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    Demands of Best-of-5 Sets Give U.S. Open a Pandemic Wrinkle

    It is an unprecedented situation: a United States Open with no spectators in a strictly controlled environment with competitors and their teams unable to venture beyond the tennis venue and their lodging.And one of the wrinkles of the decision to restart the 2020 season after a five-month break comes for the men’s players as they play best-of-five-set matches.Not only do they have to search for top gear almost immediately by playing in that format in a Grand Slam tournament. They must then cross an ocean and do it again later this month on a different surface at the French Open, the Grand Slam event in Paris that has been moved from its usual dates in May and June because of the coronavirus pandemic.“I was extremely tired yesterday; it’s not easy to play over four hours after such a long break,” said Mikhail Kukushkin, who reached the third round of the U.S. Open with a five-set victory over No. 13 seed Cristian Garín on Wednesday.Because of that extended break, the longest of most players’ careers, Novak Djokovic, the men’s No. 1, said in a recent interview with The New York Times that he would have welcomed a “conversation” about downshifting to best-of-three-set singles matches for this U.S. Open.He felt players had to deal with widely varying situations during the hiatus: some getting much better training conditions than others. Djokovic caught the virus during his much-criticized Adria Tour exhibition series, and though he experienced only mild symptoms, he said the lack of clarity on the long-term medical effects of the virus might be another reason to consider best-of-three.“These kind of circumstances are very unusual,” he said. “I think a player’s health and well-being and form and shape is maybe underestimated a little bit.”But the discussion never got beyond the preliminary phase.“Our conversations were 100 percent with the ATP and the athletes, and they did not want to consider best-of-three,” Stacey Allaster, the U.S. Open tournament director, said on Thursday.Allaster said the talks were with the ATP leadership, which includes the new chairman, Andrea Gaudenzi, and “informally with players,” but not with the ATP Player Council. Djokovic was president of that council until resigning last week when he helped establish a new men’s player group.Though Gaudenzi has cited existing agreements with broadcasters and sponsors as part of the reason for the U.S. Open’s being insistent on the current format, Allaster said those broadcasting and sponsorship contracts do not require playing best-of-five sets.It is a significant point of difference for the Grand Slam tournaments, which are the only events in tennis to still use it.“It doesn’t feel like the wrong decision so far to keep it for this tournament,” said Jim Courier, the former No. 1 and U.S. Davis Cup captain, after the first round of men’s matches at the U.S. Open.You could argue that a five-month break from tour play could actually help players be fresher, readier and healthier for marathon matches.“It is extremely difficult to play best-of-five sets, especially in the hot and humid conditions here,” Kukushkin said. “But I believe that during this pandemic, all the players, they take care of their old injuries or took care of their fitness.”Preliminary returns are encouraging.There were 14 five-set matches in the first round of men’s singles this year, and though a few had lopsided fifth sets as one player lost steam, there were three fifth-set tiebreakers as well as Andy Murray’s gripping 4-hour-39-minute victory over Yoshihito Nishioka.Sports and the VirusUpdated Sept. 2, 2020Here’s what’s happening as the world of sports slowly comes back to life:The most complicated puzzle in sports is the return of college athletics during a pandemic. The University of California, Berkeley is allowing The Times an inside look at their journey’s ups and downs.Neymar, soccer’s costliest player, is one of three Paris St.