Australian Open Daily Preview: US Open Champions Collide in the First Round - UBITENNIS
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Australian Open Daily Preview: US Open Champions Collide in the First Round

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Emma Raducanu practicing last week in Melbourne (twitter.com/AustralianOpen)

At the last Major, then-18-year-old Emma Raducanu completed one of the most surprising title runs in sports history.  Ranked 150th in the world, she won 10 consecutive matches over the course of qualifying and the main draw without dropping a set, and without even contesting a tiebreak.  In only her fourth tour-level event, Emma claimed her first Major title.  She has understandably lost a few matches after such a surprising, life-changing feat.  And in the opening round of the next Major, she has drawn fellow US Open champion Sloane Stephens.

 

The other shocking finalist from this past September in New York, Leylah Fernandez, will also return to Grand Slam competition on Tuesday.  WTA action also features several multi-time Major singles champions, as well as Anett Kontaveit, who was the hottest player on tour at the end of last season.

Great Britain’s biggest male tennis star, Andy Murray, is a five-time runner-up of this tournament.  Three years ago, he played what was thought to be his last match in Australia, which included an emotional sendoff after a five-set loss to Roberto Bautista Agut.  But after multiple hip surgeries, Murray has returned to Australia, where just last week in Sydney, he reached his first ATP final since 2019.  At that event, he overcame Nikoloz Basilashvili in a grueling three-hour three-setter.  On Tuesday, they will meet again.

Other ATP action includes US Open champion Daniil Medvedev, Roland Garros finalist Stefanos Tsitsipas, and Australian No.1 Alex de Minaur.

Each day this preview will highlight the five most intriguing matchups, while outlining the other notable matches on the schedule.   Tuesday’s play will begin at 11:00am local time.


Nikoloz Basilashvili (21) vs. Andy Murray (WC) – Not Before 3:00pm on John Cain Arena

Since missing last February’s Australian Open due to a positive COVID test, Murray is a modest 19-16 at tour level, yet has shown consistent progress throughout that run.  At the end of last season, he earned two top 10 victories (Hurkacz, Sinner).  Basilashvili gained 35 victories in 2021, winning two titles and also reaching the final of Indian Wells.  But at the Majors, he went only 3-4.  In addition to Andy’s victory last week in Sydney, he also defeated Nikoloz in the first round of Wimbledon last June.  Both their matches have been tight, but with both going to Murray, the Brit is the favorite on this day as well.  He possesses much more variety than Basilashvili, and is eager to prove he can still be a factor at Slams.


Angelique Kerber (16) vs. Kaia Kanepi – Fourth on Kia Arena

Due to suffering from COVID-19 in December, Kerber has not played a match since Indian Wells in October.  And as Simona Halep’s former coach Darren Cahill has often stated, Kanepi is one of the last people any player wants to see as their opening round draw.  He speaks from experience: Kaia upset Simona in the first round of the 2018 US Open.  As per Tennis Abstract, that’s one of eight top 10 victories Kanepi has at Majors, which also includes a win last year here over the defending champion, Sofia Kenin.  The 36-year-old Estonian is a six-time Slam quarterfinalist, and claimed two ITF events in the second half of last year.  These players have split four previous meetings, though they haven’t played in over eight years.  Considering Kerber’s interrupted preparation for this tournament, Kanepi has a great opportunity to score another first round upset at a Major.


Alex de Minaur (32) vs. Lorenzo Musetti – 7:00pm on Margaret Court Arena

De Minaur loves this first month of the season in his home country.  He went 2-1 at the ATP Cup, earning impressive wins over Matteo Berrettini and Ugo Humbert.  He’s yet to advance to the second week of his home Slam, but that could change this week in an open section of the draw, where Casper Ruud is the highest-ranked player.  Musetti is one of many standout young Italians.  The 20-year-old started last season by reaching two Challenger finals, then coming through qualifying to be the runner-up in Acapulco.  But his results tapered off from there, losing more matches than he won for the rest of 2021.  However, his flashy style should make for a fun contrast to the speed of the Australian.  And Alex will certainly feel the pressure of competing in Australia, especially during the night session.  This could turn into one of the most compelling matches of Day 2.


