There hasn’t been an Open in which the stakes have been incredibly high for so many of the top players in a very long time.
We’ve got Serena, who showed the world at Wimbledon that, despite juggling the responsibilities of motherhood, she is very much still a contender. Can she tie Margaret Court’s record by winning Grand Slam No. 24 and prove that without a doubt she’s the greatest player of all time—not just in the Open Era?
We’ve got Sharapova, 16 months into her comeback from her infamous drugs ban, who has yet to push her ranking into the Top 20. Can she legitimize her pre-meldonium career by lifting a post-meldonium trophy under the bright lights of the Big Apple? (After all it is “prime time baby”.)
We’ve got Venus, whose sputtering, injury-plagued season at the age of 38 makes her seem further away from winning another Major than ever before. Can she prove that age is truly just a number by going all the way in New York?
We’ve got Angelique Kerber who aims to cement her place in the upper echelons of the game once more after fulfilling her Wimbledon dreams. And, we’ve also got previous Grand Slam winners Azarenka, Kvitova, and Muguruza, who thirst for redemption after fairly lackluster Grand Slam seasons.
Lastly, we’ve got World No. 1, Simona Halep, who is at the peak of her career. Can she separate herself from the rest of the pack and cement the kind of invisible aura of invincibility that has previously built several all time greats?
The stakes are set. Ready. Play.
For the sake of this preview, it’s a shame that the top half of the draw is by far the most loaded.
In this quarter, there are five current or former World No. 1s: the top seed, Simona Halep, Serena Williams, Venus Williams, Garbiñe Muguruza, and Karolina Pliskova. In addition, there are several dangerous floaters in the form of Svetlana Kuznetsova (2004 US Open Champion), Lucia Safarova (former French Open finalist), big-hitting, Maria Sakkari, and several talented rookies (Caroline Dolehide, Whitney Osuwige, and Sofia Kenin).
Halep’s opening match-up is no cakewalk. She’s slated to face giant-killer and six-time Grand Slam quarterfinalist, Kaia Kanepi, so she’ll have to hit the ground running. However, should she survive that test (and I think she will, given Kanepi’s inconsistencies), she has a more than manageable draw to reach the fourth round. She owns an 8-0 record against the highest seed in her section, Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, and even though their most recent encounter two weeks ago in Cincinnati went three sets, Halep should find confidence in the fact that was able to pull through that match even while dealing with a blister and running on empty.
The fourth round is when things get interesting. Lurking in the other half of her section are the Sisters Williams, who are projected to face off in the third round in what would be a popcorn match. Whether or not that match will come to pass is a different story.
While reaching the third round seems like a manageable ask for Serena, it’s a far more difficult ask for Venus. She opens against two-time Grand Slam champion Svetlana Kuznetsova, and should she win that contest, she will have to face the fearless Italian, Camila Giorgi, or reigning junior French Open champion, Whitney Osuigwe. However, Sveta has been in fine from this North American hard court season, winning the title in D.C. and pushing Svitolina to three sets in Cincinnati. Her style of game, blending heavy topspin, power, and athleticism, is exactly the brand of tennis that can reap its rewards against a player whose footwork isn’t up to snuff. As Venus’ knee has been wrapped since Stanford and Serena has appeared flat-footed on occasion (especially during her recent losses to Kerber, Konta, and Kvitova), I think Kuznetsova will crash the party and reach the fourth round.
On the other half of the quarter, we have two former No. 1s who have fallen from grace. Karolina Pliskova entered last year’s US Open as World No. 1 and by the fortnight’s conclusion, Garbiñe Mugurza walked away with the WTA’s crown. However, since last year’s Open, both players have tumbled from the summit, with Pliskova’s ranking at risk of falling out of the Top 10 without a good result in the City that Never Sleeps and Mugurza’s ranking having already plummeted to No. 12 following her first round defeat in Cincinnati.
Neither player’s recent results inspire much confidence in their chances to make a deep run in New York. Garbiñe enters this tournament short on match-play and nursing an arm injury while Pliskova is slated to face off against Maria Sakkari and her frustrating, Rafa-esque game in the third round (and we all remember what happened the last time these two faced off).
All in all, while this section appears loaded at first glance, there are too many asterisks hanging over everyone’s heads for me to back anyone other than the world No. 1 who has posted a 22-3 record since the start of Rome.
