NEW YORK -- As Daria Saville slogged through the agony of yet another rehabilitation, a reoccurring image helped sustain her sanity.
“Coming back from injuries, that was the goal: Get to play on all the bigger courts at every Slam,” she said Monday.
Be careful, as they say, what you wish for.
Saville defeated Clervie Ngounoue 6-0, 6-2 in a first-round match at the US Open. It was her first Grand Slam singles victory in 15 months. And now, she meets World No.1 Iga Swiatek, a decisive 6-0, 6-1 winner over Rebecca Peterson, in a second-round match on Wednesday.
“The biggest goal,” Saville said, laughing, “is not to get double-bageled. I think I can still make her life very uncomfortable and I will just play free and see what happens.”
Swiatek, the defending champion here, won the only match they’ve played -- 6-3, 6-3 last year in Adelaide. Saville will be a huge underdog but don’t let that No.332 ranking deceive you. The Australian delights in upsetting Top 10 players; she’s never been higher than No.20, but she’s beaten Top-10 players 13 times.
The issue has been getting onto the court. For while Swiatek has now played 63 matches this year, Saville has a total of 62 -- over the past five years.
“I’m not sure what’s her story,” Swiatek told reporters. “But she’s a great person. We always, when we pass each other, we say hi and she’s really positive.”
Many players wouldn’t be as positive if they had lived Saville’s story.
She had been playing through chronic Achilles pain when she finally elected the surgery option in early 2020. Saville played a total of seven matches in 2020 and 2021, but after a 10-month break came back strong in 2022.
She was 18-5, scored wins over Jessica Pegula and Ons Jabeur, and was nominated for the WTA Newcomer of the Year award. And then, a decade after tearing her anterior cruciate ligament, it happened again last September in a match against Naomi Osaka in Tokyo.
That required another knee surgery, another brutal rehabilitation. Saville said she was buoyed by a secret society of fellow travelers.
“There’s such a big ACL community,” she explained. “I have people coming up to me after matches, `Oh, my God, I did my ACL not long ago and I followed your progress. All I have to do is compete and chase a million balls and hopefully that will inspire others.”
Jennifer Brady was going through her own injury woes when Saville reached out to her. The American said she was inundated by supportive messages, but Saville's words cut through the noise.
"She has gone through the ringer," Brady said after her first-round win. "She's had a lot of injuries and she's come back, and she's come back at a high level. Coming back, making Top 50, and then tearing her ACL.
"So hearing her advice was more meaningful to me than some other people's."
Saville also commiserated with fellow Aussie Ajla Tomlanovic, who on Monday was playing her first WTA Tour-level match in nine months.
“Because I’ve done [rehab] so many times -- unfortunately,” Saville said. “She’s done it before, too, with her shoulder. We’re trying to stay positive together. I gave her some advice and she gave me some advice.
“Obviously, there was a lot of gossip as well.”
“That stays with us,” she said, laughing again.
Saville returned nine months later, on the grass in Birmingham. She split qualifying matches and went on to lose in the first round at Wimbledon and Budapest. In Hamburg, though, she won two qualifying matches and three more in the main draw before falling in the semifinals to Arantxa Rus.
Heading into her match against Ngounoue, Saville said she felt remarkably relaxed.
“I don’t know why -- it doesn’t really happen on Day 1 of Grand Slams,” Saville said. “Warming up, I thought, `Hmm … feels like a normal match, and that felt nice. That’s why I played well today.”
Saville was solid in the big moments against Ngounoue, breaking her serve five times and saving all four break points against her.
Ngounoue, who turned 17 in July, is the No.2 junior and just won the junior singles title at Wimbledon and scored her first Top 50 victory last month, defeating No.37-ranked Anna Blinkova in the first round of qualifying at the DC Open. She will likely play the junior tournament here before focusing on a professional career.
For Saville, there’s the more daunting prospect of playing Swiatek -- on a big court with a big crowd.
“I’ll be fine,” Saville said. “I like big stages, I’m not very shy. I like, I guess, being seen. I’ve played some of my best matches against Top 10 players and feel like I can beat those players.”
Saville said she would try to resist the urge to elevate her game to Swiatek’s level.
“Playing against anyone who is ranked that high, sometimes that creates extra pressure and you miss more,” she said. “So I think [it’s] just playing within myself and trying to enjoy the atmosphere.
“That’s the most important -- but I might not enjoy it if I’m losing, though. But we’ll see. It’s more exposure and I feel like it will inspire even more people that are going through injuries.”