Stefanos Tsitsipas (4) vs. Mikael Ymer – Last on Rod Laver Arena

Tsitsipas is still working to get back to 100% after undergoing elbow surgery in the offseason, which casts doubt as to whether he is ready for best-of-five competition.  Stefanos had a great 2021, accumulating 55 wins.  At this event a year ago, he earned one of the signature wins of his career: a comeback from two-sets-down over Rafael Nadal in the quarterfinals.  Ymer is a 23-year-old from Sweden who last year in Melbourne achieved his first appearance in the third round of a Major.  But that’s where he ran into Tsitsipas, who comfortably defeated him 6-4, 6-1, 6-1.  I would expect their meeting this year to be much closer, yet despite his recent elbow issues, the Greek remains the favorite to advance.


Emma Raducanu (17) vs. Sloane Stephens – Last on Margaret Court Arena

Since the US Open, Raducanu is only 2-4, and is another player who battled COVID-19 in the offseason.  In her only match thus far this year, she lost to Elena Rybakina 6-0, 6-1.  Considering how talented the 19-year-old is, and with the accomplished Torben Beltz now her coach, good results are assumedly ahead of her.  But they may not be immediate, as Emma tries to adjust to her new normal as a huge star, and as a Major champion.  Sloane Stephens is someone who can relate to that situation, as her 2017 US Open title run also came as a surprise, coming shortly after missing almost a year of action.  The American went just 19-18 last year, and is yet to play in 2022 after recently getting married.  But in this battle of US Open champs, Sloane should be favored.  Raducanu is going to feel much different at this Major than her last, with all the attention and expectations she is now experiencing.


Other Notable Matches on Tuesday:

Garbine Muguruza (3) vs. Clara Burel – Muguruza is coming off the third-biggest title of her career, winning the WTA Finals in Guadalajara.  She was a finalist here two years ago.  Burel is a 20-year-old from France who reached four ITF finals and one WTA final last season.

Anett Kontaveit (6) vs. Katerina Siniakova – Kontaveit ended 2021 by going 29-4, and winning an astounding four titles in just over two months.  Siniakova is the No.1 doubles player in the world, who earned significant singles victories last year over Serena Williams as well as Muguruza.  Anett leads their head-to-head 4-1, which includes two wins within the last six months.

Leylah Fernandez (23) vs. Maddison Inglis (WC) – Like Raducanu, Fernandez has struggled to immediately follow-up on her US Open run, going just 3-2 since.  Inglis is a 24-year-old Australian who at a lower-level event three years ago lost to Leylah in a third set tiebreak.

Daniil Medvedev (2) vs. Henri Laaksonen – With Djokovic out of the tournament, Medvedev is now the favorite, but how will he perform with that knowledge?  Laaksonen is a 29-year-old from Switzerland who advanced to the third round of two Slams last season.  During a 2019 Davis Cup tie, Medvedev defeated him in three sets.

Aryna Sabalenka (2) vs. Storm Sanders (WC) – Sabalenka has endured an awful start to 2022.  She is 0-2, and is dealing with some major technical issues on her serve, striking 39 double faults across those two losses.  Storm Sanders is a 24-year-old Australian who won a double stitle two weeks ago with Ash Barty.  She is seeking her first-ever singles win at a Major.


Tuesday’s full Order of Play is here.

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US Open: Shelby Rogers Delivers; Serena Still A Threat To Win 24th Major

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Serena Williams - US Open (photo Twitter @usopen)

After all of these years of playing in the U.S. Open, Shelby Rogers is finally a seeded player.

 

The Charleston, S.C., native has been playing America’s premier tennis event almost continuously since her debut in New York in 2010. She’ll turn 30 years old in a few weeks and has worked her way up the rankings to 31st in the world.

That’s a big achievement from the little girl who hung on the fences more than two decades ago to watch her older sister Sabra play high school matches that eventually led to an Al-American career for Sabra at Emory University. Sabra became a psychologist and, of course, is one of  Shelby’s biggest fans.

LOOK OUT FOR ROGERS?

Rogers took the direct route. She didn’t play high school tennis, but left the classroom before high school to train in tennis, study online and play the junior circuit. She turned pro in 2009 at age 16.

