NEW YORK -- When Serena Williams won just about everything in sight and Victoria Azarenka regained the top ranking, it at least appeared that some order was taking shape in the women's game. The best players were finally at the top.
Williams was ranked No. 4 but obviously surging toward the top ranking. She, Azarenka and Maria Sharapova have each won a Slam this year, with Williams taking Olympic gold. Williams is clearly the favorite in any tournament she enters. The other two top performers, Petra Kvitova and Agnieszka Radwanska, stabilized the top five with their consistency.
Then Sunday night came and threatened full-scale chaos at the U.S. Open. Azarenka rolled 6-2, 6-2, over Anna Tatishvili. She still hasn't lost more than two games in a set. Kvitova, though, went down hard. She had reached the quarters in all three Slams this year, dismantled a sinking Marion Bartoli 6-1 on the Grandstand in the first set and proceeded to lose 12 of the next 14 games and replaced Caroline Wozniacki as the highest seed on the women's side to fall.
After reaching the semifinals at Roland Garros and the quarters at Wimbledon last year, Bartoli's win over Kvitova puts her in the quarterfinals of a Slam for the first time this year. It was on the women's side, perhaps the most powerful performance of the tournament.
Then, on Ashe, Sharapova crushed Nadia Petrova in the first set 6-1 before losing the second and the first two games of the third, putting the grounds on high upset alert. Serving in the second game of the third set, Sharapova double-faulted as the raindrops barely hit the ground. She wiped her feet against the court a couple of times and seemed to be looking around at tournament officials for help. Clearly, it hadn't been raining hard enough, but after Sharapova was broken, play was stopped for 73 minutes and the suspense stopped.
When play resumed, Sharapova broke the temperamental Petrova and took out her rival in three sets 6-1, 4-6, 6-4.
Aided by two key components, Sharapova muscled her way to avoiding upset Friday. The first was her will and the second was Petrova's inability to adjust. By remaining on the baseline for the entire match -- Petrova came to the net just six times in three sets -- Petrova exposed her lack of mobility and allowed Sharapova to dictate the terms of virtually every point.
Though Kvitova is gone and the rest of the top seeds are intact -- as is defending champ Samantha Stosur, who will play Azarenka in the fourth round -- Sunday's volatility underscored just how fragile the women's game can be. Sharapova was ripe for defeat, and at the Grandstand, the buzz grew stronger at Kvitova went down two breaks in the final set en route to a 6-0 loss in the third. Earlier in the day, Stosur survived, but just barely, against 18-year-old Laura Robson.
Perhaps the upset of Kvitova was just that, and the threat of chaos was mere exaggeration. Azarenka is already in the quarterfinals. Sharapova now plays Bartoli, against whom she has never lost against. Radwanska and Angelique Kerber (possibly the hottest player in the world right now) appear headed for a rematch of their Wimbledon joust (won by Radwanska) in the quarterfinals here. And Kvitova, though defeated, was taken out by a sudden, unforeseen Bartoli onslaught that would've made Lukas Rosol stand up and clap.
The day of chaos saw some of its order restored. But it also served as fair warning to the likes of Sharapova as we head into the business end of the tournament. She, for one, won't always be able rely on the weather gods to lend a helping hand.
But on this day, the dreary weather helped Sharapova shake her dreary game.