Monday was a rough day for many of the top seeds at the US Open, as the number of true female contenders in New York dropped dramatically.
No. 1 seed Ija Švedek, No. 3 seed Jessica Pegula and No. 5 seed Owens Jabeur all fell in the Round of 16 and all had real aspirations of lifting the trophy on Saturday.
That somewhat paved the way to the final for the two remaining players, No. 2 seed Aryna Sabalenka and American star and No. 6 seed Coco Gauff.
Not that arriving at Saturday’s masterpiece would be a walk in the park for either of them.
Next up for Gauff in the quarter-finals is up-and-coming Jelena Ostapenko, who outright defeated defending champion and world number one Švedek in the deciding third set on Monday.
It’s set to be a massive duel between two of the biggest players on the WTA Tour and it will be great to watch if both players find their accuracy as well as their power.
“She’s an attacker with the ball,” Gauff told reporters of Ostapenko after her win over Caroline Wozniacki. “I lost to her at the Australian Open this year. It’s hot or cold, to be honest.
Goff, who describes new boss Brad Gilbert’s reports on opponents as “incredible”, says that “just staying in the game” when Ostapenko – who hit 31 winners past Švetek – tucked in one of her big shots would be decisive.
She added, “I may get more free points with her than with Ega.” “Probably not. You’ll probably run into a lot of winners.”
Uncertainty over which version of Ostapenko will emerge will undoubtedly weigh on the Latvian player’s mind as well, as the 20th seed won just four matches between June’s Rothesay Classic title and the start of the US Open.
However, it is important that Ostapenko has the experience of successfully navigating the later stages of a Grand Slam after winning the French Open title in 2017. It is one experience that Gauff does not possess yet, as the teenager lost in her only appearance in a Grand Slam final at the 2017 World Cup. Roland Garros last season.
But Gauff, who won the biggest title of her career in Cincinnati ahead of the US Open and continued her finesse in New York, feels the variety she adds to her game will give her a better chance against the big-hitting Ostapenko. Who can control matches with her power in an instant.
“I think it gives me a lot of confidence knowing I can reach people,” said Goff. “People sometimes see me as someone who plays more passively, but I definitely think this tournament I was winning matches because I was the aggressor.
“Today (against Wozniacki) I showed that I can play aggressively and I know this is when I give my best, but obviously I look for balance.”
Meanwhile, Sabalenka will face Chinese rising star Zheng Kenwen, who is enjoying a career best in a Grand Slam after comfortably beating last year’s finalist Jabeur in straight sets in the round of 16.
Schwijk’s early exit means Sabalenka will become world number one on Monday, marking the first time in her career that she has topped the rankings, and her rise comes after a stellar year in which she won three titles, including her first. The four Grand Slams at the Australian Open.
Sabalenka says she is “playing great tennis right now” but knows there are “always things to improve” as she expects a tough match against Cheng.
“We’ve trained with her many times,” she told reporters after defeating Daria Kasatkina on Monday. “She plays really good tennis. (Her forehand) is very heavy, I would say her backhand too. Serves well. She moves well.
“It’s like she has nothing to lose, so she’s playing at her best. She played great tennis against Owens – I didn’t watch her previous matches, but she’s playing great tennis now.
“The hardest part is that she moves well, plays some powerful shots. I have to be ready physically and mentally because there will be some winners against me in that match.
“I just have to focus more on myself than on her. I know if I’m going to bring my tennis over there, I’ll have a chance of winning this match.