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U.S. Open 2018: What to know

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NEW YORK — A little more than a year ago, Sloane Stephens was ranked outside of the top 950 as she tried to work her way back toward the top of tennis after foot surgery. By the time the U.S. Open was over, she was a Grand Slam champion for the first time and soaring up the rankings.

On Monday, the No. 3-seeded Stephens will begin the defense of a major title for the first time, facing 80th-ranked Evgeniya Rodina of Russia at the new Louis Armstrong Stadium.

“Going back again and knowing that you held the trophy there once before is super-cool. I think that it’ll be fun. There will be a lot of different pressure and a lot of excitement and a lot of stress,” Stephens said. “Whether I lose first round or win the tournament again, I know I’m going to do my absolute best and that’s all I can ask myself.”

Her success at Flushing Meadows in 2017 is emblematic of the wide-open nature of women’s tennis ever since 23-time major champion Serena Williams left the tour for a hiatus while she was pregnant. At four of the past six majors, the titlist was a first-time Grand Slam champ: Jelena Ostapenko at the French Open and Stephens in New York in 2017; Caroline Wozniacki at the Australian Open and Simona Halep in Paris in 2018.

Consistency at the majors hasn’t exactly been that quartet’s hallmark. Current No. 1 Halep lost in the first round at last year’s U.S. Open and this year’s Australian Open. Ostapenko did the same at Roland Garros this year. Wozniacki exited in the second round at two of the past four Slams.

Stephens has been boom or bust lately, too, collecting a pair of runs to finals and a trio of opening-round defeats at the five major tournaments she’s entered since the foot operation.

“You can’t let the lows get you too low,” the 25-year-old American said, “and you can’t let the highs get you too high.”

Here is what else to know before play starts on the blue hard courts of the year’s last Grand Slam tournament:

DON’T CALL IT A COMEBACK

Six-time champion Williams returns to the U.S. Open on Monday night in Arthur Ashe Stadium against 68th-ranked Magda Linette of Poland. Williams missed the tournament a year ago because she gave birth on Sept. 1. “I feel like everything is just different, in terms of: I’m living a different life. I’m playing the U.S. Open as a mom,” Williams said. “It’s just new and it’s fresh.” She is coming off a runner-up finish at Wimbledon but has lost three of her past four matches. Williams could face her older sister, Venus, in the third round.

BIG 4 REUNION

For the first time since Wimbledon in June 2017, a tournament will have the entire Big Four in the field: five-time U.S. Open champion Roger Federer , defending champ Rafael Nadal , two-time winner Novak Djokovic and 2012 champion Andy Murray. They have won 49 of the past 54 Slam titles and the last three Olympic singles golds and have been ranked No. 1 every week for the last 14+ years. Djokovic – who could face Federer in the quarterfinals – and Murray sat out the U.S. Open last year because of injuries. Also back is 2016 champion Stan Wawrinka, who couldn’t defend his title because of a bad knee.

WHOSE TURN IS IT?

It’s been a question asked for years, yet it still remains without an answer: Which youngster will assert himself and break up the dominance at the top of men’s tennis? Alexander Zverev, a 21-year-old German who recently began working with Ivan Lendl, hopes he’ll be the one, but there is a crop of up-and-comers worth watching.

A SECOND ROOF

For so many years, and through so much rain, the U.S. Open operated without any possibility of playing despite bad weather, resulting in a series of Monday men’s finals pushed back from Sunday. Now there are two retractable roofs: the one added to Arthur Ashe Stadium that’s been in use for the past two years, and the one at the rebuilt 14,069-seat Armstrong arena, which will host night sessions, too. It’s the culmination of a five-year, $600 million project that remade the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center.

SERVE CLOCKS

Serve clocks make their debut in the main draw of a Grand Slam tournament, allowing everyone to see the countdown on courtside digital readouts as players get 25 seconds to start a point. Clocks also will time the 7-minute pre-match period, from the players’ walk-on through the coin toss and the warmup. Also new at the 2018 U.S. Open: electronic line-calling on every court.

