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Top seeds speedy in victory at sun-baked U.S. Open

NEW YORK (Reuters) - A year ago, Kim Clijsters was the mom in the spotlight at the U.S. Open. This time it is Mother Nature.

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Unrelenting heat and swirling winds has transformed the last grand slam of the year into a battle against the elements and now Hurricane Earl is approaching New York, threatening to bring thunderstorms and rain over the weekend.

It is little wonder that the top players are in such a rush to get off the courts as quickly as possible, battering their lower-ranked opponents as swiftly and ruthlessly as the wacky weather at Flushing Meadows.

For the second time this week, Switzerland’s Roger Federer cruised to victory in straight sets inside Arthur Ashe Stadium. His 6-3 6-4 6-3 victim on Thursday was Germany’s Andreas Beck.

It was over in one hour 41 minutes but nobody was in more of a hurry than Denmark’s Caroline Wozniacki, the runner-up to Clijsters 12 months ago. She needed just 47 minutes to breeze past Chang Kai-chen of Taiwan 6-0 6-0.

Russia’s Vera Zvonareva, a finalist at Wimbledon this year, and Belgium’s Yanina Wickmayer, semi-finalist at the U.S. Open last season, also raced to straight-sets wins on another steamy day when the Extreme Weather Policy was invoked as temperatures climbed past 91 degrees Fahrenheit (33 Celsius).

Russian sixth seed Nikolay Davydenko also spent little time on the sun-baked court but only because he was hammered 6-3 6-4 6-2 by Frenchman Richard Gasquet.

The casualty rate among the seeds in the first four days of the championship has been almost as brutal as the baking heat with 20 making early exits, including four more on Thursday.

Aravane Rezai and Maria Jose Martinez Sanchez were knocked out of the women’s draw while Croatia’s Marin Cilic, the men’s 11th seed, was upset by Japan’s Kei Nishikori 5-7 7-6 3-6 7-6 6-1 in one of the matches that went the distance.

For Federer, it was all just business as usual. He did not repeat the magical between-the-legs trickshot he played in his opening match but still went through most of his repertoire as he prepares for the tougher matches that lie ahead.

If he maintains his early form throughout the fortnight, a 17th grand slam title could be his.

Wozniacki is looming as the favorite to win her first grand slam title after a flawless start to the tournament.

Promoted to top seed after world number one Serena Williams withdrew with a foot injury, Wozniacki won three lead-up tournaments and has carried her form into the U.S. Open.

“When you’re winning, you have that confidence,” she said. “You go out on the court and you know what to do. You’re in your own bubble. That’s what I’m aiming for.”

Editing by Frank Pingue