Ex-champs to meet in Round 1

Maria Sharapova (above) last beat Serena Williams in the 2004 WTA Finals season-ender.
Maria Sharapova (above) last beat Serena Williams in the 2004 WTA Finals season-ender. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A first for Sharapova and Williams, who have never played each other at the US Open

NEW YORK • Serena Williams has beaten Maria Sharapova nearly everywhere. On courts hard and soft, fast and slow, indoors and outdoors.

Their head-to-head record reads: Williams 19 Sharapova 3. The dominant American, seeking a 24th Grand Slam title, last lost to the Russian in the 2004 WTA Finals season-ender.

But Williams, 37, and Sharapova, 32, who have met in the finals of the other three Grand Slams, have never faced each other at the US Open. That will change this year: The eighth-seeded Williams drew the unseeded Sharapova for a first-round clash on Monday.

The two have not played each other since the 2016 Australian Open. Shortly after that match, Sharapova tested positive for the substance meldonium, resulting in a 15-month suspension.

When she returned in April 2017, Williams was 22 weeks pregnant, and gave birth to her daughter in September that year.

The duo were supposed to face each other in the fourth round of the French Open last year, Williams' first Grand Slam as a mother. But the American withdrew, citing a pectoral injury.

Williams has reached finals at three of the last five Grand Slam events - the last two years at Wimbledon and at the 2018 US Open - but has not won a title since returning from childbirth.

Sharapova has won only one title since her ban, in 2017 at a small tournament in Tianjin, China.

After defeating Caroline Wozniacki en route to the fourth round of the Australian Open in January, she missed most of the season with injuries and is ranked 87th, which made such a star-studded first-round match possible.

Williams has an injury cloud of her own: She retired from the Canadian Open final and pulled out of this month's Cincinnati Masters with back spasms. She has not finished a hard-court tournament this year without an injury or illness causing her exit.

Williams and Sharapova share the bottom quarter of the draw with second seed Ashleigh Barty, this year's French Open champion.

Defending champion and No. 1 seed Naomi Osaka leads the top half.

Coco Gauff, the 15-year-old American who had a breakthrough performance at Wimbledon last month, could play Osaka in the third round.

Osaka, who retired from her quarter-final in Cincinnati last week because of an acute knee injury, sounded a note of optimism about being ready for the Open, saying she was "getting better".

"I would say I'm a fast healer, so I'm banking on that," she said onstage after the draw on Thursday. "I'm here and I feel as healthy as I can be."

In the men's draw, a long-awaited Roger Federer-Rafael Nadal showdown could come only in the final.

Third seed Federer is in the top half, meaning he could play top-ranked Novak Djokovic in the semifinals. They met in a classic final at Wimbledon, where Djokovic won in a fifth-set tiebreaker.

Djokovic could face a tough obstacle with a potential quarter-final against fifth seed Daniil Medvedev, the Russian who beat him in the Cincinnati Masters semi-finals.

The pressure of being the US Open defending champion is not fazing him much, though.

"You have that additional pressure obviously but I guess over time you get used to it," the Serb said.

"But it is always a challenge in a way, to defend a Grand Slam title."

Second seed Nadal, who has never faced Federer in New York, faces a first-round test against John Millman of Australia.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 24, 2019, with the headline 'Ex-champs to meet in Round 1'. Print Edition | Subscribe