-Germain players who played in last week’s Champions League final to test positive for the coronavirus.Kristina Mladenovic was so close to a dominant victory. After it fell apart, she said that the restrictions she faced because of another player’s positive virus test had taken a toll.Intriguingly, the number of retirements in the men’s first round was the lowest at the U.S. Open since 2012: just two, with Jason Jung retiring in the fifth set against Federico Coria and Jaume Munar retiring in the third against Dominic Thiem.In 2019, there were three retirements in the opening round; in 2018, there were nine.This year’s numbers might indicate that players had fewer physical issues upon arrival: logical considering the U.S. Open usually comes near the end of a long, grueling, jet-lagged season.As for recovering from a five-setter, six of the men who won one in the first round were able to win their second-round matches, as well.“If you have been fortunate enough to have the normal workout tools at your disposal, there’s no reason this should be a heavier lift than normal,” Courier said, pointing to the Australian Open, the first Grand Slam tournament of the year that starts in mid-January, typically two weeks after the season starts.“Players come off an off-season, they go to Australia, they play a warm-up tournament and they go best-of-five in very extreme heat typically,” Courier said. “So it’s not a different ask than that.”But Australia does come after an off-season of less than two months.“It’s definitely different; The length of the break this time was almost three times what you would usually get,” said Dani Vallverdu, Andy Murray’s former coach who is now working with Karolina Pliskova.In a typical year, Vallverdu said, a player goes into the off-season having played 60 to 70 matches and does not lose much match fitness before the new season begins.Now, he said, “guys didn’t get more than seven or eight matches since last November.”“The big question mark for me is how players will be able to handle back-to-back five-setters or a few of them,” he added.The consensus is that you cannot replicate match play in practice.“You can’t train for this stuff, man,” Frances Tiafoe said wearily on Thursday night after reaching the third round with a five-set victory over John Millman, one of the fittest players on tour. “It’s tough to put yourself in a position where you’ve got the nerves and anxious energy that you get playing at the highest level.”What the players have never seen is a season with the French Open after the U.S. Open. There will be a narrow 13-day gap between the two, which is similar to the two-week gap that used to exist between the French Open and Wimbledon until Wimbledon moved back a week in 2015.The French Open-Wimbledon double called for players to shift from clay to grass but only to cross the English Channel (La Manche if you are French). The U.S. Open-French Open double now will require a trans-Atlantic flight and a shift from acrylic hardcourts to clay.“Going to grass meant much less rallies, so this time it’s a different way around,” said Jan-Lennard Struff, the German who will face Djokovic in the third round of the U.S. Open. “Surface changes are always a big deal. You don’t have to overthink it, but it will be difficult for everyone, playing on clay is a different game style.”Courier thinks it is easier, in general, for players to switch from hardcourt to clay than clay to grass. “There may be some fast-court players who don’t agree,” he said. “But I think by and large it’s easier to go from a faster court to a slower one where you have more time.”The players are accustomed to the hardcourt to clay shift, which usually happens in February and again in April. But they have never played two Grand Slam events in such a narrow window after a long break. Avoiding marathon matches in New York seems important if you want to thrive in Paris, too.“It’s going to be very interesting for the players who go deep at the U.S. Open,” said Paul Annacone, Roger Federer’s former coach who now works with Taylor Fritz, the rising American who is into the third round. “How quickly can they turn around and get physically and mentally recharged and regroup?”The French Open challenge looks all the more daunting with the 12-time champion Rafael Nadal passing on the chance to defend his U.S. Open title to stay in Europe and prepare on his beloved red clay.“I think it helps Rafa a ton,” Annacone said. “I always think he’s a favorite but more so now. He has all this free time to prepare exactly as he wants. So for me, if someone were able to win both of them this year, the U.S. Open and French Open, it’s arguably the toughest double.”How tough?“In our current environment with the times we’re living in, it would be one of the great doubles in tennis history,” Annacone said. More

