Serena-Sharapova showdown seizes sportlight at US Open

NEW YORK (AFP) – Serena Williams faces Maria Sharapova in a blockbuster first-round match today (7am Brunei time) at the US Open, the feature showdown on the first day of the year’s final Grand Slam tennis event.

Eighth-ranked Williams, who lost to Naomi Osaka in last year’s US Open final and to Simona Halep in last month’s Wimbledon final, is seeking her 24th career Grand Slam singles title to match Margaret Court’s all-time record.

The 37-year-old American owns a 19-2 record against Russia’s 87th-ranked Sharapova and has beaten her 18 consecutive times dating to 2005.

That lopsided rivalry, however, has not prevented the matchup from being the talk of the tournament since last Thursday’s draw announcement.

“Of course I’m going to watch it,” Osaka said. “I think everyone in New York is going to watch it.”

Williams owns a 3-1 record over Sharapova in Grand Slam matchups, having lost their first such meeting in 2004 at Wimbledon, but this will mark the first time they have met in a US Open.

“Someone texted me about it,” US 10th seed Madison Keys recalled. “I think I was shopping, had no idea the draw was actually happening. So it was like, ‘Oh wow. Look at this first round.’”

Williams last won a Grand Slam at the 2017 Australian Open, while pregnant.

Five-time Grand Slam champion Sharapova, 32, failed a drug test at the 2016 Australian Open and served a one-year ban. The 2006 US Open winner last won a Slam at the 2014 French Open. She has reached the fourth round at the past two US Opens.

Two years ago, Romania’s Halep who was handed an epic first-round matchup against Sharapova, just back from her doping ban, and lost.

“Yeah, it’s OK. We don’t talk about that. It’s past, so we just live the present,” Halep said. “It’s going to be a big match, definitely.”

Other first-day matches in Arthur Ashe Stadium send Swiss third seed Roger Federer against India’s 190th-ranked Sumit Nagal, top-seeded defending champion Novak Djokovic against Spain’s 76th-ranked Roberto Carballes Baena and French Open champion Ashleigh Barty, the second seed from Australia, against 77th-ranked Zarina Diyas of Kazakhstan.

US Open crowds are known for loud and boisterous behaviour, an atmosphere where some thrive and others must adapt.

“Here in New York, the atmosphere is crazier than any other Grand Slam,” said 19-year-old Canadian Bianca Andreescu, who won a WTA tuneup event in Toronto.

“Everyone makes it so intriguing. You never know what you’re going to see on the streets. There is always something to do.”

Halep tries to relax to deal with the energy and uncertainty Flushing Meadows crowds can produce.

“You expect very loud crowds. You expect loud atmosphere here,” Halep said. “I’m trying just to stay on my rhythm. I have my restaurants where I’m going. I went to Central Park just to relax myself. So I’m doing easy things to get the pace I need.”

Barty revels in the thrill of New York.

“There’s no place in the world like New York,” she said. “I know how it works. You come here and you just take it in your stride. You enjoy it. There’s no point fighting it.”