The depth and quality of the women’s singles field at the U.S. Open is causing fits for established stars.
Six seeded players were upset in the U.S. Open first round. Though all top-10 seeds in the women’s singles tournament advanced to the round of 64 for the first time since 2016, four of those matches went to hard-fought third sets.
No. 4 seed Simona Halep, who suffered stunning first-round exits in back-to-back U.S. Open appearances, prevailed in a gritty three-setter over Nicole Gibbs, who is ranked 135th in the world. After the match, Halep said a level playing field is a good thing for the sport.
“I feel we are very equal,” Halep said. “Anyone can win any tournament, even the Grand Slams. That’s why we have different winners. Now, you never know what is going to happen during the tournament. Every match is tough: first round, second round, doesn’t matter. It’s the same level.”
During qualifier Anna Kalinskaya’s upset victory over the 2017 U.S. Open champion Sloane Stephens, International Tennis Hall of Famer and ESPN analyst Chris Evert noted that any player in the top 100 has a real shot to make noise at the Grand Slams.
“There are no easy first-round matches for any of the tournament’s top seeds,” Evert, a six-time U.S. Open women’s singles champion, said on the broadcast. “What era [of tennis] has been like this?”
A new era for women’s tennis is unfolding, one of parity amongst the top-ranked players in the sport. If a player other than Australian Open champion Naomi Osaka, French Open champion Ashleigh Barty or Wimbledon champion Halep wins it all in Queens, it’ll mark the third consecutive year without a multiple major winner. Angelique Kerber was the last to do so in 2016, winning Down Under and in New York; she was among the notable first-round exits in Queens this year as the No. 14 seed.
Over the same period, only three men, Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic, have won Grand Slam titles. The last three-year stretch without a multiple Slam winner for the men was 2001-03.
After battling through three sets with unseeded Wang Yafan of China, Danish star Caroline Wozniacki suggested the best-of-three set format in the women’s game would yield more upsets if the men played under the same conditions.
"If it wasn’t because it was five-set matches, you would see some players losing [matches on the men’s side] too.”
After two-time Grand Slam champion and No. 24 seed Garbiñe Muguruza fell to unseed American Alison Riske, the Spanish star said the gap between the sport’s elite and their challengers is closing fast.
“A few years ago you had a difference between the top players and not top players,” Muguruza said. “Now you feel like if you’re not 100 percent every day you have matches like today where opponents just play great.”
Riske, who moves on to face unseeded 2017 French Open champion Jeļena Ostapenko of Latvia in the second round, said lower-ranked players are more confident that they can beat top-ranked players. For the 29-year-old American, it’s a clear shift in mentality from her early days on the tour.
“It says a lot about the depth of the sport,” said Riske, ranked No. 36 in the world. “There is a lot to look forward to just because there are so many great players at the moment.”