Three of the last four US Open women's singles champions — Flavia Pennetta, Sloane Stephens, and Naomi Osaka — have won their first Grand Slam in New York. Angelique Kerber added a second slam in 2016 in what was a stupendous year. Since then, Ashleigh Barty has become a Grand Slam winner and the number of 'unique' majors winners has continued to rise among the ladies. This reflects the depth in women's tennis where a largely clay-loving Simona Halep wins at Wimbledon and a hard court and grass-preferring Barty wins at Roland Garros. With the 2019 US Open edition on the horizon, the chances of another first timer don't look too far-fetched.
Osaka, the defending champion and top seed, sits top of the tree in the first quarter of the women's singles draw that was made on Thursday. It's important to include the dramatics featuring Serena Williams in her win last year to highlight the composed Japanese player who won her first major. With Serena going after the chair umpire, bringing out the tournament director and the crowd incensed, Osaka braved it all, for the most part, to lift the trophy. She has since gone on to win Australian Open, split with long time coach Sascha Bajin and brought Jermaine Jenkins into the team. The results have not been encouraging so far though, with first week exits in Paris and London. Besides, she enters the US Open nursing an injury picked up in Cincinnati. She talked about taking it one match at a time and it is best if she took that strategy from her opening round against Anna Blinkova.
The pick of the first round matches from this section comes in the form of an-all Belarusian affair featuring ninth seed Aryna Sabalenka and two-time US Open finalist Victoria Azarenka. The latter has had a tough time since coming back on tour from pregnancy and long-running custody battles. The lower-ranking (41) has meant she gets the tougher matches early on in a tournament and has thus been struggling with getting back to the latter stages of events.
Carla Suarez Navarro, Anett Kontaveit, Belinda Bencic, Yulia Putintseva, Donna Vekic, Julia Goerges, Coco Gauff and Kiki Bertens are some of the other interesting players in this part of the draw which could make things tricky.
Semi-finalist prediction: Naomi Osaka.
The two big seeds in the lower part of the top half are equally doubtful, fitness-wise. Since her thumping Wimbledon win, Halep has played two tournaments on hard courts — reaching the quarters in Canada where she retired with an Achilles tendon trouble and Round of 16 in Cincinnati where she lost to eventual champion Madison Keys.
In the last two years, the Romanian has struggled in New York, losing in first rounds. The reason for the poor results at Flushing Meadows — the atmosphere. "It's loud and it's different. There are many people around. I like it, but as a spectator. As a player, it's a little bit tougher for me, but year by year I'm getting better. So I have to work to improve more," she told the WTA's official website.
Having triumphed at Wimbledon after improving her grass game, the next objective would be conquering a completely opposite atmosphere at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center as compared to the serene All England Club. She gets her campaign going against American Nicole Gibbs who will be playing just her second match on tour since being diagnosed with cancer. So the chances of Halep getting some quiet on court seem extremely unlikely.
The other is-she-injured-is-she-not player in the quarter is Petra Kvitova. Since the injury in Rome, the Czech player pulled out of Roland Garros, braved it to play at Wimbledon where she lost in the fourth round and suffered a first-round exit in Cincinnati. So a grand total of five matches since May. She takes on fellow Czech and qualifier Denisa Allertova in the first round.
This part of the draw is riddled with some really interesting players who can make life difficult for anyone on their day. From two-time finalist Caroline Wozniacki to American Danielle Collins who can really go after the ball as seen in Melbourne; from former champion Sloane Stephens, who has a disappointing 21-15 record this year, to Toronto champion Bianca Andreescu; from former champion Svetlana Kuznetsova to another big hitter in Jelena Ostapenko; from Garbine Muguruza, who is on the mend since split with coach Sam Sumyk, to Wimbledon quarter-finalist Alison Riske.
It will be most interesting to see how Canadian Andreescu fares. She has the ability to shine on the big stage as she did at Indian Wells and more recently in Toronto. The real test will be a possible second round against Halep.
Semi-finalist prediction: Bianca Andreescu.
From a quarter riddled with Grand Slam winners to the part which has just two and neither pose much of a threat anymore — Sam Stosur and Venus Williams. But the defining part of the third quarter is the number of players who have never won a Slam and have always posed a challenge in doing so. Karolina Pliskova and Madison Keys are the main names in that category and both feature in this section.
Pliskova has been a former World No 1, has vied to regain it a number of times, reached the 2016 US Open final and this year itself won three titles — all in the tune-ups to Slams. Coming into the US Open, she reached quarters in Toronto and Cincinnati and once again would be hopeful of ending the drought. She starts by facing Tereza Martincova. But the tricky match could be the third round against another player who was expected to win majors but hasn't yet in Caroline Garcia.
Keys comes into the tournament as the Cincinnati champion and looking extremely confident of winning her first major. She was sharp and found her rhythm in Ohio but will it travel with her to New York and last two weeks? Remains to be seen. She starts against a tricky Misaki Doi who won their last meeting.
Of the four Slams, US Open is the one where Elina Svitolina hasn't reached the quarters. The Wimbledon semi-finalist didn't quite get the recognition for her best Slam showing in London but hasn't upped her game coming into US Open. Having lost to Maria Sakkari in San Jose, Sofia Kenin did the 'double' over her in Toronto, Cincinnati and they could yet meet in the third round. If the previous record wasn't a confidence booster, the recent form doesn't help her either.
Also, watch out for Johanna Konta who entered the top-20 this year helped by her run to the semis at Roland Garros and quarters at Wimbledon. Ever since that surprise loss to Barbora Strycova and the outburst during the press conference, she suffered first-round exits to lesser hailed opponents in Toronto and Cincinnati. She, like Svitolina, isn't inspiring confidence to take her tally of Slams to one.
Semifinalist prediction: Madison Keys
A look at the fourth and final quarter and two first-round matches stand out. Serena Williams vs Maria Sharapova (scheduled to be played in the evening session on Monday) and Angelique Kerber against Kristina Mladenovic (second on Grandstand on Monday). In what is the first match between Serena and Sharapova at the US Open, it will suggest how well Serena has recovered since the back injury in Toronto which also forced her to skip Cincinnati. In the quest for Slam No 24, there's no better way for Serena to start than playing someone who she hasn't lost to in 14 years.
For Sharapova, it has been an upward trajectory ever since returning from her doping ban. She has played all of 14 matches owing to the shoulder injury which forced into undergoing minor surgery. Her last title win came at Tianjin in October 2017 and her best results since have been two semi-final appearances in Shenzhen and Rome — both last year. It would take something special for the Russian to repeat her 2006 title-winning run.
Also in this section is the second seed Ashleigh Barty. All things considered, it has been a great season for the Australian. She is 42-8 this year with titles in Miami, Roland Garros and Birmingham, finals in Sydney and last-four in Cincinnati. But, she hasn't looked unbeatable. A someone the opponent shies away from going after.
For the most part, this quarter lacks the firepower required to match Serena or Barty, except maybe last year's semi-finalist Anastasija Sevastova, but one can't rule out the emergence of an unlikely queen.
Semi-finalist prediction: Serena Williams
Updated Date: Aug 25, 2019 08:30:52 IST