On a relatively tranquil day at the US Open, most of the familiar names prevailed. We review the key events from Saturday here.
Federer: As projected semifinal opponent Murray struggled, the five-time US Open champion cruised to another straight-sets victory. Consistently crushing Verdasco on every surface throughout their careers, Federer never needed to reach full flight in an uneventful straight-sets affair that ensured him a berth in the second week for a 34th straight major. In contrast to his paths through several recent majors, his efficient progress through the first week should leave him with energy entirely intact for the strenuous end to this fortnight.
Serena: Back to business after an unimpressive second-round effort, Serena followed a formula that often works for her: breaking her opponent’s spirit by winning key points in a close first set and then riding the wave of a momentum through a swift second set. The New York heat prevented her from eating her revenge cold, but the opportunity to right a wrong at the last hard-court major must have felt more satisfying than most of her victories at this stage in a draw.
Ivanovic: Rallying from a one-set deficit, the former #1 survived more than 50 unforced errors and consistently contested service games to outlast rising star Sloane Stephens. While her opponent clearly faded in the final set, Ivanovic deserves praise for not yielding an inch after losing a first-set tiebreak. Able to overcome that disappointment, she found the range on her forehand and more margin on her backhand near the midpoint of the match. The smiling Serb played her best tennis in the last few games, constructing points intelligently as she thrust a scampering Stephens well behind the baseline. On Monday, she will seek her first US Open quarterfinal in a winnable match against Pironkova.
Berdych: Like Ivanovic, the Czech rebounded smoothly from the loss a first-set tiebreak to sweep away his American challenger. Berdych even fell behind by an early break in the second set, at which point one might have anticipated his belief to waver against a man who had defeated him resoundingly at this tournament four years ago. Undeterred by those arrears, he struck back to record two breaks in both the second and third sets before cruising to victory in the fourth past a discouraged Querrey. One win from Federer, Berdych seems to have played himself into the level of form that could test the Swiss.
Italian women: Usually not renowned for their skills on fast hard courts, two Italian women could meet in a US Open quarterfinal, a stage where neither has arrived to date. One of the world’s best doubles teams when on the same court, Sara Errani and Roberta Vinci advanced in tandem to the second week. Each will enter her next match as a heavy underdog, but those who have watched Schiavone and Errani at Roland Garros know better than to discount the feisty women from this nation. If this year’s runner-up in Paris records one more victory, she will have reached three major quarterfinals in 2012, something to which most women cannot lay claim.
Cilic: The steady Croat avenged a loss to Nishikori at an earlier US Open, setting the tone with a commanding start and refusing to relinquish a two-set lead as he had against a lesser opponent. Reaching the second week for the second straight major, Cilic has showcased a substantially improved level of tennis since the grass season began. A quarterfinal berth lies within range at the major that most suits his weapons, assuming that he can find a way to solve the surprise sensation…
Martin Klizan: Whereas many would have contented themselves with a massive upset over Tsonga, this lefty from Slovenia decided to prolong his trip to New York. Marching past the 32nd seed Jeremy Chardy in straight sets, he continues to wreak havoc with prognosticators and bookies. Rarely does such an unknown figure assert himself in a men’s draw at a major over the last several years, which have featured significant surprises almost entirely from the women.
Kerber: The surprise story of last year’s US Open, when she reached the semifinals, she has returned this year as a top-10 player and something close to a genuine threat. En route to the second week again, Kerber has advanced in dramatically divergent fashions. Crushing her first opponent, she came within two Venus service holds of defeat in the second round and then returned to the overwhelming dominance of her opener today. Her Monday meeting with Errani appears an especially even contest.
American men: Near the end of the first week comes the crossroads where the contenders separate themselves from the pretenders. In the latter category were each of three Americans: Jack Sock, James Blake, and even a resurgent Sam Querrey. Each of these men competed respectably against heavily favored opponents in Almagro, Raonic, and Berdych, respectively. While Querrey dug a deep hole for his top-eight foe, Sock extended his conqueror to tiebreaks in each of the first three sets, a remarkable display of fortitude for someone so lacking in experience on this type of stage. And, although Blake did eat a second-set bagel, he already had overachieved by winning two matches at his home major long after he had sunk from relevance.
Pironkova: Into the second week of the US Open for the first time, she may have begun to show that she can generate headlines on surfaces other than grass. Or she simply may have feasted on a weak section from which the only mildly notable player, Wozniacki, departed in the first round. But Pironkova will take the victories and the valuable rankings points, which will stand her in good stead for 2013.
Murray: His back injury apparently behind him, the gold medalist continued his march towards a semifinal with Federer in a manner more arduous than anticipated. Having dismantled Lopez at this tournament last year and surrendered just one set in their five meetings, Murray found himself on the brink of a fifth set today after having led by two sets to none. Credit to the Spanish veteran for launching such an immense comeback, but this performance will not have intimidated Federer or rivals like Raonic, who faces the Scot next. On the other hand, Murray’s three successful tiebreaks bode well for that match against a formidable server, against whom he should find himself in that position again.
Kirilenko: Since she reached the bronze-medal match at the Olympics and the final at the (admittedly small) event in New Haven, she likely should have fared better in New York than a loss to the 87th-ranked Hlavackova. Kirilenko’s relatively vanilla style and lack of overwhelming power always leaves him vulnerable to such upsets, though.
Cibulkova: A titlist in Carlsbad and former quarterfinalist at the US Open, she saw her campaign this year end with a dismal thud in a straight-sets loss to Vinci. To be sure, the Italian brought greater momentum to this match than did the Slovak, having just survived match points in the second round against Shvedova.