Monday evening at the Billie Jean King Tennis Center, It took Rogers awhile to start living up to her ranking. But once she turned the corner after dropping the first set in nine games, Shelby started looking like a seasoned top 30 player.

Rogers sort of blew The Netherlands’ slim Arantxa Rus away, taking a 3-6, 6-3, 6-4 victory in the opening round of the U.S. Open. Rogers especially played the deciding 28th game of the match like the veteran pro she is. She hit one long forehand and netted one ball in that game, but otherwise she rode her big serve to victory in the clinching game. At 40-30, she delivered a huge first serve down the middle that Rus couldn’t put into play.

WOMEN’S RACE TO TOP PRIZE WIDE OPEN

The way things are on the women’s tour these days, with no true leader while once-amazing top-ranked Iga Swiatek tries to regain her dominance, anything is possible.

Yes, even finally a 24th Grand Slam title for Serena Williams.

But this is about Shelby Rogers. She is playing the best tennis of her career nearly a decade and a half after her life as a professional tennis player started.

With any kind of luck, Rogers could leave New York ranked among the top 25 players in the world, or maybe higher if she continues to serve and play the kind of big-ball tennis she played  in the last 19 games Monday night.

WHO’S NEXT IN LINE

So, what’s after Swiatek, who started the year on fire with a long unbeaten streak that went through the French Open and rewarded her with as many points as the confined totals of the Nos. 2 and 3 players. Of course, Ashleigh Barty’s retirement after winning the Australian Open opened the door for Swiatek’s rise to the top.

And then Wimbledon’s grass took care of Swiatek.

Nos. 2-5 Anett Kontaveit, Maria Sakkari, Paula Badosa and Ons Jabeur are all outstanding players, but none currently fit in the great column. They appear to be waiting in line for Swiatek or another Barty-like player to step forward to rule the women’s tour.

WHAT ABOUT UKRAINE’S DARIA!

Then there are almost totally unknown players such as Ukraine’s Daria Snigur. I hadn’t given Snigur much chance at all on the pro tour until her shocking U.S. Open first-round victory over multi-Grand Slam tournament winner and seventh-ranked Simona Halep. 

The last time I had thought about Snigur was when she upended Charleston’s Emma Navarro in the Junior Wimbledon semifinals and then won the Junior Grand Slam tournament.

At Junior Wimbledon in 2019, I thought Navarro, who also is now on the WTA Tour and is currently ranked 145th in the world, would roll past Snigur the way she had in the 2019 Junior French Open quarterfinals. But Snigur is so deceptive with her ground strokes that strike like lightning, she dominated Navarro at that Junior Wimbledon.

So, maybe the currently 124th-ranked Snigur may be ready to make a mark on the tour after scoring her first tour victory by defeating Halep.

NO NOVAK, BUT RAFA IS THERE

Without Novak Djokovic, the men are about as unpredictable as the women, with the exception of one player. Rafa Nadal, of course, entered this U.S. Open, with a perfect 19-0 record this year in Grand Slams.

Daniil Medvedev is the defending champion at the U.S. Open, but even though he is ranked No. 1 in the world, it’s a long road to the final for the Russian. Medvedev hasn’t always been predictable.

And already, No. 4 Stefanos Tsitsipas has been eliminated by a complete unknown, Daniel Elahi Galan.

Wow! The Greek star probably was about as much of a favorite as Medvedev.

And poor Dominic Thiem was cast on an outside court. And he lost. Just a couple of years ago, Thiem was winning the U.S. Open.

My top five picks in order would be: Nadal, Jannik Sinner, Nick Kyrgios, Medvedev and Andy Murray. Yes, Andy looks pretty fit.

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James Beck was the 2003 winner of the USTA National Media Award  for print media. A 1995 MBA graduate of The Citadel, he can be reached at Jamesbecktennis@gmail.com. 

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Will Rafael Nadal Keep The Grand Slam Winning Feeling Going In New York?

Rafael Nadal has injury doubts heading into his search for a 23rd grand slam title in New York.

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Rafael Nadal (@usopen - Twitter)

Rafael Nadal will look to repeat successes from Melbourne and Paris by answering his doubters with triumph in New York.

 

The Spaniard enters the last grand slam with injury doubts having only just come back from an abdominal injury suffered in his Wimbledon quarter-final against Taylor Fritz.

