By Jane Voigt
Three years ago Simona Halep and Maria Sharapova played one of the best matches of 2014. It was the final of The French Open. Sharapova pulled off the win in three brilliant sets of tennis, raising her head-to-head with Halep to 6-0.
On Monday, the two women will face each other once again in the first round of the U. S. Open. The luck-of-the-draw could not have been more cruel to Halep, the number-two seed. She has yet to win a Grand Slam, yet always seems poised to make that mark on tennis history. She also is one of 8 women vying for number one in the world, over the next two weeks. If she can score her first victory over Sharapova, Halep should be energized for the remainder of the tournament. If she loses, she should take the first flight to a far-away tropical island and chill.
Halep has played in three finals this year, winning only one in Rome. Last week in Cincinnati, she failed completely to find rhythm in a one-sided loss to 2016 French Open champion Garbine Muguruza. Halep mounted a consistent battled in the French Open final this year, but Jelena Ostapenko blew her off court as she had done to every other player she met in Paris.
ESPN commentator Pam Shriver said she wasn’t worried about Halep’s loss to Muguruza in Cincinnati or the chances of Halep winning a major, as if the beating — 6-1, 6-0 — she’d taken from Muguruza was a blip. It wasn’t. Halep’s record for the season shows that deep into draws, which she’s reached with great consistency, her ability to rise in the face of pressure wobbles. Therefore, her start to this U.S. Open will be one to watch as she is tested by a former tournament champion, a woman who wants to show the world that she’s back from a summer off due to injury, and ready to damage the draw.
No other opening-round encounter will hold attention, like this one. It will set the tone for the tournament, at least on the women’s side.
The men’s draw, with Rafael Nadal, Andy Murray, Roger Federer and Alexander Zverev as the top four seeds, has the feel of yesteryear spiked with fizzy sweet soda. The last time Nadal was seeded number one was 2010, when he won his first of two Open titles. The second came in 2013. With Novak Djokovic out for the season, Zverev, the 20-year-old interloper, adds the zest we’ve been waiting for years to see pop.
Federer could have arrived at the Open as the top seed. However when he pulled out of Cincinnati, after injuring his back in the final of Montreal, his chances were dashed. Nadal’s and Federer’s one-two seeding would have put them at opposite ends of the draw where the chances of a Nadal, Federer final would have thrilled audiences. They have never faced off in an Open final, unlike the other three majors.
Therefore with Nadal anchoring the top of the draw and Murray at the bottom, Federer had to fall on either side. His luck pulled Nadal, setting up a potential semifinal thriller. But let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves. Both these men have mountains to climb before any one’s ready to sit down to watch a semifinal.
Federer opens against American hot-shot Frances Tiafoe. The Maryland native made big waves this year. He moved up to number 71, his highest ranking to date. And he defeated Zverev in Cincinnati for his first top-ten victory.
It sounds naive, but every player in New York is a potential winner. No matter the record each brings to a match, the chances of an upset are right around the next changeover.
The U. S. Open is the last major of the year. The fact that it’s presented in New York City, well, Flushing Meadows, Queens, adds the big bonuses of raucous crowds, debuts of new clothing from all the big manufacturers, and an endless parade of A-list celebrities.
And leave it to the U.S.T.A., the tournament owners, to introduce some innovations.
- For the first time serve clocks will be used to determine just how long players take between points. Remember at Grand Slams each player has 20 seconds between points, not 25 seconds as in non-major tournaments.
- A warm-up clock will be on court, as well, giving players a crisp five minutes to do just that … warm up. No more, no less.
- An attire-change clock will be introduced. If a player wants to don a new kit they will have five minutes and no more to get to and from the locker room, unless the court is farther away from a locker room.
- And, finally, in-match coaching will be allowed. That means coaches will be able to talk with their player for real and not on the down-low, which everyone and their sister knows has been going on for years.