The last Grand Slam that the women played, at Wimbledon, was wildly unpredictable. As this one begins, though, the possibilities seem narrow, and the title contenders few—in fact, only two plausible winners come to mind. That’s due to a combination of a couple of things: Maria Sharapova’s withdrawal, sugar and all, from the tournament; and the three-set duel that Serena Williams and Victoria Azarenka staged this past weekend in Cincinnati. As far as recent form goes, no one is in Serena’s and Vika’s league at the moment. If one of them loses, the other becomes the heavy favorite. If both go out, welcome to Wimblegeddon, Part II. (If it happens, we’ll have to come up with a U.S. Open-themed name for it—the Flushing Flush?)
What we have, then, is rigid order bordering on utter chaos. Here’s a draw-day look at which one it might end up being.
For the first time since the 2012 Australian Open, Serena Williams doesn’t come into a Grand Slam as the overwhelming favorite. She’s the favorite, don’t get me wrong, but after her losses to Sabine Lisicki at Wimbledon and Azarenka in Cincy, her opponents have reason to hope. Even as she has dominated the sport for the last year and a half, Serena has struggled with her nerves and emotions, and occasionally succumbed to them. Against Lisicki and Azarenka, she uncharacteristically failed to finish off third sets where she had the lead.
Serena will start with a fairly difficult first-round opponent, in former French Open champion Francesca Schiavone, though Williams just beat the Italian 3 and 2 two weeks ago in Toronto. Also near her are 23rd seed Jamie Hampton; Yaroslava Shvedova, who extended her to 7-5 in the third at Wimbledon last year; 29th seed Magdalena Rybarikova; and, last but not least, 15th seed Sloane Stephens. Sloane has played some decent tennis this summer, recording a win over Sharapova in Cincy and reaching the quarters in New Haven. She’s made the fourth round or better at all three majors in 2013, though this time she might have a tough second-rounder against Urszula Radwanska. Baby Rad beat Sloane this spring in Indian Wells, 3 and 4.
Angelique Kerber is the top seed in the other half, though the German has suffered through something of a sophomore slump after her stellar 2012. She's down to No. 10 in the rankings and has reached just one quarterfinal since May. She could have her hands full in the second round with Canada’s Eugenie Bouchard.
Also here: Venus Williams. She opens against 12th seed Kirsten Flipkens, and is in Kerber’s half.
Question Mark: Jamie Hampton. Since her run to the final in Eastbourne, the American is just 3-4. What happened to the home cooking on hard courts? Hampton begins against Spain’s Lara Arrubarrena, and could play Stephens in the third round.
Semifinalist: S. Williams
In which Li Na and Agnieszka Radwanska will try to play their third Grand Slam quarterfinal of 2013. It would also be the rubber match, as Li won in Australia and Radwanska returned the favor at Wimbledon.
It might be a tough ask for Aga this time. She withdrew from a match against Li last week in Cincinnati to attend her grandfather’s funeral; that won’t be an easy turnaround in New York. She starts against Silvia Soler-Espinosa. More ominous is a possible fourth-round rematch of her crushing Wimbledon semifinal loss to Sabine Lisicki.
As for Li, she comes in having acquitted herself well in a defeat to Serena in Cincinnati, a match in which she attempted to experiment with some serve and volley. We’ll see if it went well enough in the sticks to be ready on Broadway. Last year Li, who starts against Olga Govortsova, came to the Open on a roll only to be upset by Laura Robson. The two could play again in the third round.
Also here: Sorana Cirstea, finalist in Toronto, and Monica Puig, who plays comeback kid Alisa Kleybanova.
First-round match to watch: Jelena Jankovic vs. Madison Keys
Semifinalist: Li Na
As in the men’s draw, this is the wild west section. With Errani and Wozniacki as the two top seeds, there’s no sheriff in town, either. The Italian made the semis here last year, but she didn’t get that far in either of the warm-up events this time. She’ll start with Ayumi Morita and might get her countrywoman, Flavia Pennetta, in the second round.
As for Wozniacki, she may have the most fortunate draw of any player—the other seeds in her half are Zakopolova, Vesnina and Vinci. But that may not mean a whole lot. Caro lost to Jovanovski at Roland Garros and Cetkovska at Wimbledon.
First-round match between players with better games than demeanors: Zakopolova vs. Hsieh
First-round match between a current Next Big Thing and a former Next Big Thing: Vekic vs. Duque-Marino
The last two years at the U.S. Open, Victoria Azarenka has lost high-quality matches to Serena Williams. But this past weeked in Cincy she turned that around and edged Serena at the finish line. Will it make a difference in New York?
A deep run in Queens does look probable for Vika. She starts against a solid ball-striker in Germany’s Dinah Pfizenmaier, but the next highest seed in Azarenka’s half is No. 13 Ana Ivanovic. Dominika Cibulkova, who has beaten Azarenka and won a title in Stanford this summer, is also in the vicinity.
Heading things up in the other half of this section is Petra Kvitova. The Czech, an asthmatic, has famously flamed out in the humidity here, and she only just reached her first semifinal of the summer in New Haven. Kvitova will begin against Misaki Doi and could get a test from either Jovanovski or Petkovic in the second round.
Sleeper: 2011 champ Sam Stosur. The Aussie beat Vika for the title in Carlsbad earlier this month, and they played a classic quarterfinal at Flushing last year. They could be headed for another in 2013.