09.01.13

U.S. Open’s Delicious Week One: Serena and Sloane, Rafa and Roger, and More

Serena won a much-anticipated showdown with rising star Sloane Stephens, while Federer and Nadal cruised toward a midweek showdown. Nicholas McCarvel breaks down the storylines from the first week of the US Open.

Over is the steamy, sometimes soggy, always dramatic and often contentious first week of the U.S. Open in Queens, where there were no major upsets but plenty of dramatics and a few don't-you-dare stare downs. (Who said tennis was a genteel sport?!) From a thriving new American rivalry to a bubbly teen with a story of survival and a looming clash between two tennis titans, we recap (with a slightly American bias) the week that was at tennis’ boisterous Grand Slam.

Serena-Sloane Showdown, 2.0

Eight months after a teenager named Sloane Stephens shocked Serena Williams in the quarterfinals of the Australian Open, the elder American got revenge on her compatriot, blasting her off the court 6-4, 6-1 in what was Labor Day weekend’s premiere match. A series of dramatics followed their Melbourne match in January, when Sloane went public with not-so-nice things to say about the 16-time Grand Slam winner. But Williams let her tennis do the talking Sunday afternoon, telling the crowd later that Stephens was the “future of American tennis.” Sure, but Serena is the present.

Roger Meets Rafa... on a Wednesday?

Who knew? Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal have never—nope, not once—played each other at the US Open in their 10-year, 31-match rivalry. That could change Wednesday night at the Open as the two may battle it out in the quarterfinals, the earliest they've ever met at a major. (They both need to win one more match.) The clash would mark their 32nd meeting, which will no doubt make Wednesday night feel like more of a Friday night fight under the lights. But Nadal has won three straight against the 32-year-old Federer to up his advantage to 21-10 in their head-to-head record. Can Federer drum up some later-career magic? Maybe.

Vicky Duval Jumps into Our Hearts

Another year, another U.S. Open story for the morning TV shows. In 2009, it was bright-eyed 17-year-old Melanie Oudin who made a jaw-dropping run to the quarterfinals. This year, it was another 17-year-old in Victoria Duval, who although she won just one match, may have gained just as much notoriety as Oudin. Duval, a Haitian-American, stunned 2011 U.S. Open winner Sam Stosur in her opener, playing gutsy tennis to the end and then spurring on plenty of “aww” and awesome moments with her story: she was held at gunpoint when she was a kid in Haiti, picked up tennis to hang out with her older brothers, and nearly lost her father in the 2011 earthquake in Haiti, as he survived 11 hours under rubble before being rescued. Moreover, Duval won over the crowd with her squeaky voice and spunky personality (and those quirky glasses!). Who did she call after her big win? That’d be tennis legend Billie Jean King, of course. "We text," a laughing Duval confirmed of her friendship with King.

The Looming Serena-Vika Showdown

Remember those stare downs we mentioned? There’ll be more in this match. Following her win over Stephens, a showdown with world No. 2 Victoria Azarenka looks all the more likely for Serena. The match, which would be a rematch of last year's final, is one that tennis fans have been drooling over after Azarenka knocked out Serena two weeks ago in Cincinnati in a dramatic encounter. It was the Belorussian who led 5-3 in the deciding set here a year ago in the final, only to see Serena surge back. Who wins this time around? Regardless, the sport will be celebrating if this final comes to fruition.

An American Slighted?

The top-ranked American John Isner, seeded 13th, bowed out in round three Saturday evening to Philipp Kohlschreiber (for the second straight year), but it was his battle on Thursday that had the North Carolina native crying foul, as the home favorite turned out to be, well, not really a favorite. Late in the third set in his match against Frenchman Gael Monfils, the crowd on Louis Armstrong Court rooted hard—and loudly—for the showy, flashy Monfils. After Monfils won the set with his usual dazzling shot making, and sent the match into a fourth, the crowd broke into chants of "Monfils! Monfils!" while a distraught Isner sat in his chair. Eventually, Isner claimed the match, but later said, "I was a little bit disappointed in that ... Not going to sugar-coat it. It was certainly, if I was playing him in France, it certainly wouldn’t be like that."

Venus' Epic Fight, for Naught

Long gone are the days when Venus Williams dominated tennis, but she sure still gives it her all. Williams, now ranked No. 67, left her heart (and a few strands of her newly-purple hair?) out on the court on Wednesday, coming back time and time again in the third set against China's Zheng Jie, only to lose 6-3, 2-6, 7-6 (6). Venus hasn't been to the second week of a major since the U.S. Open in 2010 (when she made the semifinals) and though Venus and Serena are still alive in the doubles, the elder sister's effort in singles may be a thing of the past.

Breezy Goings for Djokovic, Murray

With all the Roger-Rafa talk, the 2012 finalists—and the other two members of tennis' "Big Four"—have made their way through the draw with little fanfare. Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic are set on a collision course for the semifinals, two of the games backboard, never-say-die geniuses looking to re-create the five-setter they played here a year ago for a shot at the final. The reason so little ink on two of the big guns? There's really not much to say with them both playing in consistent, dominating fashion. Only one will get a shot at the final, however, should they both get to the second weekend.

Tiny Tim the Last (American) Man Standing

Milwaukee's best was America's last man standing at the US Open. WHO?! Yeah, we understand. With Andy Roddick long gone, James Blake freshly gone, Mardy Fish out with an ongoing heart condition and losses from torch-bearers Sam Querrey and Isner, that left Milwaukee man Tim Smyczek, who at 5-foot-8 and just 140 pounds isn't an imposing figure by any means, as the final American man in the draw. The 29-year-old from Wisconsin (who has a career-high ranking of No. 101 and has toiled away at small-size tournaments for much of his career) will earn at least a $100,000 payday for his valiant efforts. “Thanks for all of the messages, you guys,” he tweeted Friday. “Amazing atmosphere out there today. Got chills more than once. Can't wait to do it again Sunday.”

Riske-y Business: Alison Makes a Name

She loves road-tripping and thrift shopping, and before this year she hadn't won a Grand Slam match. That has changed for 23-year-old American Alison Riske, who made good on a wild card at Wimbledon by making the third round there earlier this year and then used another wild card (a pass for lower-ranked players into the main draw) this week to go one better, making the fourth round in a run that has included a victory over No. 7 seed and former Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova in round three. Oh, and she carries a blanket around with her to every tournament. Hey, whatever makes you comfortable.