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    2020 U.S. Open: What to Watch on Thursday

    How to watch: From noon to 11 p.m., Eastern time, on ESPN, and from 7 to 9 p.m. on ESPN2; streaming on the ESPN app.The United States Open second round continues on Thursday, and the 2019 champions in doubles start their quests to repeat their titles. With a bevy of former major champions playing, it might be hard to know where to focus your attention.Here are some matches to keep an eye on.Because of the number of matches cycling through courts, the times for individual matchups are best estimates and certain to fluctuate based on the completion time of earlier play. All times are Eastern.Arthur Ashe Stadium | 9 p.m.Andy Murray vs. Felix Auger-AliassimeAs Murray slogged through his first-round match against Yoshihito Nishioka, it was clear that his extended absence from the professional circuit was a drain on his abilities. Yet, like so many times before, Murray dug deep and outlasted his opponent, coming back from a two-set deficit to win with just three more points won over the length of his match. In a marathon, he showed that he still had the strength to last.It would be a surprise if Auger-Aliassime, the 15th seed, would allow him to turn their second round matchup into a marathon. The hard-hitting Canadian is built in the same mode as so many North American youngsters; hit it hard, hit it into the corners, and try to take control of the point right away. Murray will need to absorb a lot of that explosive pace early on if he’s going to make sure he’s not overrun.Louis Armstrong Stadium | 7 p.m.Victoria Azarenka vs. Aryna SabalenkaLast week, Azarenka, a two-time Australian Open champion, won her first WTA title since becoming a mother at the Western & Southern Open. Azarenka, known for her powerful two-handed backhand and superior return placement, has not made it past the third round of a Grand Slam event since Wimbledon in 2017. Her resurgence on the singles tour this year has been a joy to watch, and she is now ranked 27th. Her fellow Belarusian, Sabalenka, will be a tough test of her newfound confidence.Sabalenka, the fifth seed, has not played particularly well recently, losing in the round of 16 at both the Top Seed Open and the Western & Southern Open in the last month. While Sabalenka’s style seems almost like a carbon copy of Azarenka’s, the key difference may be the lack of margin for error. Sabalenka tends to take more risks and come into net behind her powerful baseline shots.Louis Armstrong Stadium | 1 p.m.Vasek Pospisil vs. Milos RaonicRaonic, the 25th seed, reached the final of the Western & Southern Open, where he lost to Novak Djokovic in a tight three set match. Raonic has never made it past the fourth round of the U.S. Open, which is surprising considering all eight of his ATP titles have come on hard courts. With a good lead up to the tournament, he’ll be looking to fix that issue and make a deep run.Pospisil, similarly, has not done as well as expected at the U.S. Open in the past, never going past the second round. This year, he seems likely to face the same fate. Raonic has beaten Pospisil both times that the two have faced each other on North American hard courts, and has looked particularly good on return of serve over the last week, which should help neutralize Pospisil’s main strength on his service games.Court 5 | 7 p.m.Ekaterina Alexandrova vs. Catherine McNallyOn Tuesday night, Alexandrova outlasted Kim Clijsters upon her return to the U.S. Open in three exceptional sets of tennis. Alexandrova, whose baseline hitting is a representation of what the modern women’s game has become, was able to go toe to toe with a player who arguably, help set tennis in that direction. Alexandrova has had a breakout year, winning her first WTA title in Shenzhen in January, before equaling her best Grand Slam performance with a third round appearance at the Australian Open.Now she will face someone who could represent the future of the women’s game. Although McNally is better known for her doubles partnership with Coco Gauff, reaching the quarterfinals at the Australian Open last year, she is an equally capable singles player. Last year, McNally lost in the second round to Serena Williams in a three-set battle at Arthur Ashe Stadium, announcing herself as a prospect to be taken seriously by both fans and her fellow players.Other important matches:Sofia Kenin vs. Leylah Fernandez, Arthur Ashe Stadium | 11 a.m.Roberto Bautista Agut vs Miomir Kecmanovic, Court 12 | 11 a.m.Dominic Thiem vs. Sumit Nagal, Arthur Ashe Stadium | 1 p.m.Matteo Berrettini vs. Ugo Humbert, Court 17 | 5 p.m.Ivan Dodig/Filip Polasek vs. Jamie Murray/Neal Skupski, Court 7 | 6 p.m.Timea Babos/Kristina Mladenovic vs. Kaitlyn Christian/Giuliana Olmos, Court 12 | 6 p.m.Margarita Gasparyan vs. Serena Williams, Arthur Ashe Stadium | 7 p.m.Madison Keys vs Aliona Bolsova, Court 17 | 8 p.m.Here’s this fan’s game plan for juggling the matches.Starting at 11 a.m. Eastern on ESPN+, I will be watching Ons Jabeur as she takes on Kaia Kanepi, a veteran. Jabeur plays with a creative flair that’s difficult to find at the pinnacle of the sport. In a way, it reminds me of Fabrice Santoro, who is known as the Magician. As Jabeur looks to match her quarterfinal run from the Australian Open, I’m just looking to be inspired by the joy that seems to radiate from her playing style.Afterward, I’ll switch over to Louis Armstrong Stadium, where Raonic and Pospisil will face off. Raonic looked very convincing in his run to the finals at the Western & Southern Open last week, and I want to keep an eye on him as the tournament progresses. He could be a dark horse to push for the title if he can keep his foot on the gas through the next week and a half.At around 5 p.m., I’ll be interested in seeing how Berrettini deals with Humbert. At last year’s U.S. Open, I tried to watch every Berrettini match after having accidentally caught his second round triumph over Jordan Thompson. He was on an outside field court, and the entire crowd was focused on the next court over, where an American player was struggling through a long match. At the time, I wanted to tell people that they were watching the wrong match, and felt vindicated as I watched Berrettini push to his first Grand Slam semifinal. This year, perhaps he can prove that it wasn’t a fluke run.In the evening, I’ll be focused on two matches. Sabalenka and Azarenka are two extremely powerful baseline players, and their similarities are sure to create many impressive points as they seek to one-up each other. On the other hand, Auger-Aliassime and Murray will be a study in opposites. There may have been a time when Murray could play as explosively as the young Canadian does, but now, Murray will need to rely on his stamina and defensive play entirely to try to outmaneuver him. More

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    Karolina Pliskova, the Top Seed at the U.S. Open, Loses in Round 2

