Serena Williams and Naomi Osaka are on a path for US Open success

After a wild day at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in New York, Serena Williams looked determined from her first point on Thursday night to not join the growing list of seeded players sent home unceremoniously early from the US Open.

Despite a downpour that began just moments before her match against Margarita Gasparyan and a temporary delay to close the roof on Arthur Ashe Stadium, Williams was not be deterred. The 23-time major champion won every point of the first game. When Gasparyan found her rhythm in the second set, Williams could be heard yelling, “Come on, Serena, come on!” willing herself to close out the match 6-2, 6-4.

“The women’s side of this tournament has already taken so many hits, it would have been catastrophic for the gravitas of the draw if Serena didn’t win in terms of keeping the interest level high,” said Pam Shriver, the 21-time major doubles champion and ESPN analyst. “Obviously, all of these players remaining have great stories and talent, but as far as just keeping the women’s draw in the news, she still is the star.”

After a fairly routine opening round, the second round was anything but expected. Karolina Pliskova, the tournament’s top seed, was knocked off in straight sets by Caroline Garcia on Wednesday afternoon. The next 36 hours were filled with more upsets. Aryna Sabalenka, Johanna Konta, Garbine Muguruza, Elena Rybakina, Marketa Vondrousova, Alison Riske and Dayana Yastremska — all seeded in the top 20 — joined Pliskova.

Just 19 of the 32 seeds remain with three second-round matches still to be completed Friday after they were suspended by rain.

With six of the top 10 players in the world opting to not play this year due to various concerns surrounding the coronavirus pandemic, the draw was perhaps more open than ever before. And with 11 different major champions since the start of the 2017 season, that is certainly saying something. Now, with so many contenders out of the picture, the US Open truly could be anyone’s to win.

“It’s an era of unpredictable times for women’s tennis, and now because of COVID-19 and the long layoff, you bring in a whole other level of unpredictability,” said Shriver. “So you have an unpredictable tournament at an unpredictable time in history, and who knows how an athlete is going to come out to play. So you put all that together and, you know, god bless anyone who can sort it out or predict what happens next.”

Sofia Kenin, the reigning Australian Open champion and No. 2 seed, was dominant in her 6-4, 6-3 win over Canadian teenager Leylah Fernandez on Thursday. Sloane Stephens, the 2017 champion who will face Williams on Saturday, cruised in her 6-2, 6-2 victory over Olga Govortsova. Two-time Australian Open champion Victoria Azarenka has made a statement in New York with a Western & Southern Open title and an upset over fifth-seeded Sabalenka on Thursday. Petra Kvitova and Angelique Kerber, both multiple-time Grand Slam winners, remain, and several Americans, including Madison Keys, Amanda Anisimova and Jennifer Brady, are all looking for their first major win.

Even those previously counted out have a chance. Unranked Bulgarian Tsvetana Pironkova, who beat former Wimbledon and French Open champion and 2020 Australian Open finalist Muguruza, before this week hadn’t played in a competitive match since Wimbledon in 2017.

“I always knew I had it in me because it’s not the first time I [won against] a top player,” said Pironkova. “I [have] been on the tour for almost 15 years, and I had many occasions where I played against the best of the best players.

“I guess I was mentally prepared. It’s not something super new. [At] the same time, I was feeling well, I was moving well, I was hitting the ball well. Why not win?”

Even with more than a dozen women capable of winning their next five matches, Williams, who continues her quest to tie Margaret Court with 24 Slam titles, remains the tournament favorite alongside Naomi Osaka. The two could meet in the US Open final again, as they did during a memorable 2018 championship Osaka won.

Osaka, who struggled after winning back-to-back majors at the 2018 US Open and the 2019 Australian Open, said she’s not letting herself think beyond her next match, against 18-year-old Marta Kostyuk on Friday.

“I stopped thinking about winning,” she said. “I feel like I put too much pressure on myself. I’m only thinking about putting myself in a good position to win. But I’m taking it match by match.”

In a year full of uncertainty, there was speculation that players accustomed to feeding off of the energy of a crowd could struggle. Pliskova didn’t seem to think any of that factored into her loss.

“I think there are just some girls which are playing good tennis,” said Pliskova following her loss Wednesday. “I think Garcia is one of them.”

For her part, Williams said there was something kind of calming about the environment during her on-court interview on Thursday. All that begs the question: Could the lack of fans actually give her the extra edge she has been lacking during her four final appearances since coming back from having child? She lost in the 2018 and 2019 Wimbledon and US Open finals.

“We all know how well Serena can play and how mentally tough she is,” said Alexandra Stevenson, a former Wimbledon semifinalist and an ESPN analyst. “I think not having a crowd helps her because something happens when she gets to the final with the crowd and she just doesn’t play her game. She can bring the inner fire, so this really could be an interesting run for her.

“I wouldn’t exactly say it will be easy, and she will have a lot of land mines along the way because everyone is going for her. If she can pull it together and serve how I know she can serve and bring the fight the whole time and not back off, and if she can just stay calm and zone in for [five] more matches, then I think she’s going to match the record. But she won’t be facing girls at any point where she can just walk through them. These younger players just aren’t as intimidated by her, or anyone, as others used to be, and everyone believes they can win.”

Williams didn’t talk about what she would need to do to cement her spot in history after her match on Thursday, but she did seem optimistic to still be playing in the draw.

“I feel like every day, I’m on a new journey, and in this tournament in particular and this year, it’s just a new journey,” she said. “So I feel really good. I feel like I’m on that journey and I’m going in the right direction.”

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