Following the model of our men’s draw preview is the women’s draw preview for the last major of 2012.  We contemplate the (hopefully grand) finale to a dramatic year in the WTA, one quarter at a time.

First quarter:  Unfortunate last year to draw Serena in the third round, Azarenka should navigate more comfortably through the first week this time, although Serena-killer Razzano might lurk in the same round.  Pitted against the Roland Garros upset artist in her opener is Zheng Jie, a feisty competitor who has scored several victories over elite opponents and came closer than anyone to halting Serena at Wimbledon.  The path will grow more arduous for Azarenka in the fourth round, though, where Lisicki might seek to build upon her Wimbledon quarterfinal appearance by defeating a reigning #1 in the fourth round for the second straight major.  In a clash of charming blonde vs. charming brunette, the grass-court threat starts against Cirstea and her erratic but deadly barrage of forehands that demolished two top-10 opponents this year.  Less streaky than Cirstea, which doesn’t say much, Lisicki’s countrywoman Julia Goerges would battle her for the right to face Azarenka.  Although she reached the final in Dubai several months ago, Goerges in general has underachieved this year.

Somewhat more intriguing is the action in the lower part of the section, which features the women who have combined to win the last three US Opens.  Outside the clay season, Stosur has not distinguished herself this year and brings little momentum to New York, where she will have little time to settle into the tournament.  An opening-round encounter with Petra Martic, who took her to a third-set tiebreak in Madrid, opens Monday’s play on Arthur Ashe and will feature in our Day 1 Preview.  Proudly flying her nation’s flag at the Olympics, Stosur’s third-round opponent Varvara Lepchenko has reinvented her career in 2012.  Buoyed by the support of her compatriot fans, this rare American lefty could topple a fallible defending champion.  After meeting in the fourth round of the Australian Open, meanwhile, Clijsters and Li could reprise that melodramatic match in the blockbuster of the third round.  Li emulated Djokovic in coming within one match of the Canada-Cincinnati double, while Clijsters shook off sufficient rust to reach the quarterfinals at the Olympics. But neither of these women can look too far ahead to their meeting, for each faces a rising British star before then in Watson (Li) and Robson (Clijsters).  In the last major of her career and by far her most successful historically, the three-time champion should mount an emotional run that recalls her semifinal effort at the Australian Open.  She meets Azarenka a round sooner this time, though.

Semifinalist:  Azarenka

Second quarter:  Welcome to the lair of the lioness, whose section looks thoroughly accommodating.  Languishing with a stomach illness after the Olympics, Sharapova did not play the US Open Series for the first time in her career and has not stepped onto a hard court since Miami.  As she regains her groove on this surface, the likes of Melinda Czink, Sesil Karatantcheva, and Medina Garrigues should not detain her unduly en route to the second week. Nevertheless, Sharapova has suffered more losses in the third round of the US Open than in any round of any major, and she has not even reached the quarterfinals here since winning the title in 2006.  The fast court can expose her ungainly—although improved—movement, while her early-season exploits in recent years may have left her jaded as the finish line approaches.  Having won her only previous meeting with the Russian two years ago, Safarova might fancy her chances following a strong US Open Series campaign, although she must master her nerves in an opener against crowd favorite and former quarterfinalist Oudin.  By contrast, the aging Petrova has offered not much more than batting practice for Sharapova recently, so don’t expect much from that possible fourth-round encounter.

Suddenly at ease in the continent that once frustrated her, US Open Series challenge winner Kvitova aims for the largest paycheck in women’s sports.  Unlikely to derail her are first-week opponents like Cornet or Wickmayer, or perhaps Stanford wildcard and NCAA champion Nicole Gibbs, who competed creditably against the world #5 last week in New Haven.  Exiled from the Olympics, Bartoli might not reach her appointed fourth-round meeting with Kvitova in view of the double faults that have swamped her service games this summer and contributed to her loss to the Czech north of the border.  But one could say the same, to a lesser extent, about the struggling Pavlyuchenkova despite her Washington final, so perhaps Kvitova will face an unexpected face when the second week begins.  The most notable of the names not in bold, Petkovic should relish the bright lights of New York as she performs for a crowd that should encourage her antics.  A second-week appearance so soon after her extended absence may ask too much of the former top-10 player on the stage where her dance debuted.  No matter the opponent, Kvitova will hold her fate in her own hands until the quarterfinals, where she would face the woman who has ousted her from two of three majors this year.  Will the momentum from this summer allow her to conquer this nemesis?

