NEW YORK—For years, virtually all tennis pundits have sung the same refrain before each women’s Grand Slam: “If Serena is on her game, she’ll win.” Once upon a time, Justine Henin might have been able to plausibly argue otherwise, but no more. After Serena’s mow-down of the field at this year’s Olympics, the statement rings truer than ever. Whatever anyone else does, however anyone else in the 128-woman field happens to be playing, the title resides on Serena’s strings.
At the same time, though, all is not lost for the rest of the women. The Games were a special case, and a special cause, for Serena, and it’s rare for her to maintain her absolute A-game for an entire tournament the way she did there. Remember that a few weeks earlier, on the same courts at Wimbledon, she was taken the distance by three different opponents. And a couple of Grand Slam winners from 2011, Li Na and Petra Kvitova, have had surprisingly strong summer hard-court seasons. Each looks ready to challenge for another major, and maybe even give Serena a run for her money, in New York.
Of course, while all human observers believe Serena to be the best women’s player in the world, the WTA computer still sees it otherwise. In its eyes, Victoria Azarenka remains No. 1. It’s not like she’s an undeserving candidate, though. Vika began the year like a comet, and hasn’t burned out yet. With a little luck, an Open title for her is well within reach.
Did she catch a break with the draw? Not precisely. In her quarter are defending Open champ Sam Stosur, Grand Slam titlist and hottest player on tour Li Na, three-time Open winner Kim Clijsters, and hard-hitting German Sabine Lisicki. Also, the first seed she could face would be Zheng Jie, never an easy out.
A tough lineup, no doubt about it, but Azarenka, who retired with knee trouble last week in Cincinnati, is still the player to beat here. She’s never lost a set in six matches against Stosur, and she’s won her last three matches against Li and her last two against Clijsters.
The biggest threat, and question mark, at the moment is Li. She recently hired Henin’s old coach, Carlos Rodriguez, and immediately reached finals against tough fields in both Montreal and Cincy, winning the latter. Rather than getting negative when she started poorly, a habit that plagued her in the past, Li rallied. She bombed out early at the Open last year, but we should see a different Li in New York in 2012.
Sleeper: Varvara Lepchenko. As long as this lefty American avoids Petra Kvitova, she should be OK.
Maria Sharapova is something of a question mark at the moment. She pulled out of her last two events with a stomach virus, which means she hasn’t had any hard-court matches this summer. Maybe worse, it means that her last experience in any match was her mortifying gold-medal loss to Serena in London. No amount of Sugarpova is going to wipe the taste of that away anytime soon.
Still, the break may do Maria some good. She’s played a lot of tennis this season, particularly since the start of the clay swing. She should like what she sees upon her return, as far as her draw goes. The first seed she could face is No. 27 Annabel Medina Garrigues, and the next two are Lucie Safarova and Nadia Petrova.
The other big name in this quarter is Kvitova. Typically an allergy-riddled disaster in North America, she made some inroads this summer, winning Montreal and reaching the semis in Cincy. Her draw looks manageable; the three seeds in Kvitova’s half are Wickmayer, Bartoli, and Pavlyuchenkova. The trick for her, most likely, will be to avoiding getting outfoxed by Sharapova in a third major this year.
One benefit of Serena’s return to dominance is that she has finally returned to the top of the rankings, which means some semblance of order is restored to the draws. She’s No. 4 now, which means she gets a quarter of her own, and none of the other top players have to worry about an early, and likely fatal, collision with her.
Unfortunately for the rest of the field, Serena happens to have a good draw herself. No Vika, no Petra, no Stosur, no Li, no Kim in her half. She’ll start with Coco Vandeweghe, a young American who competed well against her in Stanford this summer. The first seed Serena could face is Peng Shuai, and the next two are Kirilenko or Zakopalova—that’s not a bad path to the quarters.
On the other side, the top seed is Caroline Wozniacki, who does own a win over Serena this season. However, she also owns two losses, and a bagel set.
Also here: Ana Ivanovic, seeded, somehow, No. 12; and Ekaterina Makarova. The Russian upset Williams in Melbourne, and could face her in the third round here. I’m not betting on that happening again.
Semifinalist: S. Williams
Aga Radwanska: Remember her? She’s had it rough since making the Wimbledon final last month. First she went out in the opening round of the Olympics, then she took two drubbings at the hands of Li, 2 and 1 and 1 and 1, in Montreal and Cincy.
Radwanska remains No. 2 in the world, but nothing appears quite as easy for her as it might have a few months ago. The first seed she could face would be Jelena Jankovic, who took a set from her in each of their last two matches. After that, she could get Cibulkova or Shvedova, each of whom can put the ball past her.
More dangerous, though, is the second seed in this section, Angelique Kerber. The German has been on a tear for much of the last 12 months. She reached the semis here in 2011, the semis at Wimbledon this summer, the quarters at the Olympics, and the final in Cincy, pushing her seeding all the way up to No. 6. This week the German seems to have learned a lesson of tennis success: She pulled out of Dallas. When you can afford to withdraw from tournaments, you know you’ve made it.
Kerber’s draw is a good one, with one prominent exception: She could face Venus Williams in the third round. Kerber edged Venus in two tiebreakers in their last match, at the Olympics.
Crowd favorite: New Jersey’s Christina McHale
Sleeper: Tamira Paszek, who fought off five match points to beat Kerber in the final in Eastbourne in June. That’s a nightmare Kerber won’t want to have to relive.
Sleeper: Yaroslava Shvedova. An upset of Radwanska isn’t out of the question for this talented athlete.
First-round match-up between streaky up-and-comers: Barthel vs. Jovanovski
Semifinals: Azarenka d. Kvitova; S. Williams d. Kerber. Petra is the bigger hitter, but Vika is steadier from day to day and point to point. If Kerber beats Venus on her way to the semis, it will give Serena one more reason to send her packing. Serena may throw in a bomb of a match along the way, and she’s not a mortal lock for this title, but she has straight-setted Azarenka three times in 2012. What’s that old refrain again? If Serena’s at her best...
Final: S. Williams d. Azarenka