Newcomers seem intent on giving this US Open a futuristic look. On a day of brilliant sunshine at Flushing Meadows, Southern Cal star Steve Johnson overcame the erratic but very talented Latvian Ernests Gulbis 6-7, 7-6, 6-3, 6-4 while Britain’s Laura Robson caused her second upset in three days by ousting No. 9 seed Li Na 6-4, 6-7, 6-2.
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Some young players make a smooth transition out of college or the junior ranks and some really struggle. Johnson got over "an uncomfortable feeling" in his first pro matches by winning an ATP Challenger at Aptos, Calif., and is starting to look as if he belongs.
Listening to the advice of his college coach, Peter Smith, to whom he speaks every day, Johnson made a good decision in the summer. "The first couple of weeks when I played ATP events I felt a little more pressure just because I had come off a great college season (32-0) and hadn’t lost in a while. I just didn’t feel quite comfortable with the surroundings and made a good move to go back and play Aptos instead of the big Masters event in Cincinnati. Got a bunch of matches in and everything has worked out pretty well."
Something of an understatement. Not just in reaching the third round of the US Open, but also getting on top of a far more experienced player like Gulbis who was ranked as high as 21 in the world last year. It seems Johnson, with his big serve and powerful build, has a lot to to offer.
Johnson was hoping that he would be facing Bradley Klahn in the next round, partly because he thinks it might have been an easier task than playing No. 13 seed Richard Gasquet of France, but also because he and Klahn are planning to share an apartment together in Los Angeles while they train at the USTA’s West Coast Training Center in nearby Carson.
"I think it will be great," said Johnson. "Bradley and I go way back and to have both of us living in the same place, we can kind of push each other to get up there and do big things."
Laura Robson seems on the very cusp of doing some big things and has achieved quite a lot already this week. The 18-year-old with the cut glass British accent and sweet smile showed just what kind of competitor she was by retiring Kim Clijsters Wednesday and on Friday Li Na discovered just what kind of weapons she has. A left-handed first serve is lethal when it goes in and the forehand down the line wins her point after point as soon as she has maneuvered her opponent out of position.
Robson showed her potential by playing well against Maria Sharapova in the Olympics at Wimbledon and winning the mixed doubles silver medal with Andy Murray. And now she is proving she can do more.
"I felt I should have won the first set against Sharapova and since then I have been working on moving my feet so that I can continuously make an extra ball and put pressure on them."
It worked against Clijsters and it worked against the Chinese star. "When I got a little bit tight, I just tried to go for all my shots," she said. "I knew I had to keep going for it because she was taking advantage of my second serve."
In the end, Li just ran out of steam, unable to cope with the teen’s free-hitting from the baseline. Defending champion Sam Stosur will have to deal with it next. The Australian proved too strong for the American who did so well at Roland Garros, Varvara Lepchenko, winning 7-6(5), 6-2. Now Stosur has to face another left-hander – one she has never played before. It will be fascinating to see how much Robson has left in her locker.
Ryan Harrison was unable to add to the younger generation’s list of victories which was hardly surprising as he came up against the former champion here, Juan Martin del Potro of Argentina. Harrison went down 6-2, 6-3, 2-6, 6-2. He played an excellent third set but couldn’t handle his 6-foot-6 opponent’s firepower off the ground.
Mallory Burdette was another young American who had to face a former champion and she too found it too much. Burdette lost 6-1, 6-1 to Sharapova on Ashe despite having the Russian 0-40 and 15-40 down on her serve in the second set.