It was injury that saw his calendar grand slam dream come to an end and ever since then has been recovering in the hopes of finishing the grand slam year strong in New York.

However in his first match back Nadal was defeated in three sets to Borna Coric in New York which has put doubts on whether the Spaniard can be a threat in the US.

Nadal will likely not have to worry about Novak Djokovic but a victory in New York could see him be world number one with current number one Daniil Medvedev defending the title.

The likes of Medvedev, Carlos Alcaraz and Stefanos Tsitsipas will be standing in Nadal’s way and if the Spaniard isn’t match-fit then he could face an early exit.

However as tennis pundit Barbara Schett pointed out, ruling out Nadal at this stage would be foolish and the Spaniard always raises his level at the grand slams, “The match is always different from practice,” Schett told Eurosport.

“And whoever had an abdominal injury and a tear on the abdominal muscles knows how it feels. You have to be extremely cautious. You’re worried that you’re going to reinjure it again.

“And I think that’s what we’ve seen on Wednesday. When he played against Coric, he was a little bit uncertain how the body was going to hold up. And for sure he’s going to feel better and better.

“If there’s no damage to the abdominal muscle, then he still has a week and a half to improve his health, to improve the trust also that he can extend and he can’t bend on the serve because that’s the trickiest shot, the serve and the smash.

“When that is the case, Rafa Nadal certainly can be dangerous again at the US Open. I mean, he’s so fired up at every single Grand Slam. We’ve seen this year playing the best tennis of his life. You can never, ever write him off.”

Nadal is currently undefeated at grand slams and if fit, the Spaniard will certainly fancy himself to win another seven matches at the US Open this year.

Whatever it should be interesting to see if Nadal improves before the US Open with the tournament starting on the 29th of August.

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Does WTA Need A Top Rivalry To Drive The Sport?

Iga Swiatek is the WTA’s dominant world number one but does she need a rival in order to drive the sport to new heights.

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Iga Swiatek (@TennisHandshake - Twitter)

The WTA has a dominant world number one and a variety of talented players on the tour but the one thing it’s lacking at the moment is a top rivalry.

 

First of all it was supposed to be Bianca Andreescu and Naomi Osaka, then Ash Barty and Osaka and also Barty and Iga Swiatek.

However none of these match-ups created a top rivalry over a long period to generate an overwhelming amount of interest.

After Barty’s shock retirement, many people were left disappointed at the fact that her and current dominant world number one Iga Swiatek could not compete for the sport’s biggest titles in a fierce rivalry.

Now Swiatek sits at the top of the WTA rankings with almost a 4,000 point lead at the top. The rest of the field are very talented and that in itself is an intriguing aspect of the WTA’s appeal.

But the one thing the women’s game lacks is a top rivalry to generate a hype that the ATP clearly has right now.

As Mark Petchey said it’s an issue that needs solving soon as every sport has one, “Rivalries drive the sport. What they do is make sure that it manifests itself in a big polarisation of a large fan base, against another one,” Petchey was quoted as saying by Tennis365.

“You look across the board, over F1, look at the tribal nature of AFL, of Premier League football here. It’s a huge part of what you need to have a successful sport. That is the one thing that is missing from the women’s tour at the moment, is a superb rivalry, with a little bit of edge.

“That’s why I say I’m sad that Ash pulled up stumps, because I think that rivalry could’ve developed with Iga in that way. Would it have been quite as intense as the Rafa-Novak and Roger-Novak rivalries? Probably not. But it would have been there. Going into every major saying that you’re not looking forward to a specific clash potentially when the draw comes out, does hurt the tour a little bit. 

“You can’t keep saying ‘oh, anyone can win it’. Because you’re just not tagging anybody… you’re not setting the scene for something amazing that’s going to happen, a nice little volcanic eruption right at the back-end of a major. They need some people to be a bit more consistent and getting through, because that’s what will be a massive driver for the WTA.”

It’s hard to argue with those points of view from Petchey as rivalries are what are talked about for decades after players have retired.

It will be interesting to see whether Swiatek will continue to dominate the rest of the field or whether someone can build a rivalry with the Pole heading into the remainder of the season.

The next big WTA event of the year will take place at the Rogers Cup in Toronto on the week of the eighth of August.

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