NEW YORK – The killing fields of Flushing claimed yet another female victim Sunday, another big reputation going through the shredder at this most unpredictable of U.S. Opens.
One by one, the leading lights of the women's game have been decimated over the course of the opening week, with Venus Williams the latest casualty to wave a bitter goodbye to the year's final Grand Slam.
Far from being the time, like normal, when the stars gently eased themselves into the business end of the tournament, the first seven days have instead represented a giant cull.
Williams' loss to Kim Clijsters meant the No. 3 seed followed Dinara Safina, Elena Dementieva, Jelena Jankovic and Maria Sharapova through the exit door. All those women entered with title dreams, all saw them dashed against unheralded opposition before the end of the first weekend.
The gravity of the surprises has been brought into sharper focus from multiple directions. A comparison with bygone days, when upsets on the women's side were few and far between, is striking.
In the 1989 U.S. Open, each of the top eight seeds took up their allocated quarterfinals spot, with No.1 seed Steffi Graf defeating No.2 Martina Navratilova in the final.
Yet it is by aligning the carnage of the women's draw with the order of the men's tournament that the disparity truly becomes apparent.
The fourth round begins Monday with 16 men remaining. Fourteen of them are among the top 16 seeds. Only Andy Roddick, who lost to John Isner in a nail-biting encounter on Saturday, and ninth-seeded Gilles Simon, who suffered a knee injury, are missing.
"There is definitely a gap that has opened up," said 15th seed Radek Stepanek. "First it was just three or four guys at the very top, but then the guys below took up the challenge of trying to match them. That opened up a second tier of players who are very strong and very committed."
In the past, it has been the men's game that traditionally contained the most upsets, such was the strength and depth of the field.
"There has been a real shift," said seven-time Slam champion John McEnroe. "The top guys are just out there on a different level. They have such belief and such confidence – they know how to prepare themselves properly and they have incredible consistency in their game."
With some justification, fans of this tournament look far ahead into the second week when considering the men's draw. Already the talk is not of whether Roger Federer will reach the final, but if the five-time defending champion will face Andy Murray or Rafael Nadal when he gets there.
Such boldly predictive speculation was impossible in the women's event, where the shocks started early and just kept on coming.
Top-seeded Safina barely scraped through both of her first two matches against lowly opponents before running out of lives against Petra Kvitova in the third round.
With the sole exception of Serena Williams, who looks untouchable in major tournaments, the field is deep and level and littered with obstacles for the big names.
"It is so competitive now," said Navratilova. "These girls don't have the fear anymore. It is refreshing to see, but you would like to see the top players step up like Serena does and impose themselves more."
The upsets have congregated in the top half, meaning that either Kvitova, Yanina Wickmayer, Kateryna Bondarenko or Gisela Dulko will reach the semifinals. Only Dulko has reached the fourth round of a Slam before and she is the highest ranked at No. 40 in the world.
New names, new faces and a freshly level playing field for the women. More upsets could be on the way, with American teenager Melanie Oudin determined to continue her dream run and Danish youngster Caroline Wozniacki seeking her first Slam finals appearance.
Not so for the men. "There can't really be any more upsets," said Jose Acasuso, who lost to 16th seed Marin Cilic on Sunday. "We've seen all the real shocks we're going to see, because everyone who is left in the tournament now is meant to be there."