We know that the first-round match between Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova will dominate the headlines in the early stages of the 2019 U.S. Open. Yet, as Aryna Sabalenka and many other WTA professionals could tell you, the whole women’s first round feels 100 times more important and urgent than first rounds at majors normally do.
Who knew that when Marketa Vondrousova beat Wang Yafan in round one at Roland Garros, she had started a series of matches which would lead her to the French Open final?
Who knew that when Danielle Collins came back to beat Julia Goerges in round one at the Australian Open, she had begun a path to her first major semifinal?
Who knew that when Barbora Strycova defeated Lesia Tsurenko in round one at Wimbledon, she had begun a journey to a first major semifinal at age 33?
With women’s tennis owning supreme parity, first-round matches are not “ease your way into a major tournament” events. They are battles for survival and open fields of opportunity at the same time. They are potential launch points for players — outsiders and insiders, dark horses and prime contenders — to make a run.
The distinction between a contender and a floater, or between an elite player and a challenger, isn’t quite IRRELEVANT — that is too severe a word — but such distinctions certainly matter less right now than they did last year, and certainly a lot less than they did before Serena Williams became a mom.
First rounds of women’s major tournaments have been very difficult the past two years. It’s not as though first rounds began to be difficult at Wimbledon or WILL begin to be difficult in New York. No, not at all. Women’s tennis has been building depth for a few years.
What is different, though, is that Serena is not the stopper, the angel of death, the player who used to own the automatic expectation that she would end a Cinderella run (much as she ended Alison Riske’s dream at Wimbledon in the quarters). Serena still can and does put a halt to outsiders’ challenges, but not with the regularity she used to possess.
This is not an erosion of tennis skills, I hasten to add. It is the product of motherhood and injuries and health complications.
Nevertheless, the removal of the “Serena Aura” is real, in the sense that no one has stepped up to fill the vacuum and become the One Dominant Player who is almost always there at the end of big tournaments. That identity has no owner, no claimant, at the moment.
This makes first rounds of big tournaments extra important, freighted with so much more hope and anxiety than before. Players in the locker room know that if they can get out of round one, there is an upset (or if not an upset, a seed alteration — let’s put it that way) waiting to happen in their section… and they could soon arrive at the quarters or semis before anyone knows what is going on.
That’s why the full menu of first-round women’s matches is so compelling, far beyond the Broadway presentation of SerenaPova.
Aryna Sabalenka and Victoria Azarenka isn’t quite as “Hollywood” as SerenaPova, but it is just as important for the two players involved. Sabalenka returns to the tournament where she took a set off eventual champion Naomi Osaka — the only player to do that in 2018 at the U.S. Open — while Azarenka is desperately trying to get through Week 1 of a major and find a groove which will remain in place for more than a few days.
Sabalenka-Azarenka is hardly the only non-SerenaPova R-128 match with immense significance for both players.
Jo Konta versus Daria Kasatkina — one a Wimbledon quarterfinalist this year, the other a Wimby quarterfinal player last year — is high-stakes poker. Konta needs a boost during the time of year when she historically struggles. Kasatkina is searching, searching, searching for a career reset button.
Eugenie Bouchard badly needs any kind of statement win. Anastasija Sevastova, who plays Bouchard in round one, is defending semifinal points AND is trying to crack the top 10 for the first time in her career. That is a very high-pressure match.
Angelique Kerber-Kiki Mladenovic is a cauldron of consequence in round one. Those players badly need wins after what they have endured in the first eight months of the year.
Sasnovich-Brady. Sakkari-Giorgi. Kenin-Vandeweghe.
Wow, wow, wow.
The women’s first round at the U.S. Open has SerenaPova to entertain us… but (wo)man, there are so many important duels from the A to the Z you can find in the name “Azarenka.”