On the first day of the US Open will unfold such scintillating encounters as…Federer vs. Donald Young and Azarenka vs. Panova. The menu does rise a little above the “nonexistent” level in intrigue, though, and we select the least uneventful matches scheduled for Day 1 in the first of our daily previews.
Cirstea vs. Lisicki: As streaky blonde meets streakier brunette, the Wimbledon quarterfinalist aims to build upon her momentum from the grass season. Reaching the second week of the US Open last year, Lisicki showcased her massive serve upon these fast courts. Cirstea also will relish the opportunity to play shorter points that expose her erratic weapons less often. Knocking off Stosur to start the Australian Open and Li to start Wimbledon, the Romanian has developed into something much less than a contender but something much more than a typical journeywoman. Often vulnerable in the early rounds of majors, Lisicki somewhat resembles Isner in her tendency to flirt with disaster against virtually any opponent, and this particular opponent can punish her for it. The German has played five straight three-setters and seven in her last eight matches, continuing a dominant theme of her season that hints at another rollercoaster encounter ahead.
Li vs. Watson: Expelled from the US Open in the first round last year, the Cincinnati champion faces a teenage counterpuncher from the Bolletieri baseline genre. Probably the most intriguing prospect on the horizon of British women’s tennis, Watson won a set from Sharapova in the first round here a year ago and won two matches at Wimbledon this summer. That experience should have boosted her confidence, as should some decent results during the US Open Series, although she has struggled against the Li-like game of Azarenka in two resounding defeats on 2012 hard courts. Handed a relatively difficult draw with Clijsters looming in the third round, Li succumbed to unexpected conquerors at the last two majors and never has brought her finest tennis to New York. She played ten matches in eleven days at the Rogers Cup and Cincinnati, a grueling stretch from which she may feel jaded.
Martic vs. Stosur: When they met in Rome earlier this year, the Australian veteran and the intriguing Croat battled all the way to a third-set tiebreak. While Martic has honed a polished all-court style that viewers should enjoy, the main plotline here concerns Stosur’s attempt to mount at least a creditable title defense. Last year, she played only one match on Arthur Ashe: the final against Serena, one of the best matches that she ever has played and probably her best on a hard court. Opening the tournament in a situation likely to heighten the pressure upon her, she hopes to avoid the fates of similar first-time champions Li and Kvitova. Little in her recent results bodes well for her fortunes, but then again Stosur had not exactly dazzled at the first three majors of 2011 before catching fire in New York.
Oudin vs. Safarova: Three long years ago, the diminutive spitfire from Georgia became an improbable US Open quarterfinalist. That fortnight remains by far the highlight of a career that would have seemed much less disappointing had Oudin not raised expectations so high at the start. Following a spurt of success at the challenger level and her first career title in Birmingham, murmurs of a resurgence hovered around her this summer despite her failure to win a main-draw match at five of six tournaments since then. Even if she never recaptures her magic of 2009, Oudin can expect a wildcard to the Open until further notice. Situated on a show court, she should benefit from enthusiastic crowd support against the easily rattled Safarova. Nevertheless, this member of the Czech lefty corps impressed by reaching the semifinals at the Rogers Cup recently, an accomplishment mitigated by the vast lead that she allowed to slip through her fingers there.
Hantuchova vs. Pavlyuchenkova: In a dreadful slump for much of the year, Pavlyuchenkova showed signs of resurfacing during the US Open Series with a final appearance in Washington and a quarterfinal in Cincinnati, where she defeated Wozniacki. Still very early in her career, the former junior #1 has earned some of her most notable achievements in North America, including semifinals at both Indian Wells and Cincinnati as well as a quarterfinal at the US Open a year ago. In that match, Pavlyuchenkova competed sturdily against Serena throughout the first set, illustrating her identity as a heavy hitter who relies on pace more than angle. Quite the opposite is the elegant Hantuchova, dormant since the spring after starting the year with a flurry of victories highlighted by a Pattaya City title defense. Both woman lack even average movement, so the match should hinge on who can step inside the baseline sooner and land the first aggressive blow.
Almagro vs. Stepanek: The most plausible upset bid on the men’s side, this match pits a clay specialist against a forwardly mobile veteran who has earned more success in doubles as he has aged. Winning the doubles crown at the Australian Open with Paes, Stepanek also won two matches and a set from Djokovic at Wimbledon. During the US Open Series, he defeated three top-20 opponents in Dolgopolov, Del Potro, and Monaco, while Almagro left no impact on the North American hard courts. The Spaniard has reached the quarterfinals in New York before, however, and he possesses a serve more imposing than those of most compatriots. Since both men have accumulated reputations as enigmatic competitors, a curiously arrhythmic match could unfold.
Sock vs. Mayer: In the second round of last year’s US Open, this raw Nebraskan emitted flashes of promise during a loss to Roddick. His explosive serve-forehand combinations then paved his route to a mixed-doubles title with Oudin there, although he continues to languish outside the top 200 since then. Having received a wildcard despite falling well short of the main-draw boundary, Sock must demonstrate that he deserves it by threatening the 22nd seed. Mayer reached the quarterfinals of Wimbledon, upsetting Gasquet en route, and his mercurial shot-making can disrupt the rhythm of steadier opponents. But his groundstrokes, especially his backhand, can grow unreliable when adversity descends or when his mind wanders, so Sock should stay alert for an opening that likely will arise in the best-of-five format
Goffin vs. Berdych: On the one hand, a finals appearance in Winston-Salem marked a key step forward towards salvaging a disastrous summer for the Czech, who lost his first match at both Wimbledon and the Olympics. On the other hand, his inability to secure the title when he held a championship point on his serve against Isner (far from a superb returner) left Berdych temporarily scarred by his own admission. Just as he did when he held a set point for a two-set lead against Nadal in Melbourne, he missed a makeable backhand volley to throw his foe a lifeline. Berdych has accumulated a habit of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory throughout his career, and he has suffered more than one bizarre setback in New York. By contrast, Goffin surged to instant notoriety when he not only reached the second week of Roland Garros but won a set from Federer there. Defeating Tomic at Wimbledon, he strikes the ball exceptionally early and has drawn comparisons to Davydenko, but he looks as much younger than his age as the Russian looks older.
Murray vs. Bogomolov: At Miami last year, the surly counterpuncher ambushed Murray amidst the latter’s post-Australian Open malaise. Earning his revenge not once but twice in straight-sets victories at Cincinnati and Tokyo, the Scot restored the balance of power in their rivalry. After winning the gold medal, however, injuries contributed to early exits from the Masters 1000 tournaments this summer, where he normally shines. Murray toiled through an unusually full schedule by reaching the final of both prestigious grass tournaments on home soil this summer, so this match might offer a first indication regarding his durability for New York. Although he is virtually certain to win, any glimpses of frailty would confirm prevailing impressions of Federer and Djokovic as distinctly the two favorites for this title in Nadal’s absence.