    Karolina Pliskova, the No. 1 women’s singles seed at the United States Open, was beaten in the second round by Caroline Garcia, 6-1, 7-6 (2), on Wednesday.A significant upset on paper, it was no great surprise in the grand scheme of women’s tennis, which has become a free-for-all in recent seasons.Garcia, a powerful French player with a complete game, was once ranked as high as No. 4 in 2018. She already had split her previous six matches with Pliskova, and though she arrived unseeded at this Grand Slam tournament, she was the more consistent and resourceful player in Louis Armstrong Stadium.“I knew I could give her trouble for sure,” Garcia said of Pliskova, whom she had not faced since 2018. “She gets a lot of confidence from her serve, so I was trying to be really focused on the return and trying to make as many returns as I could.”Pliskova, a flat-hitting and big-serving Czech, arrived in New York with a big opportunity with six of the world’s top 10 players missing, including No. 1 Ashleigh Barty and No. 2 Simona Halep.But Pliskova, who reached the 2016 U.S. Open final after upsetting Serena Williams, remains perhaps the most accomplished women’s player without a Grand Slam singles title. Though she was one of the first top European players to commit to making the trip to the United States and playing in New York amid the coronavirus pandemic, she ended up losing early in both tournaments in which she played. She lost her opening match of the Western & Southern Open to Veronika Kudermetova on Aug. 23.“None of those matches which I lost was that bad,” Pliskova said. “I think there are just some girls which are playing good tennis. I think Garcia is one of them.”After a first round that was surprisingly stable with the top 24 seeds all advancing, the women’s tournament returned to its more usual unpredictability on Wednesday. Four of the top 16 seeds were beaten in the second round: Pliskova, No. 11 Elena Rybakina, No. 12 Marketa Vondrousova and No. 13 Alison Riske.Pliskova’s defeat leaves two American women as the top remaining seeds: No. 2 Sofia Kenin and No. 3 Williams, who is chasing a record-tying 24th Grand Slam singles title.But instability has been the rule, with five different women winning the last five Grand Slam singles titles before the coronavirus pandemic forced the tour’s five-month hiatus. Since the start of 2017, there have been eight first-time major singles champions. By comparison, there have been no first-time singles champions during that period in the men’s game.Another women’s surprise would thus not be one in New York, particularly with players coming off an extended break.Garcia could not play tennis at all when the hiatus began. She was training in Spain at Rafael Nadal’s academy in Majorca when Spain and much of Europe went into lockdown in March. Unable to fly back home to her home city of Lyon, France, she remained in Majorca in an apartment with her parents and was not allowed to train outdoors or play tennis for several weeks.She exercised indoors instead, ran up and down the stairs in her apartment complex and passed the downtime by doing a puzzle of a Fiat 500.“You have to try to have a bit of imagination,” she said then in an interview with the French newspaper L’Équipe. “For the moment, the priority is not to go out, to not do sports outside, to not play tennis.”But she is certainly playing it well at this unusual U.S. Open and has yet to drop a set in two matches, dictating terms with her heavy serve and topspin forehand.“Against the top players if you sit back and wait for the mistake, it’s never going to happen,” Garcia said of her aggressive approach. “You have to put her in trouble.”After soaring through the first set, Garcia had to scrap to win the second, saving a set point on her serve.“I thought she played great tennis in the first set, she was just playing super aggressive, going for her shots,” Pliskova said. “I maybe didn’t play my best. I didn’t serve that great, especially early in the match. But that’s how it is sometimes. I’m not a robot, so I don’t have to play every day amazing.”Garcia can surely relate to that comment. From No. 4, she has fallen to No. 50. But despite the hiatus, she has had some big highs in the last 12 months, helping France win the Fed Cup in 2019 and now beating the No. 1 seed at the U.S. Open. When she closed it out, she performed her trademark tennis celebration borrowed from soccer: spreading her arms to imitate an airplane.“My personal thing,” Garcia said. “The strangest thing is at the end of the match, you’re used to there being some acknowledgment from the crowd, so you’re not entirely sure that you’ve won.”Continuing her run will require her to defeat another player on a roll with a big serve and heavy topspin forehand. Her third-round opponent will be Jennifer Brady, the much-improved American who won her first WTA title last month at the Top Seed Open in Lexington, Ky., and made impressively quick work of Cici Bellis on Wednesday.“I think we have pretty much the same weapons: the serve and the forehand,” Garcia said. “She is moving well on court and is playing in her country, even if it’s without fans.” More

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    ‘A Total Collapse’ for a Player Restricted by U.S. Open Contact Tracing

    Restricted to her hotel room at the United States Open except for practices and matches, French tennis star Kristina Mladenovic could find no refuge on the court on Wednesday.She was seemingly in total command of her second-round match against Varvara Gracheva, a 20-year-old from Russia playing in her first Grand Slam singles tournament.Mladenovic, the No. 30 seed, was tantalizingly close to a dominant victory. She led 6-1, 5-1 and 15-0 on her own serve before Gracheva came back to win the game. In the next, Gracheva fell behind 0-40 but saved four match points to hold serve.The comeback was underway — although it looked much more like a collapse — as Gracheva went on to win 1-6, 7-6 (2), 6-0 with Mladenovic struggling to keep her composure and her shots in play during the final set.After winning 11 of the first 13 games in the match, she ended up losing 12 of the last 13, one of the most dramatic turnabouts in U.S. Open history.“It’s a nightmare what we are experiencing here,” Mladenovic said in French, fighting back tears. “I have only one desire, and that’s to get my freedom back and even that we don’t have yet.”Mladenovic is one of a group of players who have faced tighter restrictions and more frequent coronavirus testing after tournament health officials determined that they had close contact with Benoit Paire, a French men’s player who tested positive for the coronavirus on Saturday.Mladenovic, who has repeatedly tested negative for the virus, said she had one practice session with Paire in New York, but what caught the attention of contact tracers was a game of cards she played with Paire and others in the lobby of the main hotel where players are staying on Long Island.Mladenovic has said the game lasted less than an hour and that she was wearing a mask.Paire, who was withdrawn from the tournament and restricted to his hotel room, said on social media on Wednesday that he has since tested negative for the virus. More

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    2020 U.S. Open: What to Watch on Wednesday

