What To Watch: US Open Day 1

What To Watch: US Open Day 1

On each day of the US Open we will provide you with insight on compelling matches to watch, plus notes and numbers to keep you well-equipped for the day ahead.

To quote Queens native and rock ‘n roll legend Joey Ramone “Hey ho, let’s go!”

US Open Day 1

(2) Simona Halep vs. Maria Sharapova, Arthur Ashe Stadium First Night Match
Head-to-head: Sharapova leads 6-0 

Former world No. 1 Sharapova plays her first Grand Slam match since the 2016 Australian Open quarterfinals, while two-time French Open finalist Halep tries to take the first-round step toward attaining the world No. 1 ranking.

The unknown adds intrigue here.

How will Sharapova, who has not played a match since defeating 80th-ranked Jennifer Brady, 6-1, 4-6, 6-0 in Stanford last month, hold up physically after battling arm and leg injuries earlier this season?

The five-time Grand Slam champion has only played nine matches in the last 18 months.

One former US Open champion expects a stress test for both women.

“I think it’s gonna be somewhat mixed (crowd response),” Hall of Famer and ESPN analyst John McEnroe said of the notoriously vocal New York crowd’s reaction to Sharapova’s Grand Slam return from a 15-month doping suspension. “I think that (Maria is) obviously the biggest name in the draw so that’s gonna provide some interest.

“A lot of us are interested to see how she does. There’s no question because she hasn’t played much and she was suspended for 15 months so there’s definitely going to be some interest there. The fact that it’s best-of-three sets will definitely help her because it’s not quite as difficult to come back. She could be potentially ready to go. (She) can provide some stress for the top players.”

Will Halep, who suffered a thrashing to Garbiñe Muguuza in the Cincinnati final after Elina Svitolina crushed the Romanian in the Toronto semifinals, shake it off and play the dynamic tennis she's shown reaching the semis and quarters in her last two New York appearances? 

And how will the 25-year-old Halep, who has a habit of calling coach Darren Cahill out on court when the going gets tough in WTA matches, react if she gets down since coaching is not permitted at the US Open?

Hall of Famer Chrissie Evert says Halep’s attitude will be even more important than her aptitude if the 2015 US Open semifinalist is going to win this match and make a deep run in New York.

“Simona has been a little disappointing this summer,” six-time US Open champion Evert told the media in an ESPN conference call to promote the network’s US Open coverage starting Monday. “She had that lead at the French Open and let it slip away, definitely.

“The one thing I’m disappointed with is her fight. She just doesn’t seem to fight in the big matches recently—and even in the past in her career. And until she gets that fight back, she’s not gonna win Grand Slams and she’s not gonna be number one in the world.”

Though Sharapova has dominated this match-up, including winning all four of their prior hard-court clashes, it’s a bit deceptive in that three of their last four meetings have gone the distance.

In a glorious struggle of electric shot-making, scrappy defense, and sudden momentum shifts, Sharapova stared down a spirited challenge from Halep, 6-4, 6-7 (5), 6-4, to capture her second French Open title in the 2014 final.

That titanic struggle featured gamesmanship from both sides, including Sharapova embarking on a seven-minute bathroom break to clear her head and give Halep time to think after the second-set tiebreak.

Halep knows what she’s in for in this very dangerous first-rounder.

The 6’2” Sharapova must command the center of the court, assert her aggression and pound flat drives in the corners to force the 5’6” Halep into defensive positions. Sharapova has been a superb front-runner throughout her career so she will want to get off to a fast start and make Halep feel the pressure of both her superior power and the scoreboard.

Halep will want to create running rallies, play some shorter, sharper angles to displace the powerful Russian from the baseline and maintain a high first-serve percentage (Halep has a 68.4 first-serve percentage on the season). If Halep, who can get skittish on second serve, gives Sharapova, one of the most devastating returners in Open Era history, too many looks at second serves she could be in trouble.

However, Halep has played many more big matches during the past two years, she’s much quicker around the court than Sharapova, she’s reached quarterfinals or better in 10 consecutive tournaments and if she can hold her nerve and back up her serve, she should prevail for the first time in this rivalry.

