NEW YORK, NY, USA - Main draw action begins for the US Open women's doubles event on Wednesday; in the first major not to feature Martina Hingis and Sania Mirza playing as a pair since last year's Australian Open, which teams are ones to watch in the final Grand Slam of the season?
"It feels great; it's not every day that you get to see your name as the top seed," Mladenovic said after her win over Nao Hibino. "For Caroline and I, it's a bonus to play doubles and compete at such a great level."
Ranked No.3 and No.4, respectively (and No.2 on the Road to Singapore leaderboard), Garcia and Mladenovic lead the field following the surprising split of Hingis and Mirza, who announced their plans to play apart after a quarterfinal loss at the Rogers Cup.
"I think everyone was surprised," Garcia said after her first round singles win over Pauline Parmentier. "But of course everyone wants results, and when you don't have any more results, you want to change. But still, now there's two big teams."
Indeed, doubles teams don't merely divide; they multiply. Hingis and Mirza were in the final of their very next WTA event, though the Western & Southern Open served as the stage for their newest permutations. Hingis is seeded No.6 with CoCo Vandeweghe and opens against Anna-Lena Groenefeld and Kveta Peschke, and Mirza at No.7 with Barbora Strycova, opening against American wildcards Jada Hart and Ena Shibahara. Mirza comes into the US Open as the sole No.1 in doubles with back-to-back titles in Cincinnati and New Haven, the latter with Monica Niculescu.
Speaking in press on Tuesday, Mladenovic mused on whether her and Garcia's back-to-back wins over Santina in Stuttgart and Madrid marked the beginning of the end for a team that road a 41-match winning streak into the start of the season.
"I know both of them, and they're both great champions and perfectionists. Maybe it started against us when they didn't keep on winning, and maybe they were expecting way too much from themselves. I'm not sure about their reasons, but maybe they just wanted to split for some time and maybe come back together.
"It was probably the right decision for both of them. I think they made great moves with partners that they chose because they complement each others' game."
Garcia and Mladenovic were the Queens of Clay in 2016, winning 15 matches of their own and four titles in Charleston, Stuttgart, Madrid, and Paris for their home Grand Slam. Even with singles as the main priority, early losses at Wimbledon and the Olympic tennis event will likely leave the French pair eager for redemption in New York.
"It's a long way until the end, but the first match will be very important to get confidence," Garcia said. "We know we can do it, but we have to play our best every single match."
Fire & Ice: No.2 seed Chan Yung-Jan and Chan Hao-Ching anchor the bottom half of the draw; set to begin their US Open campaign against Hsieh Su-Wei and Christina McHale, the Chans could face No.3 seeds Timea Babos and Yaroslava Shvedova in the semifinal. Babos and Shvedova were a late addition to the doubles landscape, starting at the BNP Paribas Open after successful seasons with Mladenovic and Casey Dellacqua in 2015. But the pair nonetheless had some history, playing just once in 2013 to win a title in Tashkent.
"We didn't know each other that well there," Shvedova said after her win over Lara Arruabarrena. "I knew she was a great, aggressive, and strong player. She knew I had some good success. But it was just kind of an accident; we won that week and weren't even thinking of continuing together."
Babos remembered the week just as well, and relished the opportunity to reunite after discussing the possibility of pairing up in Australia.
"It all worked out that she asked me while I was debating what I should do," Babos said after beating Barbara Haas. The Hungarian began the year trading partners with Garcia's 2015 partner Katarina Srebotnik, but the two split after the Australian Open.
"We decided to try in Indian Wells, and we made the semifinals already, then the finals of Miami and Wimbledon. We've had many, many good results, and so we're definitely in the race, and I'm really hoping to be in Singapore again."
Shvedova and Dellacqua were the third team to qualify for the BNP Paribas WTA Finals Singapore presented by SC Global a year ago, but Dellacqua's concussion in Beijing left the Kazah without a partner and out of the race.
"I went to Singapore, and as soon as I landed she decided she couldn't come," Shvedova said. "So I was there for a day and half. I know we qualified and deserved to be there; we proved that we're a very good team, and a successful team. From my side, it was more important how she was feeling. Tennis goes to the side when health is involved."
The most memorable doubles teams have blended a contrast in styles, but Babos and Shvedova play such similar games that they both stood on the backhand side with previous partners. But Babos sees a clear contrast.
"She brings experience and calm. I'm more the energy and emotion. Sometimes, it happens where I have a match and I can't put one ball in the court; she's there for me then. Other times the roles reverse and I'm there for her. We complement each other emotionally.
Babos and Shvedova play American wildcards Catherine Bellis and Julia Boserup in their first round.
Better Together: No.5 seeds Ekaterina Makarova and Elena Vesnina take a nine-match winning streak into the US Open, having won the Rogers Cup and the gold medal at the Olympic tennis event. Though the pair of four years only reunited at the Mutua Madrid Open, Makarova and Vesnina are already No.3 on the Road to Singapore leaderboard, and a spot in the WTA Finals is high on their mind in Flushing.
"We're really aiming to qualify for Singapore, especially after last year, and the year before we went with my shoulder injury," she told WTA Insider on Tuesday. "We've never been healthy together at the WTA Finals, so I was laughing with Katya before saying, 'We have to be healthy together at Singapore,' because we really love it there. It's an amazing tournament, amazing city, the hotel, and everything around; it's such a nice place to be at the end of the year."
The 2014 US Open champions are already into the second round when Germans Laura Siegemund and Mona Barthel were forced to retire in the second set, and Vesnina credits doubles with helping sharpen her competitive instincts on a weekly basis.
"I played singles and doubles in Montréal, for example. I was ranked No.24, and I played Madison Keys, who is Top 10, in the first round. I lost easily - she just killed me the whole match - and she went on to make the final. But I won the doubles with Katya; it's a big tournament. So it's great because even when you lose, you're still 'in.'
"You can practice your singles game in between, and you have some time for that. But at the same time, you're still in the tournament, and you're competing. It's challenging, and you're fighting for a title, and it's always great to have one in your hands at the end of the week."
All photos courtesy of Getty Images.