    How to watch: From noon to 6 p.m. Eastern time on ESPN, and from 6 to 11 p.m. on ESPN2; streaming on the ESPN app.The second round of the United States Open singles competitions starts Wednesday, and the doubles competition begins as well. While singles often claims the majority of the spotlight, the quality of doubles players assembled should draw some attention toward the field courts.Here are some matches to keep an eye on.Because of the number of matches cycling through courts, the times for individual matchups are merely estimates and certain to fluctuate based on the completion time of earlier play. All times are Eastern.Louis Armstrong Stadium | 1 p.m.Alexander Zverev vs. Brandon NakashimaZverev, the fifth seed, beat a former U.S. Open finalist, Kevin Anderson, in the first round on Monday. Early on, Zverev’s serve seemed shaky, and he had four double faults in the first set. But he got more consistent as the match progressed and took control in the last two sets, finishing with 72 percent of service points won. If he can show that sort of consistency on his serve, which he has struggled with over the last couple of years, he should be challenging for this year’s title.Nakashima, 19, from San Diego, is a newcomer to the ATP Tour. Last year, he made the semifinals of the junior U.S. Open, and since then has appeared in several high-profile exhibition tournaments. In December, Nakashima played in the Hawaii Open, where he beat Chris Harrison and Taylor Fritz before losing to Sam Querry in three sets. While Nakashima still has plenty of room to grow before really challenging top-10 players, it will be interesting to see how he approaches the match. If he can keep nerves at bay and play fluidly, it should be an entertaining match.Louis Armstrong Stadium | 4 p.m.Karolina Pliskova vs. Caroline GarciaPliskova, the No. 1 seed, reached the finals of the U.S. Open in 2016, but has not made it past the quarterfinals since. Pliskova thrives on fast courts, with a naturally powerful serve that she’s more than happy to follow into the net. Her two-handed backhand is also marvelous, able to produce powerfully flattened shots from defensive positions as well as tidy angles when she has an opponent on the run.Garcia, No. 50 in the world, has never been past the third round in Flushing Meadows, and has often found her best success on the red clay of Europe. An accomplished doubles player, with one major title, she decided in 2017 to stop playing doubles to focus on her singles career. The all-around baseliner uses her movement and point construction to draw unforced errors from opponents, and relies on the consistency of her serve to ease her past strong returners.Although the players broadly can be described as having similar styles of play, Pliskova’s preference for a faster court favors her.Arthur Ashe Stadium | 2 p.m.Novak Djokovic vs. Kyle EdmundDjokovic, the world No. 1, comfortably pushed past Damir Dzuhmar in the first round. But, if you had seen only Djokovic’s reactions after points, you would have thought it was a struggle through which the 17-time major champion needed to summon every ounce of mental fortitude.Without the energy of a crowd to feed on, perhaps the most effective method to keep energy up on the court is to expend it — violently, loudly, demanding a reminder that in tennis, every point counts.Or maybe, it’s theatrics.Either way, it’s hard to question Djokovic, who is undefeated in 2020, with a 24-match winning streak stretching back to Jan. 4 in Brisbane, Australia.Edmund, the world No. 44, has not looked particularly convincing of late. At the Western & Southern Open, Edmund lost to Kevin Anderson in the first round, and he struggled to move past Alexander Bublik in their match on Monday night. Edmund has one of the best forehands on tour, with a heavy dipping action produced by a Western grip. Unfortunately, Djokovic is more than comfortable with absorbing his opponent’s pace and redirecting it, and will be looking to target Edmund’s backhand to push the Briton around the court and force errors.Arthur Ashe Stadium | 7 p.m.Naomi Osaka vs. Camila GiorgiOn Monday night, Osaka fought past her Fed Cup teammate Masaki Doi in a tough three-set match full of aggressive baseline maneuvering from both players. Although Osaka has some concern about a hamstring injury picked up during the Western & Southern Open, her movement looked OK and she said she was “managing.”Giorgi, No. 74, is an assertive baseline player as well. With an especially powerful forehand, Giorgi seems at times too keen to aim for the corners. When these two power hitters meet, expect plenty of quick points dictated by which player decides to direct her shots into the far corners of the court first.Other important matches:Kateryna Bondarenko versus Petra Martic, Court 17 | 11 a.m.Kateryna Kozlova versus Petra Kvitova, Arthur Ashe Stadium | 12 p.m.Lloyd Harris versus David Goffin, Court 5 | 1 p.m.Coco Gauff/Catherine McNally versus Hailey Baptiste/Whitney Osuigwe, Court 5 | 8 p.m.Stefanos Tsitsipas versus Maxime Cressy, Arthur Ashe Stadium | 9 p.m.Here’s this fan’s game plan for juggling the matches.Starting at 11 a.m. Eastern on ESPN+, I will be watching Rajeev Ram and Joe Salisbury, the 2020 Australian Open doubles champions, begin their quest for a second major title as partners. Their opponents, Austin Krajicek and Franko Skugor, reached the third round at the Australian Open, and those results reflect the gap in skill level between the two pairs. Around 1 p.m., I’ll switch over to Louis Armstrong Stadium to watch Zverev play Nakashima. Nakashima might not have many professional appearances under his belt, but he’s a very exciting prospect. Zverev performed well in his first-round matchup against Kevin Anderson, but Nakashima is a much more unpredictable player, with better court movement. It should present an interesting challenge as Zverev looks to make a deep run.Pliskova and Garcia follow, a battle of aggressive players who love different surfaces. Although both have a tendency to come to the net, Garcia is much more used to doing so on red clay, where the slower courts allow for more time to establish a position at the front. I’m looking forward to seeing how she adjusts to try to upset the No. 1 seed.Around this time, I also expect to be keeping an eye on Victoria Azarenka and Sofia Kenin, who will be partnering in the doubles competition against Ellen Perez and Storm Sanders. Watching accomplished singles players like Azarenka and Kenin transition to doubles during the same tournament can be an interesting study in adjustments. The differing tactical situations can often hamstring players who are too focused on shots that would win them points in singles. It’s a lesson in mental focus and contextual awareness.I’ll finish the day by watching four young, promising Americans square off in doubles. Coco Gauff and Catherine McNally, already an established doubles pair, will be facing Hailey Baptiste and Whitney Osuigwe. All four teenagers had excellent junior careers, each reaching at least one junior Grand Slam final in doubles. While Gauff is the only one to have made a major impact on the top tour to date, this match will be a showcase of the future of women’s tennis in America. More