The Pick: Simona Halep

Gilles Simon vs. (17) Sam Querrey, Grandstand Third Match
Head-to-head: Simon leads 4-2

Contrasting styles could create a battle as Querrey confronts competitive scar tissue.

The San Francisco native is winless in three career hard-court meetings with Simon, he’s coming off successive first-round Flushing Meadows exits and has not been to the US Open fourth round in seven years.

Meanwhile, former world No. 6 Simon lost his only hard-court match of the North American summer season, bowing to Damir Dzumhur in Winston-Salem last week.

Querrey is a power baseliner, who can dictate play against nearly anyone in the world when he’s landing his menacing first serve frequently and firing his forehand with ferocity.

The 21st-ranked American, who is fourth on the ATP in first-serve points won (80 percent), should be empowered by his run to his first-ever Grand Slam semifinal at Wimbledon.

The crafty Simon not only knows how to defuse big hitters, he exhibits a mischievous glee feeding them a series of no-pace balls then suddenly stepping in and sliding a dart down the line.

When he’s on, Simon is a highly-accurate ball striker supremely skilled at changing direction. The slender Frenchman will target the 6’6” American’s weaker, but much improved, backhand wing. Querrey, who has improved both his backhand down the line and his net play, will not want to get dragged into lengthy rallies.

The man nicknamed “Q-Ball” is known for his twisting topspin inside-out forehand. And if you watched Querrey’s victories over Rafael Nadal, Dominic Thiem, David Goffin, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga or Nick Kyrgios this season, then you saw a more mature player who spreads the court with the inside-out forehand and can crush the inside-in forehand as a vicious kill shot.

The laid-back Californian has not played his best tennis amid the hustle and bustle of frenetic New York City, however Querrey is playing some of the best tennis of his life this season and should prevail if he plays points on his terms.

The Pick: Sam Querrey

Roberta Vinci vs. Sloane Stephens, Louis Armstrong Stadium Third Match
Head-to-head: First Meeting 

Former world No. 1 doubles player Vinci befuddled Serena Williams with an unsettling mix of spins, slices and speeds en route to the all-Italian 2015 US Open final where she fell to good buddy Flavia Pennetta.

The 34-year-old Italian knows her way around net and is very good pulling opponents into obscure areas of the court. Vinci has showcased her all-court skills partnering Sara Errani to win the 2012 US Open doubles title. She's reached the US Open quarterfinals or better in four of the last five years.

In contrast, the 24-year-old Stephens has put so much pressure on herself in New York, she's struggled in her home major. Aside from a fourth-round run in 2013, Stephens has managed just five US Open wins in her four other appearances.

Though she's one of the fastest women on the pro tour, Stephens' footwork can get stagnant when she's nervous. She must be quick off the mark, play proactive tennis and look for Vinci to play the short slice off her backhand side. Stephens hits a bigger ball, she possesses a more powerful serve, she's more athletic, she's a decade younger and should enjoy major crowd support.

Coach Kamau Murray has encouraged Stephens to assert her speed offensively rather than to chase and defend and she's responded reaching successive semifinals in Toronto and Cincinnati defeating several former Grand Slam singles and doubles champions—Petra Kvitova, Angelique Kerber, Lucie Safarova and Ekaterina Makarova—along the way.

Stephens must take charge in rallies and be willing to take her cracks when she draws the mid-court ball on her forehand.

The Pick: Sloane Stephens

By the Numbers

3 Former champions—reigning champ Stan Wawrinka, Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic—have pulled out of the US Open due to injuries.

3 Years since world No. 1 Rafael Nadal won a hard-court tournament at the 2014 Doha.

4 Former US Open champions reside in the men’s draw: Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer, Marin Cilic and Juan Martin del Potro.

5 Number of former Grand Slam singles champions in action on opening Monday: Garbiñe Muguruza, Marin Cilic, Venus Williams, Maria Sharapova and Petra Kvitova.

8 Number of women who can depart New York with the world No 1 ranking.

20 Years ago a 16-year-old Martina Hingis defeated a 17-year-old Venus Williams in the 1997 US Open final.

49 Americans appear in US Open singles draws, including qualifying, this year. 

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