Wimbledon champions past and present experienced contrasting fortunes in the third round of the US Open here on Saturday night.
It was a memorable evening for the 2004 champion, Maria Sharapova, who crushed Jelena Ostapenko 6-3, 6-2, but Angelique Kerber, who triumphed at the All England Club less than two months ago, and Petra Kvitova, the winner in 2011 and 2014, both saw their Grand Slam seasons end in disappointing defeats. Kerber was beaten 3-6, 6-3, 6-3 by Dominika Cibulkova, while Kvitova lost 7-5, 6-1 to Aryna Sabalenka.
Although the casualty rate among the top players has not been as spectacular as it was at Wimbledon, where none of the top 10 seeds made it to the second week, only three have progressed to the same stage here. Sloane Stephens, who is the defending champion, Karolina Pliskova and Elina Svitolina are the only top 10 women players who have reached the last 16.
Sharapova has always revelled in the glitzy atmosphere that surrounds this tournament. Although she has won the title here only once, in 2006, the 31-year-old Russian took her record in matches played at night in Arthur Ashe Stadium to 22 wins out of 22 with her victory over Ostapenko.
“I thrive on playing under the lights for some reason, I love that, I love that challenge,” Sharapova said afterwards. “I love the atmosphere. I love that they know how to cheer hard.”
Since starting her comeback last year after a 15-month suspension for a drugs offence Sharapova has not always found the going easy, but for the second year in a row she has flourished under the lights of the world’s biggest tennis stadium.
Twelve months ago Sharapova began her US Open campaign by beating Simona Halep, the then world No 2, and went on to reach the fourth round before losing to Anastasija Sevastova. This year she is again through to the last 16, in which she will meet Spain’s Carla Suarez Navarro, who beat the world No 6, Caroline Garcia, 5-7, 6-4, 7-6.
Sharapova produced one of her best performances since returning to tennis (AP)
Ostapenko, the world No 10, played a major part in her own downfall. Last year’s French Open champion tends to have an all-or-nothing approach to her tennis and on this occasion it never looked like working. The 21-year-old Latvian hit six double faults, including three in the opening game, and made a total of 41 unforced errors, 23 more than Sharapova.
“I was solid,” Sharapova said. “We are both very aggressive players. I thought I just did enough to get another ball back and I moved really well. In the points that I lost, maybe I just didn't take enough steps, but I didn't feel that she was hurting me as much. It felt like I had a little bit more time.”
Sharapova reached the fourth round of the US Open by beating Jelena Ostapenko (AP)
Sabalenka’s victory over Kvitova extended a remarkable summer run for the 20-year-old Belarusian, who has climbed 58 world ranking places since the start of the year to her present position at No 20 and will make further progress next week. She has never looked back since reaching the final at Eastbourne in June. She made the semi-finals in Cincinnati last month and won the title at New Haven before arriving here.
Angelique Kerber suffered defeat against Dominika Cibulkova (AFP/Getty)
It is not often that an opponent hits more winners than Kvitova – Sabalenka struck 21 to the Czech’s 18 – but the key statistics were the unforced errors. Kvitova, who hit 10 double faults, made 35 unforced errors to Sabalenka’s 15. The Belarusian will now face Naomi Osaka, who beat Aliaksandra Sasnovich 6-0, 6-0.
Aryna Sabalenka of Belarus is congratulated by Petra Kvitova following their third-round encounter (Getty)
Kerber started well enough against Cibulkova, but was unable to match the Slovakian’s ball-striking in the latter stages. Cibulkova, who had lost to Kerber in both their previous meetings this year, set the pace in the third set, in which she made the crucial break to lead 4-2.
“I had my chances, but I couldn't take them, especially in the third set,” Kerber said afterwards. “I was not able actually to play my best tennis in the important moments.She was going for it, and she hit the balls really well and hit the winners when she needed to. I think that was the difference about the match today.”