ICYMI, Barty triumphed in Cincinnati. Hear her post-match speech:

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The men’s event at the US Open has a clear favorite in Novak Djokovic. The women’s event has a clear Top 2 in Ash Barty and Naomi Osaka. Barty, the world No. 1, has had the better season, winning Wimbledon, Miami, and Cincinnati, among other titles. Osaka, the world No. 3, has had the better history at the Open, where she’s a two-time champion, and she has been the class of the hard-court game in recent years.

It would be nice to see Barty and Osaka meet in the final Grand Slam match of 2021, with Player of the Year honors on the line, wouldn’t it? Getting there won’t be easy for either of them. There are a lot of hoops for top players to jump through in any Grand Slam women’s draw these days. Let’s see which ones might stand in Osaka’s or Barty’s way.

Barty is 40-7 on the year, picking up five trophies along the way.

Barty is 40-7 on the year, picking up five trophies along the way.

First Quarter

Barty would seem to have had the ideal preparation, confidence-wise, for the US Open. She comes in having just won in Cincinnati, and she’s probably still walking on air a little after her Wimbledon run last month. Yet she’s never been past the fourth round in New York, and there’s quality opposition in her quarter. Her path forward could look like this: Vera Zvonareva, Clara Tauson, Veronika Kudermetova, Jen Brady, and Iga Swiatek.

Yet that list doesn’t do justice to the talent in this section: Also here are Karolina Muchova, Belinda Bencic, Jessica Pegula, Anett Kontaveit, and the woman Barty just beat in the Cincy final, Jil Teichmann.

First-round match to watch: Muchova vs. Sara Sorribes Tormo

Semifinalist: Barty

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Five years after making her major final debut in Queens, Pliskova got back to that stage at Wimbledon in July.

Five years after making her major final debut in Queens, Pliskova got back to that stage at Wimbledon in July.

Second Quarter

What does Karolina Pliskova want? Or, maybe I should say, what does she expect from herself? She’s always had the game to win majors, but she hasn’t always fought for them like her life depended on it—losing has never seemed to be a disaster for her. Could that change, now that she tasted the possibility of a Wimbledon title, before falling just short to Barty, a few weeks ago?

Pliskova was also close to winning a US Open, in 2017, and she has played well at the two tune-ups in Canada and Cincy this month. She can go far again in New York, but she’ll have to keep that focus, because there are players here who can knock her out on an off day. Pliskova might get a test right off the bat from local fan favorite Caty McNally, and she could face Amanda Anisimova, Paula Badosa, or Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova on her way to the quarterfinals. Once there, she could conceivably play Petra Kvitova, 2019 finalist Bianca Andreescu, or Maria Sakkari.

First-round match to watch:

  • Pliskova vs. McNally
  • Sakkari vs. Marta Kostyuk

Semifinalist: Pliskova

Kerber, who topped Pliskova to claim the 2016 US Open crown, has won 14 of 16 matches. Both losses have come at the hands of Barty.

Kerber, who topped Pliskova to claim the 2016 US Open crown, has won 14 of 16 matches. Both losses have come at the hands of Barty.

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Third Quarter

Naomi Osaka typically lifts her game at the hard-court Slams, but she’s not starting at a very high level at the moment. This summer, she has lost in the third round at the Olympics to Marketa Vondrousova, and the fourth round in Cincinnati to Jil Teichmann. That doesn’t scream US Open champion. But Osaka should have the crowd behind her, and she’ll be playing in Ashe Stadium, which will be an intimidating arena for her early-round opponents. She’ll start against Marie Bouzkova, but her stiffest competition will likely come in the fourth round, against Coco Gauff or Angelique Kerber, or the quarterfinals, where she could play Simona Halep.

Good first-round matches abound in this section:

  • Halep vs. Camila Giorgi
  • Kerber vs. Dayana Yastremska
  • Madison Keys vs. Sloane Stephens
  • Gauff vs. Magda Linette

Semifinalist: Kerber

Having missed last year's US Open, Krejcíkova will only have points to gain in her main draw debut.

Having missed last year's US Open, Krejcíkova will only have points to gain in her main draw debut.

Fourth Quarter

And how about Aryna Sabalenka? She was just a break of serve away from reaching the Wimbledon final last month, and if anything, hard courts are a better surface for her. But as in every quarter of this draw, there’s plenty that stands between the No. 2 seed and a semifinal spot. That includes French Open champion Barbora Krejcíkova, last year’s Open finalist Victoria Azarenka, Garbiñe Muguruza, Sabalenka’s former doubles partner Elise Mertens, and two of the summer’s toughest outs, Ons Jabeur and Danielle Collins. This is anyone’s quarter.

First-round matches to watch:

  • Muguruza vs. Donna Vekic
  • Jabeur vs. Alizé Cornet
  • Collins vs. Carla Suarez Navarro

Semifinalist: Krejcíkova

Semifinals: Pliskova d. Barty; Kerber d. Krejcikova

Final: Pliskova d. Kerber