SEMIFINALIST PREDICTION: Halep
If there is a draw “winner” it has to be Sloane Stephens. While defending a title is never easy, let alone a Grand Slam, Sloane’s relatively easy draw should help relieve some of the pressure.
She opens against mother and World No. 81, Eveginy Rodina, and the highest seed in her half of her section is Daria Gavrilova. The biggest challenge she could face en route to the fourth round is Victoria Azarenka, however, after her back-to-back wins in Indian Wells and Miami, I believe that Sloane has surpassed her former rival. If the seeds hold up, she is set to play Elise Mertens, who is in the midst of her breakout season, in the fourth round. The two played a classic three-setter in Cincinnati two weeks ago, with Mertens coming out on top. Regardless, I think that Stephens’ appetite for big matches gives her the edge against the young Belgian.
The top seed in the other half of this quarter is Elina Svitolina, who is still looking to ender her Grand Slam hoodoo. Luckily for her, she has a manageable draw—the question is whether or not she’ll be able to hold her nerve in order to navigate her way through it. If not, players like Radwanska (her project second round opponent), Ekaterina Makarova, and Anastasia Sevastova will easily pounce upon the opportunity to sneak into the quarters.
SEMIFINALIST PREDICTION: Stephens
If there is one word to describe this quarter of the draw it has to be “opportunity”.
At least a dozen formidable players have fallen in this quarter of the draw like Caroline Garcia, Maria Sharapova, Jelena Ostapenko, Madison Keys, Dominika Cibulkova, and Angelique Kerber, and each of them share one thing in common: underwhelming hard court results leading up to the US Open.
While 6th-seed Caroline Garcia leads the top half of this section, she will certainly have her hands full during her opener against a resurgent Johanna Konta, who has recently defeated the likes of Serena Williams, Jelena Ostapenko, and Victoria Azarenka in the weeks leading up to the US Open. Should she survive that test, she’ll have to face Monica Puig, Kristina Mladenovic, and potentially Carla Suarez Navarro just to reach the fourth round.
The other half this section is no less jam-packed, filled with many intriguing first-round matchups, including Sharapova-Schnyder (who qualified for the US Open at the age of 39), Townsend-Anisimova, and Ostapenko-Petkovic.
In the bottom half of this quarter, the contenders are a bit more spread out, with last year’s finalist, Madison Keys sitting at the top and World No. 4, Angelique Kerber sitting on the bottom. While Keys the matchups in Keys’ section look like she’ll be able to breeze into the fourth round, Kerber will have to get through Alizé Cornet (who beat her in straight sets in Montréal) and potentially Dominika Cibulkova, who owns a formidable 5-7 head-to-head record with the German.
SEMIFINALIST PREDICTION: Keys
The fourth and final quarter of the draw is lead by two players with extremely contrasting seasons. While the fifth-seed, Petra Kvitova, has won a tour-leading five WTA titles in 2018, she’s only won two matches at the Grand Slams. In contrast, on the bottom of the quarter sits World No. 2 Caroline Wozniacki, who won the Australian Open at the beginning of the year, has only reached two tour-level semifinals since hoisting the Daphne Akhurst Memorial Cup.
While Kvitova’s results in Cincinnati and New Haven suggest that she’s primed for deep run, there are numerous young guns sprinkled in her section that stand in her path and can pose a serious threat. There’s Naomi Osaka, 2018 Indian Wells champion, who finally feels like she’s striking the ball again . There’s a resurgent Belinda Bencic who just recently reached the New Haven semifinals. There’s Daria Kasatkina, 2018 Indian Wells runner-up, who reached back-to-back quarterfinals at Roland Garros and Wimbledon earlier this year. And last, but certainly not least, Aryna Sabalenka, who won the title in New Haven after reaching the semifinals in Cincinnati (losing to Halep no less).
While Wozniacki’s draw is far less treacherous, the knee injury that she sustained in Cincinnati leaves me doubtful of her chances to make any real waves in New York. Conversely, the recent performance of KiKi Bertens, the second highest seed in this section, in Cincinnati certainly offers me reason to believe that she can make some noise at this year’s Open. While Bertens has had troubles in the past of choking during big matches, she is 11-1 against Top 10 opponents since Madrid. Her relatively easy draw should allow her to fall into a comfortable groove and build confidence leading into the tournament’s second week.
SEMIFINALIST PREDICTION: Bertens
Halep d. Stephens
Bertens d. Keys
Halep d. Bertens