— At this year’s U.S. Open, the women's draw is remarkably wide open with many players in contention for the title. The lack of a dominant No. 1 competitor and the surge of young talent in the WTA Tour mean early-round matches gain much more intrigue than in the past.
While players like current No. 1 Dinara Safina and fellow Russian Elena Dementieva are often criticized as being unable to win the "big one," Serena Williams has the opposite issue. She's captured three of the last four Grand Slam titles but hasn't won a regular tournament title since April 2008. In fact, she has reached the finals of only one non-major tournament in the 2009 season.
But few players have the ability to elevate their level of play so dramatically as soon as they set foot in London or New York. Williams has that knack of turning on the switch, something that gives her a huge advantage at the U.S. Open and makes her the most feared player in the draw. Her game continues to improve the deeper she progresses in a Grand Slam draw, a daunting thought for her later-round opponents.
While her first-round opponent, 19-year-old wildcard American entry Alexa Glatch, has a lot of future potential, Williams' first real test should come in the fourth round against talented Aussie Samantha Stosur. The No. 15 seed reached the semifinals at the French Open earlier this year, the first time in her career she had advanced that far at a major. Her hard court results bode well for her U.S. Open performance, as she reached the semifinals in Stanford after beating Serena Williams in the quarters, lost in the finals in Los Angeles and reached the quarterfinals in Toronto.
Venus Williams, on the other hand, had relatively disappointing showings in U.S. Open Series events, falling in the third round in Cincinnati and in the second round in Toronto. Her path to a potential sister semifinal battle against Serena won't be easy, either. Venus could meet dangerous floater Kim Clijsters in the fourth round.
The U.S. Open will be Clijsters' third tournament since announcing her return to tennis in late March. If those two previous events are any sign, Clijsters is quickly shaking off the rust from a two-year hiatus. She beat top-20 players Marion Bartoli (who will be her first-round opponent at Flushing Meadows), Patty Schnyder and Svetlana Kuznetova before falling in the quarterfinals to Safina in Cincinnati, and she beat Victoria Azarenka in Toronto before bowing out in three sets against Jelena Jankovic. Clijsters' draw is a generous one for a wildcard player of her talent.
Just as she was at the French Open and at Wimbledon, Safina is a No. 1 seed without a Grand Slam singles title to her credit. It's not for lack of trying, as the Russian has reached at least the semifinals in five of the last six major tournaments. But when put in the pressure cooker atmosphere of a major championship match, her attacking tendencies are muted and her unforced errors skyrocket. In the three Grand Slam finals she's reached, Safina hasn't won a single set. Those nerves and the pressure to validate her top seed will be difficult to overcome, especially since Safina enters the tournament off a disheartening second-round loss to Aravane Rezai in Toronto.
Safina will face a tough challenge from fellow Russian Alisa Kleybanova in the third round. While the No. 27 seed isn't a readily recognized player, she has put together a very solid hard court season with notable wins over Dominika Cibulkova and Jelena Jankovic in Toronto. Kleybanova also took Maria Sharapova to three sets at that tournament and should be considered a definite sleeper pick in New York.
By her standards, Jelena Jankovic has had a sub-par year. She did pick up a big tournament win in Cincinnati, however, topping Dementieva in the semis and Dinara Safina in straight sets in the final. No. 4 Jankovic could face No. 1 Safina in the U.S. Open quarters and No. 4 Elena Dementieva in the semis, so that recent success was imperative to helping her get back on track.
At 27 years old, Dementieva is playing some of her best tennis ever, reaching a career-high No. 3 ranking earlier this season. She's worked hard on improving her serve, and she's seen a correlative surge in match success. Each of her three titles this year has come on hard courts, including a straight-set victory over Maria Sharapova in Toronto. Those two players could face off in the third round at the U.S. Open.
If Sharapova hadn't reached the final in Toronto, she would have been unseeded in New York. As it stands, Dementieva will be her first seeded opponent. Sharapova looked exhausted when the two battled in Toronto, playing her sixth match in seven days. At the U.S. Open, she'll only have to play seven matches over 13 days.
Victoria Azarenka is a player on the rise with her best days of tennis yet to come. She probably won't contend for the title, but she will showcase her talent and potential.
The U.S. Open has never been very kind to Ana Ivanovic, who sports only a 7-5 career record there, and now is the time in her career she needs a deep tournament run. The longer Ivanovic's slump continues, the harder it will be for her to regain her confidence. The former No. 1 player no longer carries the aura of being at the top of her game. With a brittle forehand prone to spraying shots, the No. 11 seed will have a difficult time making it far in the top half of the draw.
Another player who won't be a big factor heading into the second week is No. 6 Svetlana Kuznetsova. After winning the French Open and claiming her first major title earlier this season, the Russian's results have slipped. She competed in just three hard court tournaments between Wimbledon and the U.S. Open, losing to Clijsters in the third round in Cincinnati, to Stosur in the second round in Toronto and to Amelie Mauresmo in New Haven in the quarterfinals.
When the two weeks of the Open have been completed, the odds are that the trophy and winner’s check will be going home with a player named Williams. Which one should be determined in the semifinals.