As the heat wave continues here in New York, a sizzling slate of second-round matches is on tap for Day 4 of the 2018 US Open, with five former US Open champs leading a corps of contenders onto the hard floors of Flushing, each of them hoping to play well enough to play on. Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic, Marin Cilic, Maria Sharapova and Angelique Kerber top today’s talented marquee, sharing the blockbuster bill with the likes of Kei Nishikori, Gael Monfils, Alexander Zverev, Diego Schwartzman, Nick Kyrgios, Caroline Wozniacki, Caroline Garcia, Madison Keys, Petra Kvitova, Jelena Ostapenko and Naomi Osaka. So much talent with so much to play for; it just doesn’t get much hotter than this.

Men’s second seed and five-time US Open champion Federer is looking to win a second Slam in a season for the second consecutive year, having started 2018 by finishing on top Down Under at the Aussie Open. At 37, Federer holds the all-time lead among men with 20 major titles and 30 appearances in Slam finals. If he can claim a sixth US Open crown here this year, he would be the oldest—and winningest—US Open champion in the Open era. That’s hardly a given, considering he’s in a particularly tough half of the draw, but he certainly appeared in fine form on Tuesday night, barely breaking a sweat in a 6-2, 6-2, 6-4 win over Yoshihito Nishioka that took less than two hours to complete. In that match, Federer won 78 percent of his first-serve points and won 12 of 13 service games.

Today, the Sultan of Slams faces off against a familiar foe in France’s Benoit Paire, who’s into the second round here for the fifth consecutive year. The Frenchman has been as far as the fourth round here just once—in 2015—which matches his best-career Slam showing. Ranked No. 56, Paire has reached two semifinals this season—both on hard courts—but this summer, he’s won just two matches in six post-Wimbledon tournaments. Federer owns a perfect 6-0 mark against Paire, dropping just one set in that clean sweep, and there’s little reason to think he won’t come to the court with a broom this afternoon. In three, the second seed advances.

Nishikori, a finalist here in 2014, reached the quarters at Wimbledon this summer, making him the first Japanese man to reach the quarters of all four Slams in a career. The 28-year-old owns 11 career singles crowns and, although he missed last year’s US Open with a wrist injury, he’d reached at least the semis here in two of the three prior years. In playing his way into that 2014 final, he knocked out top-seed Djokovic in the semis.

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Tonight, the former Flushing finalist takes on Frenchman Gael Monfils, one of the men’s game’s most extraordinary talents and most perplexing mysteries. The 31-year-old Monfils (who turns 32 on Saturday) has long been tagged as a player on the verge of a major breakthrough, but a semifinal showing here in 2016 and a similar finish at Roland Garros in 2008 are his best-career Slam showings. Like Nishikori, Monfils was chewed on by the injury bug last year, but he started this year with a bang, taking his seventh career title at the hard-court event in Doha. He’s gotten one round better at each of the Slams so far, reaching the second round of the Aussie Open, the third round of Roland Garros and the fourth round at Wimbledon. The two men have an intriguing history. Nishikori owns a 3-1 edge in their career meetings, but each match has gone the distance and each has ended with a final-set tiebreak. This evening’s encounter promises more of the same; exactly the sort of scintillating showdown that could write the first page in the history of riveting new Armstrong moments. This will be fun. In a furious four, Nishikori is on to round three.

August 28, 2018 - Maria Sharapova in action against Patty Schnyder during the 2018 US Open. (USTA/Andrew Ong)
Photo by:  (USTA/Andrew Ong)

It’s been 12 years since Sharapova captured her first Grand Slam title here, but the 2006 champ and former No. 1 has recently played her way back into the game’s Top 25 and, with a relatively open draw in front of her, may once again figure as a factor here.  Certainly, the 31-year-old, who owns five major singles titles and a career Grand Slam, still has the game to go deep here. Her first-round win over Patty Schnyder on Tuesday was her 36th US Open victory, tying her with Wozniacki for third-most among active players. That said, she’s had a less-than-stellar 2018 season at the Slams, losing in the third round in Australia, reaching the quarters at the French and suffering a shocking first-round dismissal at Wimbledon, losing to 132nd-ranked Vitalia Diatchenko—her first opening-round loss at a Slam since 2010. Post-Wimbledon, she’s played just one event, reaching the third round in Montreal before withdrawing from Cincinnati, citing a sore shoulder.

Tonight, under the lights of Ashe, the former champ takes on Sorana Cirstea, a 28-year-old Romanian whose best career performance in a major was a run to the quarters at Roland Garros in 2009. This is Cirstea’s 10th US Open appearance; a third-round showing in 2009 her best finish in Flushing. The Romanian showed a good deal of grit in her first-round win over American Alison Riske, toughing out a three-set 6-3, 3-6, 7-5 win against the home favorite. But she’ll have a tougher task against Sharapova, who is a perfect 20-0 in night matches in Ashe. The two have met just once, with Sharapova scoring an easy win in Beijing in 2012. That’s not a result that figures to have much bearing on this evening’s encounter, but it’s unlikely that Cirstea will be able to raise her game enough to dim Sharapova’s ability to shine under the lights here. In a tight two, the former champ is on to round three.

No. 4 seed Kerber is the only woman to reach the quarterfinals or better at each of this year’s first three Slams. The 2016 US Open champ reached the semis in Australia, the quarters of Roland Garros and captured her third career major crown at Wimbledon. The 30-year-old German is likely more than eager to put her 2017 Flushing finish in the rear-view mirror, as she last year became just the second defending US Open champion to lose in the first round in the Open era. This year, the former No. 1 came to New York boasting a most impressive 40-14 mark on the season, having won the hard-court event in Sydney in addition to her triumphant tear across the lawns of London.

Today, Kerber faces off against Johanna Larsson, a 29-year-old Swede who captured her second career title in May at the clay-court event in Nurnberg.  This is her ninth main-draw appearance at the US Open, and she’s twice reached the third round here, most recently in 2016. Primarily a doubles threat, Larsson owns 12 career doubles titles and has reached the quarters of both the Australian and French Opens playing in pairs. Kerber has never lost to Larsson, owning a perfect 3-0 record against the Swede, including a win on hard courts at the Miami event this March. That record figures to be just as perfect after today’s meeting, as Kerber just has too many weapons for Larsson to handle, and is playing with a particular purpose on the heels of last year’s US Open disappointment. In two, Kerber moves into the third round.