The women start play Monday.
2019 U.S. Open
Flushing Meadows, Queens, NY
Women’s First Round picks
Much has been said and written about the quality of play and the depth on both the Women’s WTA Tour and the Men’s ATP Tour. Even first round encounters can be extremely competitive, and thus, very entertaining. The players, as a whole, have gotten much better over the years, and the depth in the game is very solid and getting better. In the Women’s draw, when you have former Grand Slam champions Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova squaring off in the very first round, you know that the level of first round play is of an awfully high quality, and the best that I can remember.
So, let’s take a look at some of the best first round matches in the Women’s draw and see who can be expected to move on when all the dust clears and the second round begins.
Vika Azarenka over Aryna Sabalenka
As far as quality of play and level of competitiveness, this is about as good as you’re going to get for a first round Women’s clash. Vika Azarenka, a former world #1 and two-time Australian Open champion is still on the comeback trail after having her son Leo, and then spending time hunkered down going through a custody battle that robbed her of both tournament play and practice time. She has shown that she is ever-improving, but the enormous wins she has had in the past, particularly in 2012 when she finished the year as the #1 ranked player in the Women’s game, are missing, and the ability to win is still a skill she is struggling to regain. Meanwhile, her Belarussian compatriot, Arya Sabalenka, is seeded ninth here in New York, and is capable of beating almost anyone if she is on her game. The 21-year old, who stands 6’ tall (as does Azarenka) is a wonderfully talented athlete, and her tennis is just catching up to her overall athletic ability. As a bit of a late bloomer, Sablenka still struggles with keeping the ball in play when she hits the hell out of it from the baseline. Sabalenka’s propensity to spray the ball around should hurt her in this matchup with the battle-tested Azarenka. If Sabalenka is on, she should win. But a first round Grand Slam encounter usually will affect both players with a bit of nerves, and those nerves will negatively affect Sabalenka far more than Azarenka. I think Azarenka pulls this match out because, although they both hit the hell out of the ball, she is the far more consistent player. Tennis is usually lost and not won, and I think Sabalenka will miss enough strokes to lose, which should inject a nice dose of much-needed confidence in the older player.
Coco Gauff over Anastasia Potapova
In a matchup of 15-year-old American wiz kid Coco Gauff and 18-year-old Russian Anastasia Potapova, a former world #1 Junior, neither of these young ladies will be able to celebrate a win with a shot and a beer because they’re too young to drink in New York. Gauff has shown an enormous amount of poise in her first year playing WTA Tour veterans, and has shown a game complete enough to have beaten world #2 Ash Barty this past week in an exhibition match in Winston Salem. For a 15-year-old to not only possess the game to beat the French Open champion, but the poise usually reserved for older, far more experienced and mature players, it is a testament to her game and to her ability to take in the moment, to experience it, and exert her dominance over the moment rather than to let the moment dictate results. She plays with great maturity and poise, and lets her game flow, as it is. She rarely over hits, but I think she is just now learning how to force play and how to dictate tempo, rather than to either force the action with no plan to back it up, or to try to hit her opponent off the court. I would expect Potapova to dictate play, and for the American to counter-punch and to defend. I’d be surprised if I saw anything other than Gauff retrieving and defending to the point where she forces Potapova to miss, rather than hitting winners herself. The telltale stat for this match will be the winners to unforced errors ratio. I’d expect to see the Russian hit more winners and commit more unforced errors. If the unforced errors/winners ratio exceeds 1:1, expect to see the 15-year-old American take this match and move on. Should Potapova have more winners than unforced errors, she should claim the match. But I doubt that’s going to happen.