Semifinalist:  Kvitova

Third quarter:  Looming over this section, the Wimbledon titlist seeks her first US Open title for four years and just the second in the latter stages of her career.  Drama, sought and unsought, has dogged Serena during her recent trips to New York, but little drama had happened to her in the first week of majors until that astonishing loss to Razzano at Roland Garros.  Unless her grass-court achievements have dulled her appetite, she should solve the serve of Coco Vandeweghe just as she did in the Stanford final.  An intriguing third-round encounter with Makarova might await, illustrating Serena’s progress on hard courts since she lost to the flaming Russian lefty at the Australian Open.  Although most of the fourth seed’s success this year has come on clay and grass, her serve should sizzle on the fast courts of the US Open against pre-semifinal opponents with generally tepid deliveries.  This side of her section does not lack distinctive, highly watchable players, however, from the eccentric drop-shot specialist Martinez Sanchez to the double-fister Peng to the looping forehands of Arantxa Rus.  On a slower surface, Kirilenko or Zakopalova might test Serena’s patience (as they have on clay) by luring her into endless rallies.  By the time that the second week begins, though, she usually has found her range with her first strikes.

Overshadowed by Serena is the 2009 finalist Wozniacki, who has not lost before the semifinals here since 2008.  To continue that streak, she must find a way to repeat her Miami victory over Serena, built substantially upon the veteran’s horrific cascade of errors.  The former #1 retired from New Haven on Friday with a knee injury, which could blunt a key weapon in her movement.  Near her are the past and future of Italian women’s tennis, the declining Schiavone and the rising Camilla Giorgi, both of whom reached the second week of Wimbledon.  While Giorgi could meet Wozniacki, Schiavone might battle Ivanovic for a trip to the second week.  Winning one game in her last match at a major and no games in her last match overall, the Serb has suffered from a foot injury that hampered her preparations, like an injury before Wimbledon.  Not to be neglected is the promising Sloane Stephens, unremarkable this summer but steadily rising during the first half.  She could meet Ivanovic in the third round here for the second straight year.  At most, though, someone from this section can hope for a quarterfinal result.

Semifinalist:  Serena

Fourth quarter:  Like Wozniacki and Ivanovic, world #2 Radwanska has struggled with injuries and diminished form early in the second half.  Following a first-round exit from the Olympics and two lopsided losses to Li at Premier Five events was a precautionary retirement in New Haven.  The Pole finds herself amidst several players who could threaten her in her depleted condition, including Texas finalist Jankovic and perhaps the lefty Ksenia Pervak or the crafty, late-blooming Italian Vinci, who defeated Jankovic on Friday.  In general, this section looks more open to a surprise than the others, populated by talented dark horses and no superstar likely to dominate the field.  Finishing third in the US Open Series after winning her second career title in Carlsbad, Cibulkova may need to expend significant energy to earn her berth in the second week.  Into that stage at each of the last two majors, Shvedova could overpower the diminutive Slovak on the fast courts here to earn an appointment with Radwanska.  Nor should one neglect the formidable serve of Mona Barthel, the latest German to break into the upper echelons of the WTA.

Equally open to the unexpected, the opposite side of this quarter includes a figure more famous than any of the bold-faced names in Venus Williams.  The seven-time major champion fell to Kerber earlier in this season in Madrid and in two tiebreaks at Wimbledon, so her meeting with the German in the second round might mark her US Open farewell.  Handed a similarly challenging assignment in the same round of Roland Garros, Venus lacked the energy to threaten Radwanska, but the crowd support in New York could help turn this match into a thriller.  Summer sensation Tamira Paszek used an Eastbourne title and Wimbledon quarterfinal to earn a seeded position in New York, where she should expect to win at least two matches.  Likely to meet Venus or Kerber at the start of the second week is one of several slow-court specialists, perhaps Roland Garros finalist Errani.  Overwhelmed by the heavy hitting of Venus and Kerber on grass and during the US Open Series, the world #10 will find a foe more to her taste in the highest-ranked American woman of the younger generation.  Leading Errani 5-0 in the third set at Roland Garros last year, McHale allowed that lead to slip away en route to losing a 16-game final set, one of several enormous meltdowns that have troubled her development.  With a bit of luck, though, she could capitalize on this modest draw to become the Oudin of 2012.

Semifinalist:  Kerber

Final:  Kvitova vs. Serena

Champion:  Serena Williams