if the Canadian performs at her best there's no reason she can't make a real play for the only Major semi she didn't reach last year. But of course the real standout here is little-known Anett Kontaveit -- the nineteen year old qualifier is ranked outside the top one-fifty and has spent most of her time on the ITF circuit this year. But in her first week in Flushing Meadows, she notched a nice upset of Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova and followed through by beating a tough Madison Brengle. Of course she'll face a bigger challenge today against Venus, but she's had a lot of match play this season and may just have the energy to score another win.

It seems like there have been a few more upsets on the bottom half of the ladies' draw. Last year's runner-up Caroline Wozniacki, who'd already been struggling this year, bowed out early again, this time to world #149 Petra Cetkovska. And while it may not have been too surprising, Angelique Kerber, who'd been having a super-strong season, picking up her fourth Premier-level title of the year in Stanford, put up a huge fight before eventually succumbing to two-time finalist Victoria Azarenka in what's at least an on-paper upset. And with such big holes in this section, a couple underdogs may be able to take advantage. Always talented Varvara Lepchenko will face Vika next, and while the Ukrainian-born American is a bit off her career high #19 ranking, she's nevertheless a real threat in New York. She beat both Sam Stosur and Madison Keys to start the year in Brisbane and on the summer hardcourts in Stanford, took out Wozniacki in straight sets. In her first week at the Open, she battled past my other long-shot Lesia Tsurenko and yesterday came back from a set down to beat Mona Barthel. Her road forward will be tough -- it's been ten years since her only win over Azarenka, but after the energy the Belorussian expended in her third round, Lepchenko may be able to prevail. And then there's Johanna Konta, the twenty-four year old who's riding a ten match win streak coming into the Open. After reaching the quarters in Eastbourne, the Brit picked up ITF titles in Granby and Vancouver and this week scored her second straight win over Wimbledon finalist Garbiñe Muguruza and followed up by taking out Andrea Petkovic yesterday. She'll have to face New Haven champ Petra Kvitova next, and while the fifth seed has put together a nice run of her own, an upset here isn't out of the question.

Not surprisingly the men have been a little less susceptible to early exits, but not entirely immune. Kei Nishikori, of course, dropped out in his first round and David Ferrer, who'd only played one match since Roland Garros, seemed on point for a while but was eventually defeated by Jeremy Chardy on Friday. Of course the big shock came very early Saturday morning, when two-time champion Rafael Nadal squandered a two-set and a break lead to Fabio Fognini and allowed the thirty-second seed his third win over the former #1 this year. The feisty Italian, who'd never made the fourth round in New York before, now faces Feliciano Lopez, who stunned an out-of-form Milos Raonic in his lat match. The two have never met before, but if they play up to their potential this could be a big fight. But there are opportunities for others in the top half of the bracket too. Defending champion Marin Cilic hadn't been having the best season to date, but he made his way through early matches without much drama -- it wasn't until the third round against Mikhail Kukushkin that he was actually challenged, needing five sets and more than four hours to clinch the win. But the Croat likes long matches -- he's won seventy percent of the thirty he's played -- and seems able to bounce back well from the effort. He's just split his first two sets against Chardy, as one of the most under-the-radar returning titleists I can remember, he might just be able to surprise us again.

The bottom half of the men's draw has been largely in tact so far with all of the top seeds advancing as planned. While Andy Murray was dealt a bit of a scare early -- he was down two sets to Adrian Mannarino in his second round -- he rebounded quickly and took out Thomaz Bellucci last night in straight sets. But while Roger Federer, Stan Wawrinka and even Tomas Berdych have advanced with relative ease, there might be a few more battles in store down the road. Donald Young continues his strength this fortnight, yesterday racking up his second upset of the tournament over Viktor Troicki. He actually beat Wawrinka here four years ago, and might just have the confidence to do it again. But the Swiss #2's bigger threat may lie a match later -- severely underrated Kevin Anderson is coming off a solid run to the trophy in Winston-Salem, and he fought through early-summer standout Dominic Thiem without dropping a set. He has one career win over Murray, his next opponent, but if he manages to squeak by, he's got a much better shot against Wawrinka, who he's beaten in their last four meetings. It might be a tough ask to take out two top-ten players in a row, but the South African is long overdo for a big run at a Major, and this might just be his chance. Same too for John Isner, who hasn't come close to repeating his quarterfinal run here in 2011. But the Atlanta champion has been impressive so far in New York -- long known as a big server, he's finally getting breaks against strong opponents, and reached the fourth round without dropping a set. He'll meet Federer next, which will be no easy task, of course -- but the American has one five-set win over the living legend, and he might be able to give him a run for the money again.

There's a lot of ball left to be played, of course, but any one of them might just be able to cause a stir as the stakes get higher in New York. And after the wins they've already been able to score, there's not much I wouldn't put past them.

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