Bianca Andreescu over Katie Volynets
Bianca Andreescu, the 19-year-old Canadian who broke through onto the international scene this March by winning in Indian Wells, is the clear favorite in this intriguing first round match. What makes this match so attractive is that I believe Andreescu can win this tournament, even though she’s only the 15th seed, and Katie Volynets, 17, is the 2019 U.S. Junior champion, having earned her way into the main draw here in Flushing Meadows by winning the National Juniors, where she beat Emma Navarro, the Juniors' third seed, 6-2, 6-4 in the finals in San Diego. Volynets plays an aggressive baseline style, which may categorize the 17-year-old as a power baseliner, while Andreescu has a much more versatile, varied all-court game which showcases her groundstrokes, her ability to change pace, spins, and speeds on those groundies, and her propensity for throwing in a challenging drop shot from seemingly the same backswing as she uses to block, chop, slice, and drive the ball. Andreescu’s game is far more developed, and her mental strength is unchallenged. She used her varied all-court game and beaten Dominika Cibulkova, Qiang Wang, Garbine Muguruza (0 and 1), Elina Svitolina, and Angie Kerber, among others, to win the Indian Wells event. She also won the Rogers Cup in Toronto a couple of weeks ago where she beat Genie Bouchard, Daria Kasatkina, 5th seeded Kiki Bertens (2 and 1), 3rd seeded Karolina Pliskova, Sofia Kenin, and Serena Williams. Although Andreescu has experienced a lot of injuries already in her short professional career, if she is healthy she not only should roll over Volynets, but should be considered a favorite to capture the $3.85 million purse as the 2019 U.S. Open women’s champion. My real interest is to see if the new U.S. Junior champ can hold her own against a player who is older, wiser, more experienced, and just plain better. Secondarily, this match should tell me if the Canadian is ready to win a Grand Slam tournament so quickly. Perhaps more importantly, this match will introduce both of these exciting new young players to an audience that extends beyond hardcore fans.
Serena Williams over Maria Sharapova
How about this for a first round match? As I pointed out yesterday in my 2019 U.S. Open preview, both of these players are well past their prime, but their names alone require us to pay attention. Williams is carrying a 19-2 lifetime record over the 6’2” Russian, with Sharapova’s noticeable big win coming in the 2004 Wimbledon finals, which put her on the map of women’s professional tennis. Serena has dominated their personal matchup, and although they are each shadows of the players they used to be -- I expect a lot of groundstrokes to be sprayed both long and wide from each player -- I expect that domination to continue, just at a level that would be considered below how they have played in the past. But rivalries don’t die, they just grow old, and that’s what this one has already done. Yet, no matter how old the players get, and no matter how much of their sterling games have been lost to the sands of time, each lady wants to win.
Maria Sakkari over Camila Giorgi
This is another first round match that should showcase a very high level of play from two women from the European Union. Sakkari, who is a 24-year-old heavy hitter from Greece, has been seeded 30th for this year’s U.S. Open. She hasn’t gotten past the third round of any Grand Slam tournament yet, and if she is to fulfill her high ceiling of potential, she’s going to have to make a run very soon in one of these big events. Camila Giorgi, the 27-year-old banger from Italy, is transitioning into the Open after having just been a finalist in the new WTA tournament in the Bronx this past week. In that tournament, Giorgi showcased her very tough groundies with her never-say-die attitude, as she came back from a few match points down in both the second and third sets in the semis to move past Qiang Wang and reach the finals. Sakkari and Giorgi will both stand close to the baseline and just wail on their groundies, hoping to catch the other napping, or to elicit a weak response from one of the bombs that they’ll send each others’ way. I like Sakkari because she possesses a stronger, more consistent serve, and although Giorgi has shown a pretty good volley, she fails to take advantage of her positive positioning to finish off points from the net. Sakkari is susceptible to spraying groundies all over the place, but she also possesses the ability to dominate play and end points faster than the quick Italian. Although I’d like to see more approaches to net from both of the players, neither one is going to change the style with which they have grown comfortable competing with, even though they wouldn’t have much to lose approaching the net more often. Either one might find it easier to finish off points at the net rather than resetting and having to hit another dozen or so groundies just to see who might steal an extra point here or there. When push comes to shove, the Greek should push Giorgi around enough to make it matter in the final score.
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