Osaka’s new mantra; Sabalenka and Collins meet

Ashleigh Barty has played more than twice as many matches as Naomi Osaka this year, fashioning a sparkling 41-7 record for the most wins on tour. Osaka, who withdrew after a first-round win at Roland Garros and didn’t play Wimbledon, is a more modest 18-5. But there’s one number that might mitigate that advantage: 16.

That’s how many consecutive Grand Slam singles matches Osaka has won. This includes last year’s US Open, this year’s Australian Open, the one win in Paris and that first-rounder in New York, an emphatic 6-4, 6-1 first-round win over Marie Bouzkova. It might well have been 17, but Osaka was conceded a walkover Wednesday by qualifier Olga Danilovic.

In the third round Friday, the 23-year-old from Japan meets Leylah Fernandez, the 18-year-old Canadian ranked No.73. On Wednesday, Fernandez defeated Kaia Kanepi 7-5, 7-5. She was one of five teenagers to advance to the second round, and the first to reach the third.

After her well-chronicled battles with mental health, Osaka said she has adopted a new mantra. Pressure is a privilege, but it’s also a state of mind. It can cause players to cramp badly in stressful situations. Osaka insists she isn’t buying in.

“Honestly I didn’t feel pressure today,” she told reporters after beating Bouzkova. “I don’t really know how to describe it. It may have to do with my mindset change. I think I felt nerves because I wanted to perform well. I think in my mind I told myself that if I performed well, then the outcome, even if I win or lose, should be OK.

“I also felt like at the end of the day, you train really hard to play in front of people, especially a night match in Ashe, it’s the biggest stadium in tennis. I think that’s why I felt nervous, but I definitely didn’t feel any pressure.”

If she goes deep into the second week, that might change. For Osaka, history is in play in a big way. A title would be the fifth major of her career, pushing her past Kim Clijsters. Only Serena Williams (23) and Venus (7) would be ahead of her among active players.

Moreover, this would be Osaka’s third US Open crown in four years. The last woman to do it? Serena, who won three straight from 2012-14. Before that, it was Stefanie Graf in 1993, 1995 and 1996.

“I think in this tournament I just want to be happy with knowing that I did my best,” Osaka said, “and knowing that even though I didn’t play perfect I was able to win a match in two sets. Or if I have to battle, play a match in three sets, know that I made a couple mistakes, but it’s OK at the end of the day because I’ll learn from the matches that I’ll keep playing.

“Yeah, it’s not really a tournament thing, it’s more like a life thing. I hope I can keep this mindset throughout my life going forward.”

Other notable Friday third-round matches that offer the opportunity to play in the second week at the 2021 US Open:

No.9 Garbiñe Muguruza vs. No.18 Victoria Azarenka

This is a tasty matchup of a couple two-time Grand Slam titlists.

Interestingly, none of those major victories came at the US Open, although Azarenka is a three-time finalist, in 2012, 2013 and 2020.

Muguruza is well aware.

“Yeah, I think it’s going to be a very difficult match,” she said in her post-match press conference. “I think she always plays great here. I think she has three finals. I’m so looking forward for those type of matches. I think that’s the best, just to go out there and play with people that are top level.”

This is the only major in which Muguruza has failed to reach the quarterfinals.

On Wednesday, Muguruza defeated Andrea Petkovic 6-4, 6-2, ending a 0-3 career mark. This is only the second time the 27-year-old Spaniard has won back-to-back matches in nine appearances.

Azarenka was a 6-3, 7-6 (6) winner over Jasmine Paolini.

Head-to-head: 2-2. Five scheduled matches featured two retirements and a walkover – that went to Muguruza at 2021 Doha.

No.12 Simona Halep vs. No.19 Elena Rybakina

This is a rematch of the extraordinary final these two played last year in Dubai. Down 3-1 in the third set, Halep rallied to beat Rybakina 3-6, 6-3, 7-6 (5). It was a memorable moment for Halep; it was her 20th WTA title, in the 20th anniversary of the tournament – in 2020.

