For the last 12 months, each women's Grand Slam has begun with an all-purpose, two-word intro: “wide open.” That’s how many of us have described, for lack of any better ideas, the draws at the last four majors, a time when Serena Williams was either on the sidelines, or shaking off the rust that had gathered during her time there. At some level, those two words still apply as we head into the U.S. Open. Defending champion Kim Clijsters is out, and aside from Serena and fellow elder super-diva Maria Sharapova, there are still very few players that you could say are safe bets to reach the second week.
But in those months a new dynamic has begun to develop in the WTA. Call it new guard vs. old, or, more specifically, insurgent and possibly totally random new champs vs. established winners. In Australia, we saw Clijsters continue the veterans’—namely, she and Serena’s—long and seemingly unbreakable run of success. But in Paris and at Wimbledon, we were suddenly confronted with rookie Slam champs in Li Na and Petra Kvitova. Throw in the surprising steadiness of Victoria Azarenka, the breakout Wimbledon run by Sabine Lisicki, and a strong end of 2010/start of 2011 by Caroline Wozniacki, and you have a lot unfulfilled potential floating around the tour at the moment.
At the same time, despite all of that newness, it’s been an empire-strikes-back type of summer. Maria Sharapova has returned to the winner’s circle in Cincinnati and to a Wimbledon final, while Serena put her foot and serve down in Stanford and Toronto—so hard that she claimed a toe injury the following week.
Rather than being wide open, the WTA has a tentative shape coming into the New York, and a tentative new set of intros: It’s Serena and Maria, super-divas of the last decade, against the world. Let it begin.
Can a top seed be a dark horse as well? In Caroline Wozniacki’s case, I’m thinking yes—she's certainly not one of the favorites. Her season is in free fall as we speak, and she just demoted her coach to mere overbearing-father status. But if the recent examples of Andy Murray and Agnieszka Radwanska are evidence of anything, this could be a blessing in disguise. Each of those players won a tournament after splitting with a coach (in Radwanska’s case, her own overbearing father), and played more freely and easily doing it.
Wozniacki’s draw doesn’t hurt. The second seed in her quarter is Li Na, and you never know what’s coming next for her. The French Open champ has never been a smash on Broadway, and she hasn’t been lighting up the courts in the U.S. this summer. Svetlana Kuznetsova is the best athlete and most dangerous player—to her opponents, as well as herself—in the section, but after the season she’s had it's hard to see her putting together an extended run.
Who else? Andrea Petkovic, the 10th seed overall, isn't a bad choice. She’s had her best year so far, has beaten Wozniacki, and has a showwoman’s spirit that shines at Flushing Meadows—she also plays with an extreme lack of margin, but let’s not worry about that for now. Last year in New York, she brought the guns out in her Petko-dance; maybe she can do the same with those low-marging shots during the matches this time.
Potential American upset artist: Vania King
Sentimental favorite: Kimiko Date-Krumm
Here we get a glimpse of CBS’s Labor Day weekend hopes, a likely third-rounder between Azarenka, the top seed here, and Serena Williams, the 28th seed overall. Standing in Azarenka’s way are Gisela Dulko or Rebecca Marino; Williams, meanwhile, opens with Bojana Jovanovski, a talented young Serb who is a year or two away from doing something—besides introducing a Bjork-like derivation of the current WTA shriek, that is; art-pop fans should love it. Still, that’s not an easy opener for Serena.
At the bottom of the draw is Francesca Schiavone, another theatrical player who should flourish in New York. Also here: Jelena Jankovic, a past finalist and a runner-up last week in Cincy; Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova; Maria Jose Martinez Sanchez; and the somehow-seeded-16th Ana Ivanovic. Is it possible to speculate on her from one day to the next at this point? There have been signs of life with coach Nigel Sears so far.
Young American to catch, maybe for the first time: Sloane Stephens
Will the real Petra Kvitova please step up to the baseline? Or is there a real Petra Kvitova? The Wimbledon champ has had a perhaps predictable let down in North America, but she does get up for the big events. She announced herself by beating Dinara Safina at the Open a few years ago, and she looked very strong through the first weeks in both Melbourne and Paris this season, before putting in two strong weeks at Wimbledon.
Kvitova has also shown the ability to throw in horror-show matches on any given day—the bigger problem so far is that when she doesn’t have it, she really doesn’t have it, and there’s not much middle ground or potential for a turnaround. Still, on paper, she should handle her half of this quarter: Dulgheru, Niculescu, Craybas or Madison Keys, Safarova, Wickmayer, and the semi-surging Radwanska.
The bottom of this section is anchored by the tournament’s other favorite, and the player Kvitova smoked in the Wimbledon final, Maria Sharapova. She comes in looking sharp, with her spring momentum intact, but with her biggest question, her serve, unanswered and likely never to be answered. On Sharapova’s side are youngsters Heather Watson and Melanie Oudin, who knocked her off here two years ago, China’s Shuai Peng, a veteran whose career year has earned her the 13th seed, and the woman occasionally known in England as Julia Gorgeous—make that Goerges—who has been struggling.
First-round matches to watch: Sorana Cirstea vs. Yanina Wickmayer; Aravane Rezai vs. Flavia Pennetta
Young American to watch, likely for the first time: Madison Keys
Dark horse: Radwanska
Vera Zvonareva is the tournament’s second seed, but like its first, she comes in as something of a dark horse of her own. The Russian has shown signs of life after what has been a mostly deflating 2011—she seemed to hit her head against her own ceiling in the Melbourne semis, where she lost to Clijsters, and lost her upward momentum. On Zvonareva’s side are Lisicki, the previously unmentioned and mostly AWOL Venus Williams, and the 14th seed, Dominika Cibulkova.
Up top is Marion Bartoli, a much-improved player who remains too vulnerable on defense and to the hot hand of an opponent to build on her sporadic successes; Sam Stosur, who is on her best run of form since the spring of 2010 and should be OK as long as she doesn't have to play her personal kryptonite, Sharapova; and Nadia Petrova, who remains good for an upset but probably not a semifinal run.
The question mark is Venus. She’s won this twice, she reached the semis last year and had Clijsters on the ropes in that round, and she generally loses only to the eventual champion. After the injuries and the illnesses and the years, what does Venus have left? The semis are hers for the taking, but it seems like a lot for her to take at the moment.
Young American to watch: Christina McHale
Semifinals: S. Williams d. Petkovic; Sharapova d. Stosur
Final: S. Williams d. Sharapova