At the US Open, No. 1 Ashleigh Barty is stunned by Shelby Rogers
By David Waldstein
Shelby Rogers held an unusual distinction when she walked onto the court in Arthur Ashe Stadium in Queens, New York on Saturday. She was the last remaining American woman in the U.S. Open women’s singles draw, and it was only the third round.
Sofia Kenin, Serena Williams and Venus Williams all skipped the tournament with ailments, and stars like Coco Gauff, Sloane Stephens, Danielle Collins and Jessica Pegula had already been eliminated.
It was looking nearly as bad for Rogers, too. Trailing 5-2 in the third set to top-seeded Ashleigh Barty, Rogers completed a stirring comeback to the delight of the pro-American audience to score the biggest upset of the tournament, ousting the Australian 6-2, 1-6, 7-6 (5).
Barty, the defending Wimbledon champion and winner of the 2019 French Open, has held the No. 1 spot in the WTA women’s rankings since Jan. 24, 2019, and had won five tournaments this year, including the Cincinnati event leading up to the U.S. Open. She went into Saturday’s match without losing a set in her first two encounters and held a 5-0 advantage over Rogers.
Barty was gracious after the loss, paying tribute to Rogers and saying she is prepared to move on knowing the year has been a success, overall.
“You can’t win every single tennis match that you play,” she said. “I’m proud of myself and my team for all the efforts we’ve put in in the last six months. It’s been pretty incredible. I don’t think we could have asked for much more honestly. I wouldn’t change a thing.”
Rogers was equally effusive about Barty, noting that her opponent had not been home to Australia since February, in part to avoid complications and quarantines due to coronavirus travel restrictions.
“She’s resetting on the road, she’s worked through some injuries on the road,” Rogers said. “She’s won five titles. She’s remained No. 1. I mean, this girl is everything every player wants to be.”
With the home crowd behind her, Rogers, 28, won the first set easily. Perhaps Barty just needed waking up. It looked as if that might be the case when Barty cruised to an easy win in the second set and then went ahead 5-2 in the third. Victory was only a few points away.
“I think that game put some oxygen into her lungs,” Barty said.
There were moments in that seventh game where Rogers’ body language suggested that defeat was imminent. She slumped when shots went astray, walked from one end of the court to the other after losing a point without much conviction and appeared under siege at one point. But it was Barty who would not hold her nerve. She made three unforced errors in that game to allow Rogers to break her serve, and grasp onto hope.
With renewed energy derived in part from the supportive fans, Rogers held her serve and then broke Barty again. Generally, she prefers to strike balls firmly and close to the net, but Rogers recognized that Barty was having more trouble with high-bouncing balls, and began to rely on that tactic to push her advantage.
“It’s not the way I like to play,” she said in an interview on court after the match, “But it was what I needed to do against her.”
Barty was now the one under siege and served tenuously, trailing 6-5. But at 40-30, Rogers mistimed an overhead slam and hit the ball into the net. They would go to a tiebreaker, and Rogers had the momentum.
Even though it would remain close, Barty was playing more desperately and struggling to keep pace, while Rogers surged on a wave of adrenaline, now running back to her spot and pumping her fist to the fans.
Most of the points Rogers won in the tiebreaker came off Barty’s mistakes as Rogers was content to keep pushing the ball back, often with a looping arc to it, and then waited for Barty to crack.
The final point, though, came on a strong serve by Rogers that overwhelmed Barty, and her backhand block went wide. Rogers dropped her racket and put both hands to her face. She picked up the racket, went to the net to shake hands with Barty and the chair umpire, and then flung it to the side again and raised her arms to the crowd, half in triumph, half in disbelief.
Her next opponent is the exciting British teenager, Emma Raducanu, in the fourth round today.
A year ago, when Rogers was still working her way back from knee surgery, she reached the quarterfinal stage here. She lost to Naomi Osaka, the eventual champion, in a stadium that was empty because of coronavirus restrictions. But fans are back in attendance at full capacity this year, and Rogers took advantage.
“The crowd has taken it to another level this year,” she told them on court.
“I’m thankful that I couldn’t hear myself breathing as heavily as I did last year in the empty stadium,” she said. “But, gosh, that was really something special. I got chills out there on the court. I don’t know if that’s normal when you’re playing a tennis match, but it happened. I will never forget that moment.”