We break down the good, the bad, and the in-between in this review of the most memorable action from the first day of the US Open.
Sharapova: On a windswept evening that would have posed plenty of problems for her a few years ago, Sharapova needed just a few games to find her range and then thoroughly dominated her first opponent, sweeping 23 of 27 points during one stretch. Outside one poor service games midway through the second set, she favored solid over spectacular while committing almost no errors of the egregious variety. Sharapova did showcased her improved movement in 2012 with a sparkling forehand winner at full stretch and then an eye-popping retrieval near the end that merits another look on a highlight reel. When her greatest weakness becomes a strength, as it has more than ever before this year, she becomes ever more formidable.
Murray: Like Sharapova, he needed a few games to settle himself and dipped into a mild lull in the second set before recovering to complete his straight-sets win routinely. As he usually does early in the draws of majors, Murray leaned towards the practical rather than the flashy more often than not, aiming for relatively high-percentage shots and a steady rhythm from the baseline. Even considering the struggles of his opponent this year, an effective performance in every department except his first serve represents an encouraging start after his injury-addled exits at the Rogers Cup and Cincinnati. Episodes of negative body language recurred chronically, but Murray has shown that he can win without eliminating them.
The defending champion: Against a potentially dangerous opponent in Petra Martic, Stosur started this year’s tournament emphatically by winning 19 straight points on Ashe. Cruising to victory for the loss of just two games, she played her most impressive tennis since the clay season while showing no sign of first-match nerves. After the match, she talked about how the scene of her greatest triumph inspired her, suggesting that she will bring the right mentality to a challenging draw ahead of her.
American men: Perhaps fortunate to benefit from Florian Mayer’s retirement, Jack Sock will gain confidence from winning a main-draw match at a major, and his win justified a wildcard that looked questionable beforehand. Turning back the clock in a four-set victory, James Blake retained his focus through rain delays and chronic clumps of unforced errors. Although Mardy Fish might have dispatched Go Soeda a bit more efficiently, needing two tiebreaks to advance, he cannot feel dissatisfied with his assertive play in both of those tiebreaks and his ability to advance in straight sets. Last but not least, Michael Russell won two sets from world #17 Gilles Simon in a rollercoaster of service breaks and endless rallies.
Paul-Henri Mathieu: Perhaps familiar from his epic victory over Isner at Roland Garros, the Frenchman became the first man to win after losing the first two sets at the 2012 US Open. Mathieu’s comeback struck a blow at national stereotypes, like his feat of clay.
Victoria Duval: Not only did the youngest woman in the draw get the chance to play on Arthur Ashe, but she actually competed respectably against a three-time US Open champion and even held a brief first-set lead. Once Duval moved beyond her early nerves, she showed the first Primetime audience of 2012 why they might see her again in a few years, stepping into the court to attack without hesitation.
Stanford women: Collegiate women rarely leave an impact at prestigious tournaments, so Monday must rank as one of the most memorable days of Mallory Burdette’s life. The NCAA tournament women’s finalist registered a straight-sets win over Timea Bacsinszky that moves her within one round of a date with Sharapova. Less delightfully for Stanford fans, Burdette’s partner to the NCAA doubles title and conqueror in the NCAA singles final could not solve the challenge of former prodigy Alize Cornet. Nicole Gibbs dropped seven straight games after failing to serve out the first set and never recovered entirely. But she too exceeded expectations by playing a competitive match against an opponent with extensive WTA experience, creating a foundation on which she can build.
Azarenka: For the fourth time this year, the world #1 lost just one game in a match at a major. Three of those demolitions have occurred on hard courts, where she has won all but one of her titles, and Alexandra Panova hardly would have threatened Azarenka even on an average day. But this sprightly beginning to the tournament augured well for a woman who had not played a match since the Olympics and no match on a hard court since Miami.
Kvitova: Squandering multiple leads in the first set, the US Open Series winner looked as though she might not last any longer in New York than she did last year. Hercog came within two points of claiming that set in a tiebreak, but Kvitova maintained sufficient consistency in a long rally at 6-6 to earn the decisive minibreak. More promising was a second set in which she established control at the outset and never relinquished it. Still, this version of Kvitova recalled her wobbly first-half self more than the relentless competitor of the last two weeks.
Varvara Lepchenko: In a 15-break encounter with a French journeywoman, the lefty who squeaked into the seeded group barely weathered the slings and arrows of fortune, as many from her own racket as from her opponent. This match featured very few passages of convincing tennis, especially when compared with Lepchenko’s sturdier efforts over the spring and summer that earned this elevated ranking. For a woman so proud to represent the United States at the Olympics last month, however, a first-round loss at her home major would have struck a devastating blow. Despite her inexperience, she managed the pressure reasonably well and played smart points when it mattered.
German women: Eins, zwei, drei: down went three of the WTA’s most charismatic younger stars within the first day of the year’s final major. First to fall was Lisicki in yet another third set, her sixth straight and 18th of a 33-match season. Unable to hold a one-set lead against Cirstea, hardly famous for her tenacity, she took another step towards confirming herself as a grass specialist. Somewhat less surprising was the demise of Goerges, who has struggled for the last several months. Least surprising of all was Petkovic’s loss to Romina Oprandi, for the German just returned in New Haven after playing just seven matches throughout a 2012 plagued with injuries. Petkovic deserves credit for saving three match points and battling back from multiple deficits in the second set, however, showing more spark than her compatriots. If she spends the fall accumulating match practice, she should contend again in 2013.
Oudin: Shortly before Tennis Channel showed its Tennisography documentary on her yet again, Oudin ate a bagel at the hands of Safarova in a meek opening loss. Despite the home-court advantage, she won just one main-draw match in the North American summer and must raise her level in the fall to avoid letting her spring momentum evaporate.
Hiroki Moriya: The Japanese qualifier won just three games from Ivan Dodig, leaving him the man to win the fewest games at the 2012 US Open. In a best-of-five format on a fast surface, others should struggle to match his futility.