Two-time US Open finalist Victoria Azarenka has some familiar company in her return to Flushing Meadows after a two-year absence. Four women from her native Belarus made the second round of a Grand Slam for the first time in history.
The former world No. 1’s younger compatriots Aliaksandra Sasnovich, Aryna Sabalenka and Vera Lapko all won their first-round matches. The trio announced themselves last year by carrying Belarus, a country of 9.5 million people, to the Fed Cup final without their seasoned leader, who remained in California all year during a child-custody case. Sabalenka, Sasnovich, and Lapko defeated Belgium, 4-1, and Switzerland, 3-2, before falling in Minsk to the United States, which was led by Sloane Stephens and Coco Vandeweghe.
Since then, both Sabalenka and Sasnovich have shot up the rankings. Sabalenka has jumped from No. 78 to No. 20 this year – makng great headway this summer. She saved match points en route to beating world No. 2 Caroline Wozniacki at the Rogers Cup in Montreal this month, then defeated Madison Keys in the quarterfinals of the Western & Southern Open in Cincinnati before losing to world No. 1 Simona Halep. The 20-year-old then won her first WTA Tour title at the Connecticut Open last week. Tuesday, she outlasted the ascending American Danielle Collins, 6-0, 4-6, 6-4, in one of the highest-quality first-round matches. She will next play qualifier Vera Zvonareva, the 2010 US Open finalist who is on the comeback trail after a two-year hiatus.
Sasnovich, 24, also had a breakout summer, starting at Wimbledon. She stunned two-time champ Petra Kvitova in the first round and made it to the fourth round for the first time at a major. A semifinal run at the Moscow Open shot her ranking up to a career-best world No. 35. On Tuesday, she beat Belinda Bencic in three sets. Thursday, she will play No. 11 seed Daria Kasatkina. She could meet Sabalenka in the fourth round.
Lapko, 19, has been on the WTA Tour for just over a year and climbing fast. A former junior world No. 1, she defeated world No. 27 Anett Kontaveit in April to make the semifinals in Lugano, then cracked the top 100 in time to earn direct entry into Wimbledon. She beat veteran Kateryna Bondarenko in the first round of the US Open in straight sets before falling to No. 15 seed Elise Mertens Wednesday. Last year, her ranking was No. 320. Now it’s No. 72.
All three women are ranked higher than Azarenka, who is up to No. 79 after starting the year No. 209 following close to two years of inactivity following the birth of her first child in 2016. In her second tournament back, the Miami Open, she made a run to the semifinals before losing to Stephens in three sets. But after a summer of early losses, Azarenka is still seeking the form that helped her win two Australian Opens. Tuesday’s straightforward takedown of No. 25 seed Daria Gavrilova was the kind of win the 29-year-old needed. “There was no ups and downs today,” she said. “That's what I'm more happy about.” Next up for Azarenka is a rematch with Stephens.