Moved to Arthur Ashe Stadium after Osaka was given that walkover, Halep dispatched lucky loser Kristina Kucova 6-3, 6-1. This is the first time she’s reached the third round since a quarterfinal appearance five years ago.

Rybakina, a hard-serving 22-year-old from Kazakhstan, defeated Caroline Garcia 6-1, 6-4.

“She’s very powerful, and it’s been almost two years since we played,” Halep said afterward. “It was a very tough match. I don’t want that again. But if I can win in that situation, I take it.

“I know it’s going to be a big challenge for me. She has played a lot this year, and also, she has confidence. She’s very young so has nothing to lose. But I’m also coming after injury, so I’m here just to take as it is and give myself a chance to believe that there is always possible to win a match.”

Head-to-head: 1-1.

No.16 Angelique Kerber vs. Sloane Stephens

The marvelous summer for Kerber, a three-time Grand Slam singles champion, continues after she defeated Anhelina Kalinina 6-3,6-2 on Thursday.

The 33-year-old German has won 17 of 19 matches, going back to taking the title at Bad Homburg, reaching the Wimbledon finals and Cincinnati semifinals. Her only losses were to world No.1 Barty

Because of Wednesday’s torrential rains, Kerber’s match was the only one not completed. As a result, the 33-year-old German will have one less day to recover than Stephens, who took down No.21 Coco Gauff 6-4, 6-2. The 2017 US Open champion won nine of the last 11 games.

She’s been channeling the good-time vibes she experienced four years ago in Arthur Ashe Stadium.

“I love it in there,” Stephens told reporters. “Today it was super loud. I’ve never experienced that before. I feel like whenever I play in there, even when I warm up in there, I’ve had almost all of my practices in there, and I just love the court.

“Obviously I have had a lot of good memories there. For me, it’s a feel-good. I think being in this position, trying to work my way through the tournament, have tough matches, like it’s nice to have that comfort, those moments to look back on.”

Head-to-head: 5-1, Stephens. Kerber won the first matchup, at 2012 Indian Wells, but Stephens is 5-0 since. Note: They haven’t met in nearly three years.

No.8 Barbora Krejcikova vs. Kamilla Rakhimova

Last Friday, Rakhimova lost in the final round of qualifying, 7-6 (5), 6-4, to Kristyna Pliskova. One week later, she’s playing for a chance to make the second week of the US Open.

In her most recent match, Rakhimova knocked off No.32 seed Ekaterina Alexandrova 6-4, 6-1 and guaranteed herself a payday of at least $180,000. A win would raise that to $265,000 – approaching her career earnings of $297,000.

Heady stuff for the 20-year-old from Russia, ranked No. 134.

Krejcikova, the 2021 French Open champion, defeated Christina McHale 6-3, 6-1 in a match suspended by rain and moved under the roof at Louis Armstrong Stadium.

Head-to-head: 0-0.

No.15 Elise Mertens vs. No.20 Ons Jabeur

This is one of the more compelling third-round matches; these two players dropped a total of five games in their second-round victories.

Mertens handled qualifier Valentini Grammatikopoulou 6-2, 6-2, while Jabeur hammered Maria Camila Osorio Serrano 6-0, 6-1.

Head-to-head: 0-0.

No.5 Elina Svitolina vs. No.25 Daria Kasatkina

Kasatkina had an impressive win over Vondrousova, outlasting the Olympic silver medalist 3-6, 6-4, 6-4.

Svitolina bested qualifier Rebeka Masarova 6-2, 7-5. The last time she played the US Open, in 2019, Svitolina reached the semifinals – matching her best performance in a major. The 26-year-old from Ukraine has been in Top 10 for over 200 consecutive weeks.

Head-to-head: 5-0, Svitolina, but they haven’t played in more than two years.

No.2 Aryna Sabalenka vs. No.26 Danielle Collins

Sabalenka scored a forceful 6-3, 6-1 victory over Tamara Zidansek – her 40th match-win of the season.

Collins, a 6-4, 6-2 winner over Kaja Juvan, is through to the third round at the US Open for the first time.

Head-to-head: 2-0, Sabalenka (2018 US Open, 2019 Wuhan).



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