Sunday, August 28, 2011

Lights, Cameras... ACTION: Us Open Women's Preview

Serena Williams is the heavy favorite heading into this year's US Open, but she'll be tested early and often.

She's Seeded 28th at the US Open, but Serena Williams staked her claim as the "real" No. 1 in the world this summer, when she went about her business with aplomb, dispatching some of the world's greatest players (Sharapova, Lisicki, Stosur, Bartoli, etc...) en route to her first two WTA titles on U.S. soil since 2009.

The general consensus is that Williams was just warming up this summer, and after cutting her Cincinnati appearance short due to a toe tantrum, odds are that the three-time US Open champ is just now putting the finishing touches on her fitness level and fine-tuning her "A" serve so that it's in "A+" form when the US Open begins.

So what does this mean for the rest of the field? A crew of contenders led by 7 former Grand Slam champions (Sharapova-3, Kuznetsova-2, Venus-7, Schiavone, Ivanovic, Kvitova and Li) is diluted only by the loss of two-time defending champion Kim Clijsters, who withdrew due to an abdominal injury. In other words, there is not just depth in the draw—there's also some seriously talented players with the chance to do some seriously grave damage to Serena's quest for her 14th Grand Slam title.

As much as it feels like it's Serena's tournament to win or lose, there are more than a few women who will be doing their best to prove that there is no such thing as a lock at any WTA event—Slam or Not—in 2011.

Here is a look at the women's draw, complete with picks:

Wozniacki's Quarter:

Caroline Wozniacki, fresh off her tour-leading 6th WTA title of the year and a big fat smooch with her new squeeze (Pro golfer, Rory McIlroy), is now ready to face the skeletons in her Slamless closet. It's been a great year for Wozniacki in terms of titles and rankings, but she has been thrice crestfallen at the slams, and as a result her legitimacy has been brought into question repeatedly.

Expect more of the same in New York, as more experienced and more proven competitors like Svetlana Kuznetsova and Li Na will look to capitalize on their experience to advance from this quarter. Also lurking is a steadily improving Andrea Petkovic, who has already made her first two Slam quarterfinals this year and is hungry to go deeper. On paper her chances look good, but a knee injury sustained in Cincinnati could hamper her progress.

Pick: Li

Azarenka's Quarter:

Azarenka suffered a major setback in New York last year, when she had to retire vs. Gisela Dulko in the 2nd round due to a concussion-related malady that was exacerbated by the sweltering N.Y. heat. Her second round should be easier this year, but it's the third round that Azarenka will need to worry about the heat.

Having drawn the short straw at this year's draw ceremony, Azarenka is slated to face Serena in the third round this year, with the winner sure to be elevated to favorite status by the end of week 1.

Other dangerous names jaywalking in this part of the draw are Francesca Schiavone (playing better lately), Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, Jelena Jankovic (fresh off a revival in Cincy), Ana Ivanovic (you never know, right?) and Shahar Peer.

Pick: Serena

Sharapova's Quarter:

Ooh, who isn't getting excited already about another mouth watering high-stakes affair between Maria Sharapova, who has been nothing but superb this year, and Petra Kvitova, the Wimbledon champion?

But hang on a second, not so fast.

Kvitova has taken a step back since Wimbledon, winning only two of four matches, and getting blitzed by Andrea Petkovic in both her losses. All that said, Kvitova has proven to be a big match player, so maybe her recent duds will have no bearing once she steps foot on another Grand Slam stage.

This quarter of the draw also features double-fisted Shuai Peng, who reached her career-high ranking just last week (and also became the second-highest ranked Chinese player of all-time), along with Flavia Pennetta, Julia Goerges, Yanina Wickmayer, Lucie Safarova and the ever opportunistic Agnieszka Radwanska (if she can get by her kid sister in the first round).

And if you believe in miracles, Melanie Oudin is also in this quarter. Emphasis on miracles, not B-E-L-I-E-V-E.

Pick: Kvitova

Zvonareva's Quarter:

This quarter is as close to a pick 'em as you can get. Lisicki? Sure. Bartoli? Why not. Stosur? I can see it. Cibulkova? It's possible. Mchale or Robson? Okay, now I'm getting carried away, but you get my point. There are a lot of talented players in this quarter, and while Zvonareva was a finalist last year, Lisicki is probably the hottest player at the moment, while Marion Bartoli has been the most consistent all year.

Maria Kirilenko and Nadia Petrova will also be out to make a charge if a path clears, as will Venus Williams.

Pick: Bartoli

Semis: Kvitova over Bartoli
Semis: Serena over Li

Finals: Serena over Kvitova

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