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    Serena Williams Wins Her First Match in the U.S. Open

    It was not the tennis record Serena Williams has been chasing with mounting urgency and frustration, but her 102nd singles victory earned Tuesday at the United States Open, the most of any player, male or female, still came as a relief.In this strange and abbreviated season, straightforward matches have been difficult to come by for Williams, the most successful women’s player of the 21st century.Williams’s 7-5, 6-3 victory over Kristie Ahn in all-but-empty Arthur Ashe Stadium had its wobbles, as well. Williams dropped her opening service game in both sets against the 96th-ranked Ahn and frequently struggled to find her range with her returns and groundstrokes until she finally hit cruising speed midway through the final set.But it was undoubtedly a step in the right direction for Williams, who looked downcast and adrift as recently as last week in a third-round loss to Maria Sakkari at the Western & Southern Open, which preceded the U.S. Open in New York.Williams had not won — or played — any match in straight sets since returning to action last month after a six-month break forced by the coronavirus pandemic.“It’s been years,” Williams joked. “Been since the ’90s that I won a match in straight sets. It felt really good. I was like, ‘Serena, just be Serena and close it out.’ And I know I can do that.”She certainly should know in her fourth decade as a champion. Williams played her first U.S. Open in 1998 and won her first in 1999, becoming a global star, which she remains at age 38 as she continues to pursue a record-tying 24th Grand Slam singles title with very little else left to prove on a tennis court.Tuesday’s victory broke her tie at the U.S. Open with Chris Evert, who won 101 singles matches during her formidable career and who was the analyst for ESPN for Tuesday’s match.“She’s got to play neater tennis, more solid, consistent tennis,” Evert said of Williams before it began.Her performance, which came on her daughter Olympia’s third birthday, was no doubt an improvement, particularly when it came to sealing the deal: she won five of the last six games and finished with 12 aces.But it was not yet the sort of rock-solid, overwhelmingly on-target performance to send shivers through the diminished field. Williams no doubt has a grand opportunity at this tournament, with nearly a quarter of the top 100 players missing, including six of the top 10.With her stature in the United States, her absence would have weighed heaviest, however, and though she has had health issues that could have caused her decide not to risk a return to the circuit, she committed early to the U.S. Open, giving it a major boost in credibility.“I think what’s most important about this event taking place is just the spirit,” she said. “Sport has been gone for so long, particularly tennis. We missed two Grand Slams. The U.S. Open is the first major tennis event since the Australian Open. The morale can be really low in the world with everything that’s going on. Sometimes you just want to take your mind off it. People have been doing that for generations through sport.”Sports and the VirusUpdated Sept. 1, 2020Here’s what’s happening as the world of sports slowly comes back to life:If a Grand Slam tournament happens and there are not 50,000 daily spectators there to watch it, is it really a scene? The players are making it one.Unlike other sporting events canceled by the coronavirus, the World of Series of Poker, and its millions in prizes, went online. But borders are tricky when it comes to internet gambling.After being exposed to a player with the coronavirus, some athletes were asked to sign a revised agreement to remain at the U.S. Open.She looks motivated and quite fit, but she has also lost some of her traditional ability to intimidate. Ahn, a former collegiate star at Stanford University, was the latest example of an opponent who seemed comfortable in her presence.The daughter of Korean immigrants, Ahn clearly does not suffer from stage fright in general as her clever and viral TikTok videos have made clear during the tour hiatus. She reached the fourth round at last year’s U.S. Open but has yet to win a singles match on the tour in 2020 or any tour title in any year.And yet, in her first match against Williams, she started convincingly and cleverly shifted tactics and pace, alternating sliced backhands with flat forehand blasts and often getting the better of the baseline exchanges.But Williams was still able to summon her signature weapon when she needed it: hitting aces to all four corners of the service boxes and above all doing damage with her wide sliced serve in the deuce court.“I was really happy with how I just fought for every point, no matter how I was playing,” Williams said.”I feel like I have been focused, but I have been losing matches on literally one point that could swing a match a different way. I’ve been playing a ton of tight matches.”She also seemed to be working on shortening the points, rushing the net more than usual and with mixed results.Above all, she held firm under pressure, which has long been her trademark but has lately been an issue.Last week against Sakkari, Williams did not put up her customary fight for much of the third set. She rushed between points and overhit groundstrokes intentionally as if she were in a hurry to get off the court and end the suffering.“I put myself in a bad situation,” she said afterward. “It’s like dating a guy that you know sucks. That’s literally what I keep doing out here. It’s like I have to get rid of this guys. It just makes no sense.”Tuesday was a better date, and it earned her a second-round match on Thursday with Margarita Gasparyan, a Russian ranked No. 117 whom Williams has beaten in straight sets in their two previous encounters.Bigger challenges presumably await as Williams tries to beat the clock and tie Margaret Court, the Australian who holds the record of 24 Grand Slam singles titles.If she does it this year in New York, she will have to do it in an environment more appropriate for reflection than exertion. Even though Williams already had played five matches without fans since the hiatus, it had to be unsettling to walk into Ashe Stadium, the place where she has won six U.S. Open singles titles, and see five tiers of empty stands in a show court that normally accommodates more than 23,000 spectators.“It’s quiet, but it’s such a big stadium,” she said, examining her familiar yet unfamiliar surroundings after the victory. “It’s a Grand Slam, so I’m still, I think, as passionate and intense out there.”More vulnerable, too, but Williams, the greatest player of her era, should never be counted out. More

