A year ago, entering the US Open, I wrote about how the stakes were as high as ever for the usual suspects on the WTA Tour.
Serena was seeking to tie Margaret Court’s elusive record by claiming her first Grand Slam post-pregnancy. Maria Sharapova was attempting to redeem herself following her doping suspension. Halep was looking to cement herself as the undisputed leader of a tour increasingly defined by parity. Former Grand Slam Champions Kerber, Kvitova, and Muguruza were seeking to re-establish themselves amongst the game’s elite.
After one revolution around the sun, many of these narratives remain intact. If anything, several new wrinkles have arrived.
Firstly, we’ve got the arrivals of several newcomers, led by World No. 1 & 2, Naomi Osaka & Ashleigh Barty who enter this year’s championships with the experience of lifting Grand Slam hardware. Furthermore, we’ve got the likes of even younger WTA rookies Bianca Andreescu and Sofia Kenin knocking on the door to the podium. Last, but not least, we’ve got the cloud of last year’s final hanging over the entire tournament.
Enough of introductions. Let’s dive deep into the matchups that the draw gods have given us.
If Naomi Osaka is feeling any nerves heading into her first attempt at defending a Grand Slam title (or any achiness in her knee for that matter), her draw is exactly the kind that could expose those anxieties.
Entering the first title defense of her career, earlier this year, at Indian Wells, Naomi threw the pressure off, explaining that she didn’t perceive the task as a title “defense” but more as an opportunity to win another title. However, after bowing out in the quarterfinals to Belinda Bencic, she admitted to feeling nervous.
Crippling anxiety has been a recurring theme for the young Japanese this season. After bowing out early in Madrid (again, to Belinda Bencic–take note), Naomi explained that the desire to secure top seeding at Roland Garros got to her. Even after claiming the top position, her nerves attributed to her sputtering loss to Katerina Siniakova in the third round of Paris. In her post-match presser, she explained that she has been thinking too much about “the calendar-year Grand Slam…”
If we’ve learned anything in the past year, it is that Naomi holds only the highest of expectations for herself. While these expectations give her the motivation necessary to reach the pinnacle of the sport, they can also send her reeling for months on end.
In an open letter to fans before the North American hardcourt swing, Naomi claimed to have rediscovered a love for the sport. Judging solely from her on-court demeanor in Toronto and Cincinnati this seems to be true. This revelation becomes all the more interesting when you consider the fact that last year Naomi penned a similar letter before pummeling her way through the field at Flushing Meadows.
However, this year, the situation is much different. Naomi is a two-time Grand Slam champion, World No. 1, and the uncomfortable circumstances of last year’s certainly linger.
Furthermore, Naomi’s draw pits her against many in-form players who will be swinging freely. Her first round opponent, Anna Blinkova, recently reached the quarterfinals of New York’s other tournament, the NYJTL Bronx Open, claiming a bagel set versus the tournament’s top seed, Wang Qiang, before taking a bow. In the second round, she could face Magda Linette, who, at the time of writing this article, is slated to play in the final of the Bronx Open on Saturday. Beyond that, she could face the tour’s newest superstar, Coco Gauff, in round three and if she is to move on to the fourth round she could face the player who has repeatedly had her number this season, Belinda Bencic. Also lurking in her section are Marie Bouzkova (recent Cincinnati semifinalist), Julia Pegula (2019 Washington, D.C. champion), and Annett Kontaveit, who recently beat Maria Sharapova in a three-set thriller and pushed Ash Barty to the brink last week.
The bottom half of this quarter is helmed by Kiki Bertens, who has firmly entrenched herself in the Top 10 after surging into the game’s elite at the tail end of last year. However, the only blemish on the Dutchwoman’s resume in the past year has been a deep run at a slam. She seemed primed to make a deep run in Paris only to be sabotaged by an untimely gastrointestinal virus. Unfortunately, her preparation for Open has been less-than-ideal, posting a 1-2 record on North American hardcourts (losing to Bianca Andreescu and Venus Williams respectively). However, her draw is more than manageable with the strongest competition she will have to face being slumping No. 9 seed Aryna Sabalenka who takes on former two-time US Open Finalist, Viktoria Azarenka in the first round.
SEMIFINALIST PREDICTION: Bertens
The second quarter provides two of the more interesting sections of the draw.
The top half is led by fourth seed, recent Wimbledon champion, and Romanian superstar, Simona Halep, and is bookended by breakout sensation, 2019 Rogers Cup Champion, and Romanian-born Canadian, Bianca Andreescu.
Despite retiring in her quarterfinal match against Marie Bouzkova in Toronto, due to an Achilles injury, Simona looked to be playing near her highest level during her titanic tussle against eventual Champion, Madison Keys, in Cincinnati.
