US Open 2018: Serena Williams' inconsistent return to tennis leaves tournament wide open

Befitting the intriguing state of women’s tennis, the US Open remains wide open with a number of aspirants realistically dreaming of glory at Flushing Meadows. With Serena Williams unable to find consistency since returning from maternity leave, parity has marked women’s tennis over the past 18 months in a refreshing change to a sport usually dominated by its transcendent players.

While Williams has looked somewhat mortal since her return, no one on the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) tour has stood out from the congested pack. If you fancy a safe punt, perhaps it’s wise to look elsewhere. Right now, oozing with intoxicating talent, women’s tennis is arguably at its most unpredictable.

Serena Williams' indifferent return means an opportunity for one of the youngsters to stake claim at the US Open. AP/File

Serena Williams' indifferent return means an opportunity for one of the youngsters to stake claim at the US Open. AP/File

There have been two first-time Major winners this year and the US Open, in recent times, has not been immune to crowning a new women’s champion — the last three singles champions have been maiden winners in New York.

Simona Halep is the world number one and US Open favourite amongst most bookmakers and pundits. Amid a volatile field, the diminutive Romanian remains the most reliable bet. With consistency her calling card, Halep should make a deep run. It would be quite surprising if she is knocked out in the first week.

However, Halep did suffer an inglorious early exit at Wimbledon where she was upset in the third round by Taiwan's Hsieh Su-wei. It was a disappointing defeat, one which a self-loathing Halep described as “unprofessional”. It was a major letdown after her memorable breakthrough at the French Open.

Having overcome her bad luck at Roland Garros, the 26-year-old might have been a bit slack. After all, it is never easy to back up after such heroics, particularly with Wimbledon being held so close after the French Open. It should be noted that grass is her least favoured surface too, so perhaps there were enough red flags to suggest a letdown was likely.

Smarting over her Wimbledon defeat, Halep has rediscovered her best and enters the US Open in red hot form having won the Canadian Masters and she also made the final of the Cincinnati Masters last week. Despite the healthy form, it won’t be easy in New York. Halep has a tough draw, where she could meet either of the Williams sisters and former Wimbledon champion Garbine Muguruza before the quarters.

There may not be a standout player on the women’s circuit right now but Simona Halep can legitimately deserve to feel a notch above the rest, if she can claim her second Grand Slam of the year.

Can Serena equal the record?

The tennis legend has quite clearly found it difficult to recapture her best since returning from her long break. Underlining the lethargy, Williams has not won a title since her comeback earlier this year and recently endured her worst ever defeat after embarrassingly winning just one game against Johanna Konta at the Silicon Valley Classic.

Of course, it is never wise to write off Williams, who is arguably the greatest ever women’s player. At Wimbledon, Williams proved that form can be disregarded when related to her. The 36-year-old produced inspiring play on the grand stage at the All England Club to storm into the final.

She is still looking for her elusive record-equaling 24th Major and the 17th seed will have to navigate a tricky path to clinch her seventh US Open title. Proving a point at Wimbledon that Williams’ best still overwhelms opponents, it remains to be seen if she can string together seven matches of sustained quality.

Will Sloane Stephens defend title?

The American had the tennis world buzzing when she spectacularly claimed the US Open last year. A new star had emerged but things have proven more difficult for Stephens, who has won just one title since.

Undoubtedly, Stephens can dish it up to anyone on the tour. The 25-year-old had a dazzling run at the French Open, before losing to Halep in a match she probably should have claimed in straight sets.

Stephens is one of a slew of players who can genuinely beat anyone on her day, but inconsistency has been her bane. However, she enters the US Open as one of the favourites having rediscovered her best in Montreal recently where she once again lost an epic final to Halep.

Buoyed by the strong support from her compatriots, Stephens can rewrite a mixed year with another golden fortnight at New York.

Who are other contenders?

There are numerous players with realistic ambitions to go all the way, but let’s narrow it down to three intriguing candidates.

Caroline Wozniacki had the perfect start to the season winning her first Grand Slam title at the Australian Open. It was the monkey off the back for the Dane after many years of heartbreak. Since then, Wozniacki hasn’t quite been as sharp; perhaps the hunger hasn’t been there since breaking her drought.

With limited preparation due to a leg injury, Wozniacki’s title candidacy appears slim, but her wealth of experience and penchant for Flushing Meadows — she was a US Open finalist in 2009 and 2014 — should keep her in the hunt.

Fresh from her Wimbledon triumph, Angelique Kerber can’t be discounted despite indifferent form since that memorable victory over Williams. Like several others, Kerber has a jarring gulf of performance. She is undeniably hot and cold, which makes her fascinating viewing but hard to read.

The German may not be in sizzling touch but her imposing game, where she notably ran Williams off her feet through sheer firepower, ensures Kerber deserves to be taken very seriously.

Perhaps the dark horse of the deep field is Madison Keys, who reached the final of last year’s US Open and has the high-voltage game to make another go at the title. The 23-year-old announced herself as a big-time player 12 months ago, but fell short in the final against Stephens.

Keys admitted to being slightly overawed by the occasion but should be better prepared, if she returns to the final. Long hailed as America’s next sensation, Keys can propel into the congested top echelon with victory in the US Open.

Amid such volatility in women’s tennis right now, perhaps it will be fitting to end the Grand Slam year with another new champion.

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Updated Date: Aug 25, 2018 12:34:00 IST

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