NEW YORK, NY, USA - Main draw action is yet to begin at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, and yet plenty of compelling stories have already unfolded on the grounds of the US Open.
Of the 16 women who earned berths into the final Grand Slam tournament of 2017, 10 will make their major main draw debut at the start of the week.
WTA Insider caught up with two such debutantes after their final round wins on Friday, plus more from around the grounds at the US Open qualifying event.
— Ash Marshall (@AMarshallSport) August 22, 2017
Cancer survivor Kiick hits new heights in New York: 22-year-old American Allie Kiick never cared for the US Open.
"This tournament has been hell for me," she laughed after notching a third consecutive - and cumulative - win in Flushing. "I actually was in New York at this time last year, but I was on my crutches, and I refused to set foot in the tournament, so that was devastating."
Kiick has had to overcome more than injuries to make it into her maiden Grand Slam main draw, enduring mononucleosis and cancer treatments for a melanoma discovered on her back last year.
"My back is like a road map, just scars everywhere."
Kiick began a comeback in June after taking two years to heal and work as a kid's tennis coach, partnering with US Fed Cup coach Kathy Rinaldi to rebuild her eroded ranking.
"I've matured a ton. I think that came with working a regular job, going to school, seeing things from a normal person’s perspective. The job I had was like $25 an hour, and it was hard work! They were, like, five-year-olds, and it was hard. I can honestly say I do not want to ever be a coach. Ever.
"Kathy just knows my personality so well. She knows how to deal with me when I’m stressed and things aren’t going my way. That's really helped me tremendously."
— US Open Tennis (@usopen) August 25, 2017
In a surreal twist, her final hurdle in qualifying was against friend fellow cancer survivor Victoria Duval. Duval enjoyed a thrilling US Open performance back in 2013 when she shocked 2011 champion Samantha Stosur in three sets, but physical issues forced her to retire down a set to Kiick on Friday.
"We train together, and we live right down the road from each other, spend the weekends together. We’ve been together through everything,
"I started to see that she was hurting, so I started to get nervous and back off a bit. I actually looked to Kathy, and was like ‘I can’t do this.’ I was more concerned about her than my game, and I was actually losing it."
Duval's injury undoubtedly tempered her own elation, but Kiick was nonetheless excited step back on court Tuesday, when she'll face No.25 seed Daria Gavrilova, who is playing a Connecticut Open presented by United Technologies final against Dominika Cibulkova.
"I'm gonna go shopping, because my bank had not been doing well, so this is really fantastic," she said of the main draw prize money. "I just really want to get a nice pair of shoes, maybe some Red Bottoms or something."
Zhuk continues steady rise with main draw debut: While Kiick basked in her miracle run, things were going according to plan for 2015 Wimbledon junior champion Sofya Zhuk, who confidently rolled into the main draw without dropping a set.
"Last year I was just a visitor," the gregarious teenager told WTA Insider after a 6-3, 6-2 win over Liu Fangzhou. "I was just a guest, and watched for three days. For the moment, I’m not really realizing it yet. I’m kind of in between, like, 'Am I in the main draw, or is this just a dream, or what happened?'
"The first time I came to New York was 2015, when I was still playing juniors. It was still unbelievable, but the juniors have their own space, so you’re not seeing the pros too much. But here I’m like, ‘Nadal? Federer? Wow. In the gym?’ I’m like, ‘Seriously? Has that even happened?’ I was walking to the practice courts, and I heard the people screaming. My coach said, ‘Maybe it's Roger?’ I was like, ‘Oh, there it is!’ I turned and there he was. That’s kinda unexpected!"
The Moscow-born Zhuk could easily consider the US Open her home Slam, having spent most of her life in the States - first in California where her godmother is based, now in Bradenton, Florida at the IMG Academy.
"I would have come here even if I wasn’t being a pro tennis player, or an athlete. I just like the weather, the people.I like that it’s always summer here! Growing up, I saw a lot of snow and cold weather."
Thriving in the Florida sun, Zhuk entered the sporting world as a gymnast, winning a pair of gold medals in national competitions before the age of six, but got into tennis after watching her brother play.
"I’m more of a person who likes to play games. I really liked playing and running around. My brother eventually stopped because he had knee surgery, and he just decided to go to university. My grandma was so upset when I left gymnastics! She still says, ‘Maybe you have a chance to go back!’ I’m like, ‘No. Sorry, it’s too late!'"
Behind the laughter burns serious passion, and a goal to reunite her family on the same side of the Atlantic.
"I haven’t been to Russia for a very long time. My dad is still there, working. He visits sometimes, but my dream is to win some more matches, so he can come here and live with us, and doesn’t have to work. My brother is also still in Moscow, he has a girlfriend, he will never leave her over there, it’s never gonna happen!”
Zhuk is set to play Russian-born Kazakh Yulia Putintseva, with a chance to play former World No.2 Agnieszka Radwanska in the second round.
— Alina Jidkova (@AlinaJidkova) August 25, 2017
Around the grounds... Another junior Wimbledon winner surged into the main draw on Friday, as Claire Liu dropped just four games against Victoria Kamenskaya in the final round of qualifying. A day earlier, she rallied from a set down to outlast Sesil Karatantcheva in a third set tie-break.
Sitting on the other end of the spectrum is former Word No.15 Kaia Kanepi, who is set to return to a Grand Slam main draw for the first time in exactly two years. The Estonian reached the US Open quarterfinals back in 2010, but struggled with Epstein-Barr virus in between various and sundry other injuries throughout a snake-bitten career.
Looking fully fit throughout the week in Flushing, Kanepi is working with former WTA pro Alina Jidkova. The 32-year-old will continue her comeback against former French Open champion Francesca Schiavone, in the same section as defending champion and No.6 seed Angelique Kerber.