The Magnificent Seven: US Open WTA Contenders
Welcome back to the second article of our US Open preview series, delayed following some technical difficulties. A day before investigating the draws, we sketch the principal women’s contenders more generally in relation to the field and one another.
1. Serena: Although her 19-match winning streak ended in Cincinnati, the Wimbledon champion and gold medalist returned or even surpassed her vintage dominance during a grass season of brilliance magical to behold and frightening to face. Conceding just 17 games at the Olympics, Serena crushed her two leading threats in New York there—not for the first time this year—and never suffered the lulls in focus that have hampered her as she ages. Like Federer, her greatest challenge may come from an unremarkable player against whom she musters less motivation, similar to Melbourne and Paris nemeses Makarova and Razzano. Nobody plays to the level of the competition more than Serena does, and apparent unwariness has cost her twice recently at the Open in encounters with Clijsters and Stosur. Strangely, Serena has won only one title at her favorite major during the latter stages of her career, nor has she completed a Wimbledon-US Open double since her Serena Slam. Doubtless seared into her mind is the disappointment of last year’s tepid performance in the final, for which she may feel especially determined to atone.
2. Vika: Toppled by Serena in the third round last year, the world #1 has lost only one match on a hard court this year while winning all four of her titles on the surface. A hybrid style of fierce groundstrokes and lithe movement, Vika has solved nearly all of her leading rivals during her ascent to the top ranking except Serena and Kvitova, whom she has not met in 2012 so far. The Olympic bronze medalist has not won a title since Indian Wells, admittedly, but three of her losses came to Serena in semifinals or finals. Under the bright lights of New York, Azarenka will need to harness her emotions productively rather than imploding in the pressure-soaked environment. Absent from the US Open Series, she has produced mixed results when lacking match practice and may need a few rounds to find her groove. Outside her second serve, the balanced, athletic Azarenka conceals virtually no weaknesses for opponents to assault.
3.Maria: Spurning the US Open Series for the first time, the 2006 champion has not played on a hard court since Miami. On the other hand, she entered the Australian Open without any preparation and plowed to the final. Maria has enjoyed perhaps the finest season of her career with a major title to complete a career Grand Slam, a silver medal, a runner-up trophy in Melbourne, and seven finals in ten tournaments overall. After all of those achievements, though, she might bring a less voracious appetite to New York, for she has excelled most when she has most to prove. Not since winning the title has the Russian reached the quarterfinals in New York, where players who rely as heavily on the return of serve as she does can find the fast court frustrating. Sharapova lacks any hope against Serena, but she cannot face her until the final, before which much can happen—as she well knows. Although she relishes the spotlight of New York, the ice queen has suffered surprising three-set meltdowns there recently.
4. Petra: Torrid when she’s hot and frigid when she’s not, Kvitova struck her richest vein of form this year during the US Open Series. Winning the Rogers Cup before reaching a semifinal in Cincinnati, she scarcely resembled the player who had struggled to string together victories in North America. Yet the Czech may have erred in playing four consecutive weeks before the Open, starting with the Olympics. A server second only to Serena, Kvitova has established herself this year as a player who consistently delivers solid results at majors and became the quarterfinals or better at all three. She will hope to avoid Sharapova, who halted her at the first two majors, and perhaps capitalize on previous triumphs against Azarenka, whom she defeated in three marquee matches last year. Gone in the first round of the US Open last year to a clay-court specialist, Kvitova has played too many three-setters this year as her form ebbs and flows. To win a second major, she will need to advance more efficiently.
5. Nails: One win short of the Canada-Cincinnati double, Li revealed impressive endurance in sweeping nine matches during an eleven-day span in humid conditions. Demolishing Radwanska twice, she has benefited immediately from her new partnership with Carlos Rodriguez, although it remains unclear how long those effects will last. Li never flinches from standing toe to toe with any opponent, including Serena, and no stage or occasion ruffles her unless her strokes misfire, as they can for prolonged stretches. One of the streakiest players in a streaky WTA, the Chinese star never holds a lead too large to squander or faces a deficit too great to overcome. Likely to enhance those jolts in momentum are the Open’s fast courts, which require fewer shots to end points. She enters the tournament without great expectations on her, which usually bodes well, and her charismatic personality should win her plenty of New York fans if she stays long enough to entertain them.
6. Aga: Nursing a shoulder injury for the second straight summer, the Wimbledon finalist sustained those two resounding losses to Li before retiring from New Haven. Like Kvitova and Li, the world #2 lost in the first week of the US Open last year and never has found her best tennis there. Somewhat the victim of her own success, Radwanska has played more matches this year than usual as her results have improved dramatically while her schedule has not compressed to compensate. With two key titles to defend this fall, she could use the US Open as a springboard to revitalize her energies. The fast court injects her tepid serve with extra velocity, but the Pole probably would feel more comfortable on a surface that rewards point construction more than first-strike power. That said, she has troubled virtually every leading contender except Azarenka, who plays Serena to her Sharapova, and the similarly power-starved Wozniacki has excelled here before.
7. Sam: Only appearing on this list because of last year’s breakthrough, the defending champion has sparkled only rarely in 2012 and more often stumbled through tentative efforts against WTA journeywomen. At Roland Garros, Stosur stood on the verge of reversing her season with a clear route to the final, but the loss to Errani there thrust her back into her previous malaise. Nevertheless, she had accomplished little at majors in 2011 before suddenly surging to her first such title, so a comfortable first-week draw could offer her the respite needed to accumulate confidence. Except for Radwanska, nearly all of the players ranked higher than Stosur have held the advantage consistently in their rivalries with her. If she reaches one of them in a quarterfinal or semifinal, though, she will have acquitted herself creditably considering the pressure on this mentally frail competitor as the defending champion.
The rest: Nearly the champion in Cincinnati before LI stirred to life, last year’s US Open semifinalist Kerber encounters the pressure of defending a significant achievement for the first time. Her reactive style would not seem designed well for New York, but victories over Serena and Kvitova two weeks ago delivered warning shots to those contenders. Attempting to defend her New Haven title this week, Wozniacki tumbled to the lower stretches of the top 10 early this year and languished there consistently since then. But the former #1 has reached the semifinal or better at three straight US Opens, her best results at any major, and her durability may prove an asset late in the season when players become battered. If one seeks a trendy dark horse, monstrous server Sabine Lisicki might reel off a few victories or score a key upset. The German reached the second week last year with a game designed for fast surfaces and returned to relevance with a Wimbledon quarterfinal that nearly became a second straight semifinal there. In the twilight of their careers, Venus and Clijsters will hope not to leave too soon what could prove the final US Open for both of them, and certainly the final visit for Clijsters. Ready to depart with dignity, the Belgian may draw inspiration from her prodigious crowd support here to exceed the expectations of her ranking, as she did at the Olympics, while Serena’s sister will survive as long as her spirit can shine through her debilitated body.
We return shortly with a quarter-by-quarter preview of the men's draw.