2006 U.S. Open champion Maria Sharapova faces countrywoman Maria Kirilenko in the first round of the U.S. Open. And while neither Russian Maria has been quite the same lately for various (and maybe, in one case, unknown) reasons, a Kirilenko who is "on" is a dangerous opponent on a hard court. Sharapova has won most of their matches, though Kirilenko pulled a big upset in 2010 when she took Sharapova out of the Australian Open in the first round.
Sharapova is in the Simona Halep quarter of the draw, but before she even gets to Halep, she has other potential obstacles in her way, including Andrea Petkovic, Caroline Wozniacki, Venus Williams, and Garbine Muguruza. Maybe even Sabine Lisicki, though I really don't see 'Pova losing that one. Of course, Halep has those obstacles, too. The fourth quarter is filled with dangerous players, including New Haven finalist (and who knows?--maybe champion) Magdalena Rybarikova, Camila Giorgi, Sara Errani, and Kirsten Flipkens.
But let me put myself back into some kind of reasonable order. The first quarter is the Serena Williams quarter, and Williams has to hit the ground running by playing Taylor Townsend in the opening round. Townsend may or may not give Williams a good warmup. 2011 champion Sam Stosur is in that quarter, and it's likely the two will meet. Coco Vandeweghe, who starts against Donna Vekic (maybe not an easy start) is also is in the Williams quarter, as is Flavia Pennetta, and--perhaps most important--Ana Ivanovic. Both Stosur (even though she got slapped out of New Haven tonight by Kvitova) and Ivanovic have revived their careers in recent weeks, and both like hard courts.
Kvitova leads the third quarter, and has a potentially challenging first round against Kiki Mladenovic. 2004 champion Svetlana Kuznetsova, Vika Azarenka, Dominika Cibulkova, and Ekaterina Makarova are all in that quarter, as are upstart Elina Svitolina and career-reviving Barbora Zahlavova Strycova. Upset specialist Sorana Cirstea lurks there, also, and--oh, yes, Genie Bouchard. What a quarter!
Finally, there's the third quarter, which features Aga Radwanska and Angelique Kerber as the anchors. Jelena Jankovic, Lucie Safarova and Alize Cornet are in that quarter, too, as is Sloane Stephens (Stephens starts against Annika Beck). Potentially dangerous floater Kurumi Nara is also in the Radwanska quarter.
In a "normal" season, we'd be looking at Azarenka to challenge Serena Williams as the winner, but not this year. Williams, seeking her 18th major, comes in as the favorite by virtue of being the top seed, the U.S. Open Series winner, and well, Serena Williams. Williams has yet to win a major this year, which seems to make it even more likely that she will play at her top level and be unbeatable in this, her last chance to win a big one in 2014.
There are arguments, however, to made for the likes of Stosur, Ivanovic, Kvitova (who has never gotten past the round of 16), and Halep. Radwanska and Wozniacki cannot be totally ruled out, nor can Kerber. The U.S. Open tends to be either really great or really strange (in a "not great" way) for Williams. She is the two-time defending champion, so the last two years have been of the "really great" variety for her.
The top seed is headed for a potential ("potential" being the key word here) contest with either Kvitova or Bouchard in the semifinals. On paper, that looks like a good draw for Serena, and--if Bouchard gets to the semifinals--I think it's still a good draw. Should Kvitova get that far--and the humidity hasn't put her asthma into full tilt--it could be a bit tricky.
No woman has won the U.S. Open more than twice consecutively since Chris Evert won it four times in a row from 1975 through 1978. Several women have won the Open twice in a row but could go no farther. Will Serena Williams break that pattern?
As for Sharapova, one doesn't like to say that she cannot win the U.S. Open. At least, this "one" doesn't. To win it, the Russian would have a tough job, but she thrives on tough jobs, and who knows?