Serena falls to Pliskova in Aussie Open quarters

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Karolina Pliskova says her “mind was in the locker room” when she was down 5-1 in the third set of her Australian Open quarterfinal against 23-time major winner Serena Williams.

In one of the most stunning comebacks at the Australian Open, the seventh-seeded Pliskova saved four match points as she rallied to win the last six games to clinch a 6-4, 4-6, 7-5 victory and a semifinal spot against U.S. Open champion Naomi Osaka.

“I didn’t have too many chances in the third set. I was a little bit too passive. Obviously mentally down,” Pliskova said. “So I just said, ‘Let’s try this game, on 5-2, maybe I’m going to have couple of chances.’

“She got a bit shaky at the end, so I took my chances, and I won.”

Pliskova’s win over the seven-time Australian Open titlist means there’ll be a first-time women’s champion at Melbourne Park this year.

In the other semifinal, two-time Wimbledon winner Petra Kvitova will play Danielle Collins, who had never won a Grand Slam match before this tournament. Kvitova’s best previous run at Melbourne was to the semifinals in 2012.

‘Barbecued chicken’: Tiafoe’s Australia run ended by Nadal

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MELBOURNE, Australia — Rafael Nadal is back to feeling healthy. Probably not a coincidence that he’s back in the Australian Open semifinals.

Playing his familiar brand of court-covering, ball-bashing, opponent-frustrating tennis, Nadal claimed 20 of his first 23 service points and saved the only two break chances he faced, ending American Frances Tiafoe’s best Grand Slam run with a dominating 6-3, 6-4, 6-2 victory Tuesday night.

“I feel lucky to be where I am after all the things I went through,” said Nadal, who quit during his quarterfinal at Melbourne Park a year ago because of a right leg problem, again during his semifinal at the U.S. Open in September because of a painful right knee, and then had offseason surgery on his right ankle.

“Not easy situations,” he said, summing it up.

Nadal, 32, reached his 30th major semifinal and prevented Tiafoe from getting to his first, two days after he turned 21.

“I knew he was going to bring crazy intensity. I knew the ball was going to be jumping. I knew if he got hold of a forehand, it was going to be barbecued chicken,” Tiafoe said. “But point in, point out, I’ve never seen someone so locked in.”

The two hadn’t played each other before, though they did practice together at Roland Garros back in 2014, when Tiafoe was a teen in the junior competition.

Entering this year’s Australian Open, the 39th-ranked Tiafoe had never been past the third round at a major. But he knocked off two-time Slam runner-up Kevin Anderson and 20th-seeded Grigor Dimitrov on the way to the quarterfinals, drawing plenty of attention for his play – and his bare-chested, biceps-slapping celebrations inspired by LeBron James.

As usual, Tiafoe was animated and talkative Tuesday. He lamented missed shots with a self-admonishing “Oh, Frances!” He marked good ones with a shout of “Let’s go!”

But it all came to a screeching halt against Nadal, a 17-time major champion.

Tiafoe, who is from Maryland, was broken the initial time he served in each set, which was all Nadal needed, given how well he handled his own service games. He’s been reluctant to go into detail about a recent tweak he made to his serve, saying it’s “nothing drastic, nothing dramatic.”

He spoke after Tuesday’s win about going for winners on his first forehand following a serve, something he called “very important … at this stage of my career.”

Whatever he’s doing is working. And how. Nadal has won every set he’s played in the tournament, the first time he’s done that en route to the semifinals in Australia since 2009, the only time he won the championship.

“I am playing well,” he said. “I did a lot of things well during the whole week and a half.”

Now Nadal goes up against another opponent much younger than he is, 20-year-old Stefanos Tsitsipas, who upset Roger Federer in the fourth round.

The 14th-seeded Tsitsipas became the first player from Greece to earn a semifinal berth at a major, beating No. 22 Roberto Bautista Agut 7-5, 4-6, 6-4, 7-6 (2) earlier Tuesday.

“It’s going to be interesting,” Tsitsipas said about his matchup against Nadal. “I feel all right with my game. I feel like I can do something good against him.”

Asked about all of these kids trying to elbow their way to the top of tennis, Nadal smiled and said: “They can wait a little bit.”