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    Medvedev Spurred Cheers and Jeers at the Last U.S. Open. Now, He’ll Just Play.

    The piped-in crowd noise at this fan-free United States Open won’t be anything near the shouts — some of joy, some of fury — generated last year by Daniil Medvedev.He antagonized the crowd in his third-round win over Feliciano López, basking in boos that he encouraged during his on-court interview. Then he battled to the fifth set of the final against Rafael Nadal, and had New York in the pocket of his Lacoste shorts.For Medvedev, it was “a great roller coaster” that showed the different sides of his personality.“I didn’t try to, say, ‘OK, sorry, guys, that was not me.’ I did mistakes; I admit it. But that’s me,” Medvedev said. “And then, finally by fighting, playing good tennis, maybe being funny, but again, not being another person, not trying to hide something, they were cheering me at the end.”[embedded content]With Nadal not competing in this U.S. Open, the third-seeded Medvedev stands apart as an obvious threat to return to the final, where he could face top-seeded Novak Djokovic, who has not lost a match this year.Medvedev was set to play his first-round match on Tuesday night against Federico Delbonis at Arthur Ashe Stadium.Medvedev’s run to the U.S. Open final, along with titles in two other big tournaments around that time, helped vault him into the top five in the men’s ranking. His success in New York was no fluke, even though his unusual wielding of his lanky limbs can make his laser shots look lucky.“You wouldn’t say from a tennis coach’s perspective that he is an ideal player for his shots, but he does everything so well,” said Aljaz Bedene, who lost to Medvedev last week in the third round of the Western & Southern Open. “He moves well, he serves well, he’s tall. Even if his shots look odd at times, he hits everything so well.”Tennys Sandgren, a 2018 and 2020 Australian Open quarterfinalist, recalled marveling at Medvedev the first time he saw him, on a practice court in Lyon, France, three years ago.“He was hitting them so hard and so flat,” Sandgren said. “I was like: ‘What is this? What are these levers moving this way?’”Medvedev’s coach, Gilles Cervara, said that “Daniil has this unusual technique because of his unusual body.”“The technique works with his body, his biomechanics, and also his psychology and mentality,” Cervara added. “It’s a system: All four things go into that technique.”Djokovic, who lost twice last year to Medvedev and won a bruising four-set match against him at the Australian Open, said that despite “not the best-looking technique” on his forehand, Medvedev’s unshakable backhand makes engaging him in metronomic rallies a mistake.“It’s kind of cat-and-mouse when you play him,” Djokovic said. “You’re really trying to change the depth and not just go kind of left-right, because he likes the rhythm.”Medvedev did not play any of the exhibition events held during the tour’s five-month stoppage, but looked sharp in his three matches last week at the Western & Southern Open. He led Roberto Bautista Agut, 6-1, 4-3, before losing their quarterfinal.“My muscles are going to learn from it,” Medvedev said after that loss. “They are going to remember what it is to play these tough matches.”Aside from his practices, Medvedev got his competitive kicks during the tour stoppage by playing a mobile trivia game, only ever wanting to compete against other people. He excelled, fittingly, on questions in the sports category. (He enjoyed watching hockey, snooker and other sports with his father when he was a child.)On the court, Medvedev can generate showstopping speed, even catching opponents off-guard when they think the point has been won.“We’ve seen highlights where players stopped playing and he still got there and won the point,” Bedene said of Medvedev. “It’s amazing. Besides having a strong serve, his movement is above any others.”Medvedev said it was too bad fans would not be able to react to his game in person in New York because he thought he had done enough to win them over.“Of course, it’s going to be really sad without the New York crowd,” Medvedev said of playing this year. “Because I think at the end of what happened that this year they would be a lot for me, I hope.” More

