The blue Arthur Ashe Stadium court loomed like a jigsaw puzzle for a pair of Grand Slam champions.
Angelique Kerber couldn’t make the right pieces fit, while Ashleigh Barty pieced together a crafty comeback.
Watch: Nadal Wedding Day Coming Soon
The second-seeded Barty spotted Zarina Diyas a 5-0 lead on Arthur Ashe Stadium before locating her serve and finding her forehand to rally to a 1-6, 6-3, 6-2 triumph, advancing to the US Open second round for the fourth time in five appearances.
Kristina Mladenovic continued Kerber’s seasn of major misery knocking the 2016 champion out of the Flushing Meadows first round, 7-5, 0-6, 6-4, on Grandstand.
It was Kerber’s second US Open opening-round exit in the last three years—she lost to then world No. 45 Naomi Osaka in the 2017 first round.
Former world No. 1 Kerber managed just four wins in four Grand Slam tournaments this season, including her second-round exit at Wimbledon where she was defending champ. Consequently, Kerber fell out of the Top 10.
“Every Grand Slam is a new tournament,” Kerber said. “This year was not really the best year for Grand Slams for me. Still, I’m here. I tried everything I could the last 10 days. I prepared as good as I could. This is tennis. This is sport and you have to deal with this. I will deal with this as good as I can.”
Trying to jump-start her season, Kerber split with coach Rainer Schuettler last month. Schuettler guided Kerber to two finals—in Indian Wells and Eastbourne—but she has not won a title this season and said she hasn’t hired a new coach.
“Of course, it’s disappointing, especially after all the years here where I played good, with where I had a lot of emotions,” Kerber said. “Yeah, this is tennis. I mean, every year is different. Of course, all the last years, every year it was different. Yeah, I have to deal with this situation this year, and trying to doing it better the next time. Yeah, forgetting the match as soon as I can.”
Reigning Roland Garros champion Barty surrendered five straight games to open her US Open and struggled to find the right combinations for a set-and-a-half.
After enduring what she called an “appalling” first set, Barty cleaned up her game, found her first serve and flew through nine of the last 11 games to fend off the dangerous Diyas.
“I probably would have preferred if it was a little bit more straightforward, but, yeah, happy the way we were able to fight through that and find a way after a pretty awful start,” Barty said. “I think I just didn’t give myself a chance in that first set. Sort of appalling, probably made a set’s worth of errors. I think it was just nice to kind of lock down a little bit. It took some time but kind of break her down in the end.”
Playing for her 80th career main-draw win, the 80th-ranked Diyas drove flat strikes into the Aussie’s backhand wing banging out errors in breezing to a 5-0 lead.
It took Barty 26 minutes to get on the board as she fired a forehand down the line to hold.
Diyas closed out the 28 minute opening set as Barty littered twice as many unforced errors—19 to 8—and served just 25 percent.
Once Barty found the range on serve, she broke down Diyas’ forehand with her own heavy topspin forehand.
Despite serving just 43 percent, Barty won 25 of 30 first-serve points and pumped eight aces in a one hour, 42-minute victory.
“I just had to start with my serve,” Barty told ESPN’s Pam Shriver afterward. “I really wasn’t giving myself enough chances on serve. I had to start from the basics, start again and try to figure it out.
“And really pleased solve this riddle today and get through it.”
Getting through the bottom quarter could be a major challenge.
Barty will play American Lauren Davis in the second round with 30th-seeded Maria Sakkari and 23-time champion Serena Williams all looming in the Aussie’s quarter.
“I mean, I don’t even know when I would have played her,” Barty said of Davis. “Yeah, I mean, Lauren’s obviously one of the tougher challenges, playing an American in the US Open. And she’s been on a little bit of a heater over the past couple of months and had some good wins and coming back to some of her best stuff.
“It’s a match that we will prepare as best as we can for tomorrow and then Wednesday we’ll be ready to go.”
It was tough start for a pair of former champions.
Ekaterina Alexandrova swept Samantha Stosur, 6-1, 6-3, sending the 2011 champion to her third opening-round exit in her last seven Flushing Meadows appearances.
The 43rd-ranked Russian rolled into the second round against either Viktorija Golubic or 33rd-seeded Shuai Zhang.
In an all-Czech clash, 2016 US Open finalist Karolina Pliskova squeezed out a 7-6 (6), 7-6 (3), victory over Tereza Martincova to reach the US Open second round for the third straight year. Pliskova improved to 6-1 against compatriots in major main-draw matches.
“I guess somehow you have to find a way through,” Pliskova said. “Of course in those two weeks there is bigger chance that you’re not going to play your best tennis. Of course there is going to be days like this or even different days.
“But still to find a way to fight through, I think that’s the key, so I think that’s what I did today. I hope just not more days like this. Of course sometimes there are easier days, easier matches, sometimes worse. But in the end, like, if you make it through, then that’s the important thing.”
No. 16-seeded Johanna Konta cracked 33 winners—19 more than Daria Kasatkina—in a 6-1 4-6, 6- triumph, to reach the second round for the first time since 2016.
The Roland Garros semifinalist meets Margarita Gasparyan next. Gasparyan was a 7-6 (4), 6-4 victory over Australian lucky loser Priscilla Hon.