As the second round concludes in the men’s draw, the women already begin to vie for the sixteen coveted slots in the second week of the year’s final major.  We discuss the pivotal matches on Friday.

Lepchenko vs. Stosur:  An arduous opening match behind her, the 31st seed settled into the tournament with a more routine second-round victory.  Lepchenko already has justified her seed at the first major to print her name in bold on its draw, but an upset over the defending champion at the US Open would thrill this lefty proud to represent her adopted country.  A lefty with an occasionally formidable serve, she enters this match as a massive underdog to the Australian, who has surrendered just five games in two matches.  So thoroughly has Stosur dictated the course of her previous matches that her opponents have not yet placed her on meaningful pressure.  That task represents Lepchenko’s first priority, which means that she must find a way to prevent the defending champion from executing her mechanical serve-forehand combinations at will.

Sharapova vs. Burdette:  For the third time in four years, the 2006 champion faces an essentially unknown American on Arthur Ashe in the third round of the US Open.  In strikingly different fashion unfolded the first two episodes of this trilogy.  After Sharapova fell in a ghastly three-setter to Oudin in 2009, she did not concede a game to Beatrice Capra in 2010.  One might expect a contest somewhere between those two extremes on Friday, for the Russian has improved enormously since the debacle three years ago, especially regarding her serve, while Burdette has displayed tennis more impressive than did Capra two years ago.  Able to outhit Lucie Hradecka, a quality opponent, the Stanford junior kept her first-serve percentage high and finished points effectively at the net, two areas in which she will need to excel again to stay competitive.  Sharapova has pulverized almost all of her challengers in the first week of majors this year, losing more than five games in only one of eleven matches.  Although the third round here has proved an oddly regular obstacle for her, she would need to suffer a significant dip in form for Burdette to harbor any real hope.  But a young opponent with nothing to lose might produce entertaining rallies with the superstar if she embraces the moment.

Roddick vs. Tomic:  A day after his somewhat stunning announcement, the polarizing American takes the court for perhaps the last time, facing an equally polarizing Australian.  Considering Roddick’s career-long affinity for the dramatic theater of an Ashe night session, this match would mark a fitting farewell.  Nevertheless, the 2003 champion surely aspires to stay longer at the scene of his greatest achievement than did his counterpart Clijsters, and his outstanding serve in the first round bodes well for his chances.  Sporadically impressive and sporadically disappointing in an unnecessarily convoluted victory over Berlocq, Tomic still struggles to abandon the aura of the entitled prodigy for whom everything has come too easily.  That attitude contrasts with Roddick’s unflinching toil over the last several years, while their playing styles pit the straightforward reliability of the American against the unpredictable bursts of inspiration from the Australian.  At his home major, Tomic won two five-set thrillers over higher-ranked opponents in Verdasco and Dolgopolov before succumbing meekly to Federer. With the crowd support now across the net, this controversial rising star might channel his inner edginess to embrace the adversity like Djokovic in 2008, taking an almost perverse pleasure in ruining the evening for the crowd.  Or he might sulk his way to the exit without troubling to offer resistance.  Whereas one always knows what to expect from Roddick, one  never knows what to expect from Tomic. 

Azarenka vs. Zheng:  Rather unnoticed for a world #1, albeit not unheard, Azarenka has advanced while dropping the same number of games as Sharapova and Stosur.  The quality of her competition spikes upward perceptibly with her opponent in this night session, who has not flinched from menacing the leading legends of her generation.  Among the most recent examples of Zheng’s courage came in the first week of Wimbledon, when she came closer than anyone that fortnight to upsetting Serena.  Forced to hold serve to stay alive three times, the American superstar testified to her diminutive opponent’s skill at absorbing and redirecting pace.  Azarenka shares that trait, so one can look forward to plenty of fierce, court-stretching rallies as both players look to take the bally early and pull the trigger down the line.  In the second serve of both women lie their Achilles heels, weaknesses that each can exploit with their outstanding returns.  Only after constructing the point can either hit the ball past the other from the baseline, so Azarenka and Zheng ill need patience as well as accuracy in their shot selection.

Li vs. Robson:  In the wake of a career-defining breakthrough, most young players suffer an understandable hangover.  Still raw despite the early start to her career, Robson might experience the same lull a round after ending the career of a three-time US Open champion.  In that victory over Clijsters, however, the teenager showcased significant improvement in the depth of her groundstrokes and her anticipation during rallies.  Having won 11 of her last 12 matches, Li has welcomed new coach Carlos Rodriguez with a torrid streak similar to the span after she greeted previous Michael Mortensen.  (At this rate, the Roland Garros champion might want to hire a new coach for each season.)  No doubt delighted to avoid Clijsters, who had defeated her at two of the last three hard-court majors, she must beware of complacency against the pugnacious Robson.  Li has struggled chronically against the WTA’s most notable lefties, dropping key matches to Kerber and Kvitova, but her superiority to Robson in virtually every department should allow her to prevail as long as she stays focused on her task.

Del Potro vs. Harrison / Tipsarevic vs. Baker:  At vastly different stages in their careers, each of these two Americans hopes to build upon an encouraging opening performance to at least threaten players well above their caliber.  Giving Harrison perhaps a flicker of hope is the left wrist injury nursed by Del Potro, who looked mostly functional against a lucky loser who did not test him seriously.  For his part, Baker will know that Tipsarevic barely survived a five-setter against an equally anonymous opponent.  These signs of frailty should encourage the two Americans to believe that they can accomplish what Martin Klizan did on Thursday against Tsonga.  In the case of Del Potro ad Harrison, though, the underdog must find an answer to the power of the Argentine’s blazing forehand on these fast courts, while the quiet Baker must find a way to assert himself emotionally against the extroverted Tipsarevic.

Petrova vs. Safarova:  Just four places apart in the rankings, these women on paper present the most evenly balanced match of the day.  But Petrova has swept four of their five previous meetings, including their only contest on a hard court at the Rogers Cup two years ago.  After she reached a semifinal in Montreal and a quarterfinal in New Haven, the streaky Safarova has shifted the pendulum of her momentum in the right direction.  Entering this tournament, Petrova had lost four straight matches on hard courts, although she defeated Stosur in an epic at Indian Wells.  The steadier groundstroke of each player, the Russian’s backhand and the Czech lefty’s forehand, should result in a scintillating battle of strength against strength. 

Gasquet vs. Klahn: Encouraged by a five-set triumph over Melzer, this American wildcard aims to replicate the consecutive victories by his compatriot Jack Sock.  If he can recover in time, he may hold a mental edge over the famously fallible Frenchman, whose longer swings may not adapt well to the surface in New York.  Still, Gasquet recently reached the final at the Masters 1000 tournament in Toronto following victories over Fish and Isner, so Klahn faces an opponent not only more talented but likely brimming with confidence. 

Dolgopolov vs. Baghdatis / Fognini vs. Garcia-Lopez:  All of these men survived tense five-setters in the first round, and all but Baghdatis rallied after losing the first two sets.  Especially spectacular was the comeback of Dolgopolov, who trailed by two sets and two breaks before somehow sweeping 17 of the last 20 games.  While durability and recovery time should play a key role in these encounters, all four men have fought fiercely to stay in the tournament and surely will not leave it without another intense struggle.  Spectators thus can look forward to another pair of rollercoasters littered with entertaining point construction and intriguing momentum shifts.  In the first week of a major, such matches can enthrall more than the stately processions of the top seeds.