NEW YORK (AP) — Ash Barty was on the couch, not the court. Bianca Andreescu wasn’t at last year’s U.S. Open, either, and Aryna Sabalenka wasn’t in it for long.
All three could be among the top contenders for the women’s singles title, trying to take the title from defending champion Naomi Osaka when play begins Monday at the year’s final Grand Slam tournament.
Andreescu is the only one of the three who has enjoyed significant success at Flushing Meadows, beating Serena Williams for the 2019 championship in her U.S. Open debut at age 19. (Williams, who owns 23 major titles, is absent this time as she recovers from a torn right hamstring.)
But it seems only a matter of time for Barty and Sabalenka, the top two seeds ahead of No. 3 Osaka.
The top-ranked Barty is rolling into her return to New York, winning her second major title at Wimbledon and adding a hard-court title at Cincinnati in her last event.
“It feels like a long time since I’ve been back at New York,” the Australian said. “This week is going to be exciting. It’s got fans. That’s going to bring a lot of energy to this tournament. This is a tournament that thrives with the energy. I can’t wait to get started.”
She opted not to play the U.S. Open because she did not leave Australia during the coronavirus pandemic last year and said she didn’t even watch the tournament because of the time difference.
Barty mostly relaxed at home before resuming her training in October.
Now she is deep into a monthslong road trip, having not returned to Australia since coming to the U.S. for the Miami hard-court event in March, where she beat Sabalenka and Andreescu for one of her five titles this season.
“I think that she’s had an amazing year. It’s really cool to see someone play so consistently,” Osaka said.
“I would say she seems really determined and really focused. I know that she hasn’t gone home since Australia, so that’s a lot of traveling for her,” said Osaka, who was born in Japan but moved to New York with her family when she was 3 and is now based in California. “I don’t think I’m the type of person that could do that. It’s really incredible that she’s, like, being so — I don’t know, it’s so good for the sport, I would say.”
Like Barty, Sabalenka has never been past the fourth round in New York. She was knocked out in the second round last year, as the 23-year-old from Belarus battled confidence problems in the biggest tournaments.
But talks with her sports psychologist have helped. She had her best result in a major tournament by reaching the semifinals at Wimbledon before being edged by Karolina Pliskova.
While Sabalenka says she has worked with the psychologist for five years, she explains: “Only right now, I start to be honest with her about the Grand Slams, and I start to maybe to be more open with her, saying, like, all my problems on the Grand Slams, that actually I was afraid of something.”
Pliskova, the 2016 U.S. Open runner-up, is the No. 4 seed, and 2019 semifinalist Elina Svitolina is fifth. Behind them is Andreescu, who has been plagued by injuries since her victory in New York and hasn’t been past the second round of a Slam since.
“I got goosebumps when I walked onto Armstrong (Stadium) the first day. It just brought me back to 2019. It’s nice to have those feelings going into a tournament,” Andreescu said. “So I’m feeling good and I’m healthy, so it’s great.”
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