Previews: U.S. Open Women's Semifinals

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NEW YORK—This past weekend I wrote a post about how the women own the first weeks at Grand Slams these days, while the men save their drama for the second week. The WTA gives us competitive matches and startling upsets to start the event; the ATP brings marquee value to close it. As a system for keeping tennis fans entertained over an extended period of time, it works pretty well.

The problem for the women with this scenario is that, by the final few days, it can leave them with more blowout matches than big-name attractions. Unfortunately, this also happens to be the time when more people are tuning in, and more media are writing stories. Stories, inevitably, about how the women can’t hold up their end of the celebrity-player bargain these days.

For nine days, this year’s U.S. Open appeared to be heading in much the same direction. By the end of week one, half of the women’s Top 10 seeds remained, while nine of the Top 10 men were still alive. By Tuesday, Maria Sharapova and her fellow celebrity player Genie Bouchard were gone. Meanwhile Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic, and Andy Murray—as well as celebrity entertainer Gael Monfils—all lived to play another day. 

Despite the early carnage, though, the “Who are these people?” women’s narrative never quite materialized. Ekaterina Makarova and Shuai Peng won’t drive ratings in the States, but Serena Williams, making her first semifinal Slam appearance of 2014, certainly will. And so will her friend in the other half, Caroline Wozniacki, a former finalist and current crowd favorite at Flushing Meadows. The Open has been the scene of Caro’s reemergence as a top-level tennis player. If she were finally, suddenly, to win her first Slam, it would be one of the stories of the season.

But while Peng and Makarova will be seen as foils in their semifinals, there are plenty of reasons to watch these two Slam-semifinal rookies for their own sakes. At 26, Makarova finally seems to believe she’s as good as her record; she has wins over Serena, Azarenka, Radwanska, Kvitova, and Bouchard. At 28, Peng has resolved a dispute with the Chinese government over control of her career and banished past thoughts of retirement from her mind. Makarova says she likes to “stay in the shade,” publicity-wise, and Peng speaks in a near whisper when she’s interviewed. Each is refreshingly low-key and un-branded. And each is fulfilling their potential as players for the first time. 

Do they have a chance of spoiling the CBS party this weekend as well? Here’s a quick breakdown of the semifinals, which will be played on Friday afternoon.

*****

Caroline Wozniacki [10] vs. Shuai Peng

Wozniacki leads their head-to-head 5-1; her last loss to Peng was seven years ago. Caro is also playing as well as she has in three years, and she was in complete control of her last match, a near-double bagel over Sara Errani. But this will be a very different match from that one, and likely very different from her previous win, over Maria Sharapova. Peng has laid waste to the field so far with her two-handed angles and enthusiastic aggression—she’s yet to drop more than four games in a set.

As well as Wozniacki has been playing, the match will still reside mostly on Peng’s racquet. Can she keep up her assault for as long as required against Caro’s resistance?

Winner: Wozniacki


Serena Williams [1] vs. Ekaterina Makarova [17]

Is it a coincidence that the last two times Makarova has played Serena, she has been forced to endure a bagel second set? Probably not. That’s the kind of price an opponent tends to pay once she’s beaten Serena. Makarova did it at the 2012 Australian Open in stunningly easy fashion, 6-2, 6-3. Granted, Serena was still in comeback mode, and that comeback that wouldn’t achieve lift-off until the clay-court season that spring. But as shown above, this doesn’t mean Makarova can’t legitimately pull off a big upset. She hits with power and depth; the fact that she’s left-handed gives opponents a different look; and she’s not as hit-and-miss as her fellow lefty Slam contender Petra Kvitova.

That said, Serena has gone Peng one better by not giving up more than three games in any set so far. Serena remains Serena, and she has had a refuse-to-lose look about her here. In her eyes, this is her last chance to redeem her 2014.

Winner: Williams


Peter Bodo and Nick Bollettieri discuss the women's semifinals, and the men's semifinal between Kei Nishikori and Novak Djokovic, from Flushing Meadows:

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