NEW YORK, NY, USA - The 2019 US Open got an earlier start than usual as the annual Qualifying Tournament began on Monday morning to signal the beginning of the tournament's first official Fan Week.
While the grounds were buzzing with fans taking in the new features, it was business as usual for the women competing for spots in the final major tournament of the decade, chief among them former World No.22 Irina-Camelia Begu, top seed Elena Rybakina - who is fresh off her first WTA title at the BRD Bucharest Open - and former World No.35 Olga Govortsova, who is back at a major tournament for just the third time since having a baby.
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Begu rebuilds after injury-addled season
The 28-year-old Romanian was on the precipice of a Top 20 debut in the summer of 2016, and while Begu has posted solid results since then, two injuries - first knee, then ankle - sent her hurtling out of the Top 100 for the first time since 2014, when she began her initial rise up the rankings.
"It was tough to lose my ranking and not to play for one and a half months," she said after a 6-3, 6-2 win over Pemra Ozgen, her first hardcourt win since the Toyota Thailand Open presented by E@ in Hua Hin back in February.
"It was difficult, but in every career, a player has these situations, these ups and and downs. I’m glad that now I’m healthy and I can play."
Seeded No.3 in qualifying, Begu is back up to World No.92 after a run to the third round of Roland Garros halted her ranking tumble, and next takes on a fellow former Top 50 player in Jana Cepelova, who has earned wins over the likes of Serena Williams and Simona Halep.
"It was the first hardcourt match in a while, which is always tough, always difficult. It was tough conditions, really humid and hot. I’m happy that I could manage the situation and play a good match."
"Obviously, the main draw is the target; I’m working for this. But it’s never easy because there are so many great players in qualies. Step by step, hopefully I’ll be there."
Rybakina closes in on another US Open milestone
While Begu is fighting to get back where she was, top seed Elena Rybakina is trying to get where she should arguably already be, having earned her career-high ranking too late for the US Open's main draw cut-off.
"I was close to being in the main draw, but it’s ok," the World No.64 said after a 6-1, 6-1 win over American Emma Navarro. "I’m playing qualies but that’s good because next year I think I’ll be in the main draw. I’ll keep fighting and that’s it."
The big-hitting 20-year-old made her Grand Slam main draw debut at Roland Garros and later became one of the surprises of the summer when she captured her first career title in Bucharest, dropping just two games against resurgent hometown favorite Patricia Maria Tig in the final.
"I think I improved a little bit in everything," she smiled, adding, "but I still have things I have to work on."
Next facing Australia's Arina Rodionova for a spot in the final round of qualifying, Rybakina has long-held memories of the US Open, and looks to make one more this week with a main draw debut.
"I like the US Open so much because it was my first junior Grand Slam, and last year it was my first as a pro. I like New York, so I’m happy to be here."
Energized Govortsova makes the most of second career
Olga Govortsova was optimistic about her comeback at last year's US Open, with a goal of beating her career-high ranking of World No.35 after leaving the tour and giving birth to son Dominic.
By the spring, the Belarusian was unsure whether she wanted to continue.
"It’s tough," she admitted after a grueling three-set win over Jessika Ponchet. "We didn’t travel much last year. I stayed in America five months, and this year was the same. In April and May I was losing at 25K tournaments and thinking of quitting. It didn’t make any sense to travel."
Just when she was ready for a second retirement, Govortsova began to turn things around, reaching back-to-back finals on the ITF Pro Circuit level, winning a $25K event in Darmstadt, and reaching the semifinals of a $60K in Concord, Massachusetts. In between, she played a successful season of World Team Tennis, leading her team to a second straight title.
"I started doing well in the summer, so hopefully I can continue."
Beating the heat at the US Open
The forecast predicted - and ultimately delivered - brutal levels of heat and humidity, forcing the players to take on the weather as much as their opponent as Monday hit high noon.
"I felt like I was on fire at some points, like I was burning!" laughed a relieved Valeria Savinykh, who won her first match at the US Open since 2012 after rallying from a set and 4-0 down against Bucharest finalist Tig. "I’m going to take an ice bath, maybe twice. I had to change my socks and outfit a couple times because it’s so hot. I think I even broke my toenail, but it’s ok."
Govortsova started feeling dizzy after winning the first set against Ponchet, and was eager for a day of recovery before her second round against China's Wang Xinyu.
"It was so hot today, and even yesterday it was really hot as well. In the second set, I was down 5-0, so I had to call the trainer and I thought I needed to just start thinking about the final set. Luckily, I started feeling better."
Varvara Gracheva - who pushed Hsieh Su-Wei to a third-set tie-break at the Citi Open - was at a loss for words; even a 6-0, 6-1 win over Martina Trevisan proved physically taxing in these conditions.
"I don’t even know; I’m just so happy that I did a good job. I’ve been preparing all last week for this. The conditions have been quite tough for me so far, but I hope to do better, day by day."
Countrywoman Ludmilla Samsonova agreed; things nearly got complicated in her match against Latvia's Diana Marcinkevica, but the Russian ultimately closed it out in a marathon final game.
"It was so hot! It was difficult because of this, but I love these courts, and everything about this tournament."
Rodionova, who plays Rybakina on Wednesday, was less impressed by the conditions, and shook off the sweltering heat to dismiss Hungary's Fanny Stollar in straight sets.
"It’s pretty hot, but so were the last few tournaments," she said in between taking photos with fans. "I’m kind of used to it, now. It suits me because I feel pretty fit at the moment, so it’s like I can spend hours in this heat. It’s always a good feeling knowing that you’ve done your work and you have your fitness behind you. I’m pretty happy with myself at the moment."