She’s got the draw to make the second week, however, lying in wait will likely be Bianca Andreescu. Bianca will be riding a surge of momentum following her second seemingly out-of-nowhere run this year, claiming the title in Toronto and defeating the likes of Kiki Bertens, Karolina Pliskova, and Serena Williams in the process.
Ironically. it was after a hitting practice with Simona Halep in Toronto in 2017 that the young Canadian gained the confidence necessary to pursue a career in the sport (and look how successful that has already turned out). Should the Halep-Andreescu match up come to pass, it will be interesting to see who emerges the victor. It could signify the limits to Bianca’s potential (if she has any). Destiny seems to be on her side, but logic tells me that Simona still has the edge in that matchup.
While the top half is dominated by two marquee headliners, the bottom is an ultimate duke-out. With
It is led by fourth seed and recent Wimbledon champion, Simona Halep and is bookended by a section containing five grand slam champions with eight Grand Slam titles between them. Sloane Stephens. Svetlana Kuznetsova, Jelena Ostapenko, Garbiñe Muguruza. Only one will make the fourth round. The projected prize for the sole survivor of the bloodbath? A date with Petra Kvitova.
SEMIFINALIST PREDICTION: Simona Halep
Eagerly seeking to remove herself from the WTA’s shortlist of slamless No. 1’s, Karolina Pliskova leads this quarter of the draw. While the Czech’s big serve and booming groundstrokes make her a logical pick to win Wimbledon, the US Open has been the site of her biggest success. In 2016, she reached the Final by beating the sisters Willams in succession and seemed poised to raise the trophy before Kerber’s forehand down-the-line turned the tide of the match. In the ensuing years, she’s reached two quarterfinals and looks to build upon a solid season in New York.
Karolina leads the WTA’s hardcourt power rankings and she has a manageable draw. Nearby Karolina’s name on the drawsheet are Bernarda Pera and Jamie Brady, players who have experienced recent success during the Summer hardcourt swing. Additionally, she could face former Top 10 player Carolina Garcia, reigning French Open open Finalist Marketa Vondrousova, 2011 US Open Champion Sam Stosur, or a resurgent Johana Konta.
The other half of this section is led by recent Wimbledon semifinalist Elina Svitolina. However, her draw can be considered brutal at best. She opens against junior standout Whitney Osuigwe and could have to face the likes of Venus Williams, San Jose Champion Zheng Saisai, gold-medalist Monica Puig or big-hitting rookie Dayana Yastremska. The other side of this section lies recent Cincinnati champion and former US Open finalist, Madison Keys, and Sofia Kenin who made back-to-back Premier Mandatory semifinals in Toronto and Cincinnati.
SEMIFINALIST PREDICTION: Karolina Pliskova
While the fourth and final quarter is led by No. 2 seed, reigning Roland Garros Champion and recent World No. 1, Ashleigh Barty, all attention in this section falls upon the titanic match-up of Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova.
With twenty-eight Major titles between them, the duo remains the tour’s premier rivalry (albeit a one-sided one) even fifteen hours after the first matchup. Their first-round face-off will undoubtedly sell out Arthur Ashe.
While Serena is coming off of back-to-back finals at Wimbledon and the Rogers Cup, Sharapova is coming into the match with a 2-3 record since returning to tour from injury in Mallorca. However, despite all signs pointing to an outright beatdown, I think this match might be Maria’s best chance to beat Serena in fifteen years. Serena enters the match with a bad back and boatloads of pressure given the circumstances of last year’s final whereas Sharapova has nothing to lose. While I don’t think Sharapova has the form or fitness to win the tournament, I think she’s got the hunger necessary to exploit any and all nerves Serena might face upon returning to Ashe for the first time since “the incident”.
Beyond Serena & Maria, spoilers include the crafty Su-Wei Hsieh, giant-killer Karolina Muchova, 2018 semifinalist Anastasia Sevastova (who seemed to crumble under the pressure of being ten points away from attaining a Top 10 ranking in recent weeks), and former Wimbledon finalist Eugenie Bouchard.
Flying under the radar is Ashleigh Barty, who only weeks ago was the No. 1 ranked player in the world. In-form players she could face include Camila Giorgi (recent Washington, D.C. and Bronx Open finalist), Maria Sakkari (who has secured three top 10 wins in as many weeks), and a resurgent Lauren Davis. Also sitting in this section is 2016 champion Angelique Kerber, however, she seems to be out of sorts since returning to bottoming out in the second round of Wimbledon.
SEMIFINALIST PREDICTION: Ashleigh Barty
Halep d. Bertens
Pliskova d. Barty
Halep d. Pliskova