US Open 2020 Women's Singles preview: COVID-19 withdrawals turn already unpredictable category into free-for-all
Ahead of tennis' return to the big stage, Firstpost takes a look at the US Open Women's Singles draw and attempts to determine the potential outcome of all four quarters
It's difficult to talk about sports in contemporary times without mentioning the coronavirus . Few things have had as sudden and as pervasive an impact on sports around the world as this pandemic, and few sports have suffered as much as tennis. From the cancellation of several major events, to the postponement of the French Open and the raging dumpster fire of a tournament that was Novak Djokovic's Adria Tour, tennis has been through a lot lately. And yet, even as the US Open — one of the biggest competitions of the tennis calendar — makes its return, things don't quite seem like they're back to normal just yet.
With America currently leading the world in COVID-19 cases and deaths, a number of high-profile stars have chosen not to attend the US Open, and the absentees are most remarkable in the women's singles category. Six out of the WTA top-10 ranked women's players have withdrawn from the tournament citing COVID-19 concerns, including Simona Halep, Elina Svitolina and Kiki Bertens. The absence of these big names means the already fickle women's category is now essentially a free-for-all, where just about anyone could win, but in spite of the unpredictability of the draw, at Firstpost.com, we will attempt to determine the potential outcome of all four quarters:
In the absence of World No 1 Ashleigh Barty and World No 2 Halep, Karolina Pliskova finds herself seeded first heading into the tournament. The Czech star, who is yet to win a Grand Slam title, has enjoyed a fair degree of success at the US Open, having reached the final once in 2016 and the quarter-finals twice in 2017 and 2018. On paper, her chances of winning the tournament seem as good as anyone, but she's famously prone to disappearing when it matters most, and to make matters worse, she also lost in straight sets in her very first match back in action at the Western & Southern Open.
Pliskova's first-round match sees her up against Anhelina Kalinina, who she should beat with ease, but that's the only straightforward tie she is likely to have in the quarter. In the second round, she could face Caroline Garcia, while in the third, she could be up against American Jen Brady, who won at the 2020 Top Seed Open in mid-August. But perhaps the toughest test that awaits her in this quarter is a potential fourth-round tie against three-time Grand Slam winner Angelique Kerber, who beat her in the 2016 US Open final.
That's not to say that Kerber's path to the semi-final is all-clear though. The German also has a few tricky propositions in her path, including her first-round match against Ajla Tomljanovic and a potential tie against Alison Riske in round three. Also, it's worth keeping in mind that Kerber hasn't seen much action since January's Australian Open, and she's heading into this tournament cold. Another interesting storyline to keep track of is that of Arantxa Rus, the Dutch star who tested Serena Williams' limits at the Western & Southern Open, while the likes of Petra Martic and Kristina Mladenovic are also capable of springing an upset.
First-round matches to watch: Angelique Kerber vs Ajla Tomljanovic
Potential semi-finalist: Angelique Kerber
Every tournament has a 'group of death' and at the US Open, this quarter might just prove to be that. There are some real heavy-hitters in this section of the draw, led by the 2018 US Open winner Naomi Osaka. The Japanese star has been in incredible form since the restart, and was on an impressive run at the Western & Southern Open, reaching the final, before she was forced to withdraw due to a hamstring injury, which could give her some trouble in her Grand Slam campaign. Osaka will begin her US Open campaign against compatriot Misaki Doi, in what should be a fairly one-sided contest, but a potential match against either Anastasija Sevastova or Coco Gauff — both of whom play each other in the first round — lies in her path.
Elsewhere, seasoned veteran and two-time Wimbledon winner Petra Kvitova could be in for a decent run, but has rising stars Dayana Yastremska and Elena Rybakina potentially waiting for her in later rounds. Anett Kontaveit and Danielle Collins, who face each other in the first round, are two dark horses, either of whom could sneak through in this quarter, having both made decent runs at major events prior to this.
First-round matches to watch: Anastasija Sevastova vs Coco Gauff, Danielle Collins vs Anett Kontaveit
Potential semi-finalist: Petra Kvitova
The last couple of years have been difficult for Serena Williams, in tennis terms, and especially so in the context of the US Open. In both 2018 and 2019, the American great has reached the finals of the tournament, only to be beaten by first-time Grand Slam winners Osaka and Bianca Andreescu at the final hurdle. Can she break this cycle of heartbreak this time around? Her quarter isn't the easiest to manoeuvre through, and there's more than enough cause to be worried.
Very early on, she'll likely have to face Olympic gold-medallist Monica Puig in the second round, and she could also face Sloane Stephens in the third round. Meanwhile, there's also the possibility of running into two-time Grand Slam winner Garbine Muguruza, who can be a force to reckon with on her day. Muguruza has a fairly simple run in the early rounds, beginning her campaign against Nao Hibino of Japan, and the only seeded player she could run into before round four is Donna Vekic, against whom she enjoys a 7-2 advantage in their head-to-head record. The Spaniard could also encounter Madison Keys in the fourth round, which would be a sight to behold for lovers of an old-fashioned slugfest.
First-round matches to watch: Madison Keys vs Timea Babos
Potential semi-finalist: Serena Williams
Sofia Kenin made waves in January when she won the Australian Open, but the American's return to tennis hasn't been promising, with a first-round defeat against Alize Cornet knocking her out of the Western & Southern Open. Kenin's opening match is a tough one, pitting her against Yanina Wickmayer, and she also faces the possibility of running into 2010 finalist Vera Zvonareva early on. There's also the matter of Ons Jabeur for Kenin to contend with. The Tunisian has been putting in some immense performances since tennis returned to courts around the world, reaching the quarter-finals of both the Western & Southern Open and the Top Seed Open.
And yet, Kenin is hardly the best-known star in this quarter, with players like Kim Clijsters — who has won this tournament on three occasions — Johanna Konta, Victoria Azarenka, Elise Mertens and Venus Williams all in with a shout. Clijsters is up against Ekaterina Alexandrova in the first round, and she could run into Mertens as early as the third round. The rejuvenated Azarenka should also be considered a major threat at this point, having won the Western & Southern Open after dropping just one set over the course of the tournament. In fact, if things work out, we could see a potential rematch of the W&S semi-final in Round 4, with Konta and Azarenka currently on a collision course.
First-round matches to watch: Karolina Muchova vs Venus Williams, Yanina Wickmayer vs Sofia Kenin
Potential semi-finalist: Sofia Kenin
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