NEW YORK (AFP) – Cheering spectators brought energy to the first matches of the US Open on Monday while defending champion Naomi Osaka and three-time Grand Slam winner Andy Murray awaited their turns at Arthur Ashe Stadium.
Two-time Grand Slam champion Simona Halep, battling back from injury, and 2017 US Open champion Sloane Stephens advanced to the second round as the hardcourt tennis showdown began with crowds not limited by Covid-19 rules after no fans were allowed in 2020.
“Playing without fans here was brutal,” Stephens said. “We feel the energy with everyone screaming and yelling.”
Stephens beat Madison Keys 6-3, 1-6, 7-6 (9/7) in a rematch on Ashe of the 2017 US Open final.
“We’re both looking to get back that form we had in 2017,” Stephens said. “I knew I had to hang in there and fight and do what I do best, run around and hit balls.”
Halep defeated Italy’s Camila Giorgi 6-4, 7-6 (7/3) to book a second-round match against Slovakian lucky loser Kristina Kucova, who ousted American Ann Li 7-5, 6-1.
“First round is always a tough match so yeah, I’m happy to win,” Halep said. “I’m happy because I can feel my serve improving.”
The 29-year-old Romanian 12th seed could feel an extra intensity from screaming ticketholders, who had to prove they were vaccinated to be allowed onto the grounds.
“You feel the energy. You feel alive on court,” Halep said. “Hopefully it will stay like that.”
Halep, the 2018 French Open and 2019 Wimbledon champion, tore a left calf muscle at the Italian Open, missed the French Open and Wimbledon, then suffered a right thigh injury at Cincinnati, but made a solid start.
“I’m confident,” Halep said. “I believed I had a good chance and I handled well the important points of the match.”
The biggest cheers yet will likely greet Osaka, seeking her third US Open crown in four years, in the night feature match against 87th-ranked Czech Marie Bouzkova.
Osaka won their only prior meeting in the first round of this year’s Australian Open on the way to her fourth Grand Slam title.
The 23-year-old Japanese star could become the first back-to-back US Open women’s champion since Serena Williams won her third in a row in 2014.
Osaka enters on a 15-match Grand Slam win streak, having skipped the French Open last year and Wimbledon this year and withdrawn after a first-round win at this year’s French Open over mental health issues.
Also on the night schedule is second seed Aryna Sabalenka of Belarus against Serbia’s Nina Stojanovic.
– Rublev ousts Karlovic –
On the men’s side, while top-ranked Novak Djokovic waits until Tuesday to begin his quest for a US Open crown to complete a calendar-year Grand Slam, his top-seeded rivals take the court.
Russian fifth seed Andrey Rublev advanced by ousting 221st-ranked Ivo Karlovic 6-3, 7-6 (7/3), 6-3 in 96 minutes. The 42-year-old Croatian was the oldest US Open qualifier in the Open Era (since 1968).
Greek third seed Stefanos Tsitsipas will face Britain’s 112th-ranked Murray, the 2012 US Open and 2013 and 2016 Wimbledon winner.
Murray would be the lowest-ranked player to ever beat a top-three foe at the US Open since the rankings began in 1973.
Two-time Olympic champion Murray is 14-0 in prior US Open first-round matches and the 34-year-old Scotsman seeks his biggest win since downing then-world number two Novak Djokovic in the 2016 ATP Finals.
Tsitsipas, the French Open runner-up, is Murray’s highest-ranked foe since he lost to third-ranked Stan Wawrinka in a 2017 French Open semi-final
Russian second seed Daniil Medvedev opens in the Ashe night finale against Frenchman Richard Gasquet.
Medvedev, the 2019 US Open and 2021 Australian Open runner-up, seeks his 200th career match win and his 160th on hardcourts.
Gasquet is 1-35 against top-two rivals, having dropped 35 in a row since beating then-number one Federer in 2005 at Monte Carlo.