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    Andy Murray, the Former No. 1, Pulls a Wild U.S. Open Comeback

    Andy Murray has made an art form out of playing on the edge and counterpunching his way out of danger. That talent was on full display Tuesday at the United States Open, as Murray flirted with elimination all afternoon and somehow pulled out a win following a nearly five-hour match with Yoshihito Nishioka of Japan, 4-6, 4-6, 7-6 (5), 7-6 (4), 6-4.“I’m tired,” Murray said during his on-court interview when the four hour, 39-minute match was over. “My toes are the worst.”Getting into a marathon slugfest with Nishioka was a terrible idea for Murray, who is still early in his singles comeback from hip replacement surgery. He had little choice though.Nishioka, 24, is a steady baseliner who, though just 5-foot-7 can puzzle opponents with both his relentlessness and ability to mix-up his shots. In other words, a smaller and, so far, less effective version of Murray, but with two healthy hips.Coming back from a career-threatening injury as Murray is trying to do is always a fraught and risky endeavor. That is especially the case right now, with the coronavirus pandemic disrupting tennis and so many sports.Normally, Murray would play a series of smaller tournaments to sharpen his game against lesser competition, gain rankings points and then hopefully a seed at a major tournament. Being seeded would protect him from top opponents for a round or two.But with the tennis world on hiatus from March until August, there was little opportunity for Murray to play himself into Grand Slam form. The challenge of long, withering matches was going to come quickly. Was he still fast enough to cover the court? Could he last five sets after so much time away from Grand Slam tennis?The early answers — yes, and yes, at least against the No. 49 player in the world. This was Murray being so Murray, carrying on that high-volume dialogue with himself throughout, spraying flat back hands and topspin lobs and the soft drop shots that once carried him to the world No. 1 ranking.Murray played from behind nearly all afternoon, dropping the first two sets and then going down a break early in the third as he struggled to find his rhythm and beat so many forehands into the middle of the net.He said he started out too tentative, then overcompensated by taking too many chances. He popped a string during one crucial point and couldn’t figure out how to break Nishioka’s relatively soft serve, which averages less than 100 miles per hour. But then he somehow worked his way into a third-set tiebreaker, chasing down drop shots and even bending a forehand around the side of the net.He survived the first tiebreaker just barely, and when he did he let out a primal scream, trying to will a higher level of play out of his 6-foot-3-inch frame.Crowds are hard to come by at the U.S. Open this year, but Murray managed to attract one. As the fourth set moved into the later stages and especially in the tiebreaker, players began appearing in the seats of Arthur Ashe Stadium. Novak Djokovic, the world No. 1, popped out of his luxury suite, one which he and all seeded players here each were assigned to take in any action during their downtime. Amanda Anisimova, the 19-year-old American who won her first-round match earlier Tuesday, took a seat in the lower bowl.Murray beat back a match point for Nishioka in the fourth set, and when he prevailed in the fourth-set tiebreaker, his fellow players filled the 22,000-seat stadium with applause, or at least tried their best.“It’s rare you have lots of players watching your match,” he said. “In some ways that can be a little distracting.”Murray’s father-in-law was also watching, as was his brother, Jamie, and he noticed some of the other British players had come out. “Although the atmosphere was very flat, at the end as I was starting to turn it around and I could see some faces in different points of the court to see some encouragement. That definitely helps.”The fifth set brought Murray to the brink again. Nishioka broke Murray to go up 3-2, only to have Murray, who had noticed that Nishioka could sometimes struggle to make a service break stick, break back to tie the set. Somehow, he saved his best tennis for the final games, landing 79 percent of his first serves in the final set, nailing 16 of his 64 winners.Up 5-4 and desperate for a break to end the match, Murray crushed a cross-court backhand to get to match point, then finished off the comeback with a topspin lob that Nishioka could not put on the court. It was the 179th point Murray won Tuesday afternoon. Nishioka won 176.The win had Murray, a devotee of ice baths for recovery, desperate to find freezing water. There is an ice bath in the men’s locker room, but it is only supposed to be used in cases of emergency during this pandemic-era tournament, as officials try to limit how much time players spend together in indoor spaces.“For me this is an emergency,” Murray said after his longest match since the 2019 Australian Open, who did ultimately get permission to soak. “My body hurts.” More