Sunday, August 30, 2015

If pressure really is a privilege...

...then Serena Williams is the most privileged woman in New York right now. The subject of constant commentary, major magazine covers and feature stories, the world number 1 is poised to win the Grand Slam, one of the few achievements in tennis that she's never pulled off. Of course, few have. (Commentators have been cheapening the accomplishment lately by calling it the Calendar Year Grand Slam, but there'll be none of that talk here. There will also be no "match Steffi" talk, since I find these comparison invalid.)

Just how "privileged" is Serena? Only Williams and her team know that. But it's fair to say that when you are already holding all four majors at the same time and "all you have to do" is win the U.S. Open again, you're feeling some heat, no matter how much experience you have.

Serena Williams is, of course, somewhat of an escape artist. She does get into trouble at the majors, but--as long as the trouble brews during the second week--she finds remarkable ways to get herself right back out of trouble. Common wisdom dictates that if you want to get Serena out of a major, you better do it during the first week when she hasn't quite "played herself into" the event yet.

And that may well be the key for her preparation in Flushing Meadows--to "play into" the event at a faster pace than she prefers. Mind you, a bad day for Serena is still better than a good day for other players. But she isn't unbeatable: Ask Garbine Muguruza. Or Alize Cornet. Like every other player on the tour, Williams' serve can suffer when she isn't feeling quite right, and that can open a window, albeit just a crack, for an ambitious opponent. Williams can also be a little clumsy with her feet, and that, too, is more likely to occur if she's feeling "off."

Still, it's hard to imagine the world number one not completing the 2015 Grand Slam, probably with an ace ("You know how I like to do it") if she's serving for that last match. Winning the Grand Slam simply suits Serena Williams, who is one of the world's greatest athletes, both physically and mentally.

However, there really will be "other things" going on at the U.S. Open, including doubles, mixed doubles and wheelchair competition. And--oh, yes--other women will be competing to win the singles trophy. Play won't start until Monday, but there's already a lot to talk about, beginning with the U.S. Open Series.

Karolina Pliskova, by virtue of points, won the series, though she failed to win any of the U.S. Open Series events. To make this distinction even a bit more awkward, Pliskova has yet to get past the third round of a major. She thrives at regular events, not so much at really huge ones (kind of the anti-Sloane, anti-Genie). On the other hand, Pliskova's star is still in "rising" mode and she could have a bigger breakout at any time.

Angelique Kerber completed her 2015 all-surface-all premier run by winning Stanford, Belinda Bencic won the Rogers Cup, defending champion Serena Williams won Cincinnati, and Petra Kvitova won a third New Haven title yesterday. Kvitova, showing up in Scary Petra form, beat friend and countrywoman Lucie Safarova in three sets. Notable, of course, is Simona Halep, who had to retire in the Toronto final because she was both injured and sick. Halep also reached the Cincinnati final.

Injury and physical vulnerability, as always, are big factors at the U.S. Open. Victoria Azarenka, who has played some of her best tennis in Flushing Meadows, is once again struggling with injury. Former champion Maria Sharapova has some leg issues, Simona Halep can be physically fragile, and Petra Kvitova's asthma flares in the humid weather. 2014 runner-up Caroline Wozniacki still has knee problems. All five of these women are theoretical contenders for the title, but their ability to remain physically stable for two weeks is in question. Of the five of them, Halep is probably the least vulnerable.

There are a lot of players to watch this year. Aga Radwanska is looking like her old self again, Angelique Kerber is a definite threat, as is French Open runner-up Lucie Safarova. Belinda Bencic has moved to the front of the line of the rising stars and could make a deep run. She is joined by an ever-improving group of players consisting of the likes of Elina Svitolina, Anna Karolina Schmiedlova, Lesia Tsurenko, Karolina Pliskova, Daria Gavrilova, and Garbine Muguruza (though Muguruza has been in a slump lately).  Veteran Flavia Pennetta tends to do quite well at the U.S. Open, and now is as good a time as any for Timea Bacsinszky to pick up her winning ways again; I'm kind of expecting her to do so.

Venus Williams, Alize Cornet, Madison Keys, Kiki Mladenovic, Jelena Jankovic, Sloane Stephens, and Dominika Cibulkova should also be taken seriously, and there are a number of upset specialists who will be on hand to turn the entire draw on its head. And of course, you never know quite when Ekaterina Makarova will strike, but it's generally at a major.

Four former champions will be part of the competition: Serena Williams (6 titles), Venus Williams (2 titles), Svetlana Kuznetsova (1 title), and Sam Stosur (1 title).

Of note in the Williams (1) quarter
Sloane Stephens
Madison Keys
Aga Radwanska
Belinda Bencic
Venus Williams
Karolina Pliskova
Lurking: Mirjana Lucic-Baroni

Of note in the Sharapova (3) quarter
Daria Gavrilova
Kiki Mladenovic
Svetlana Kuznetsova
Elina Svitolina
Ekaterina Makarova
Jelena Jankovic
Dominka Cibulkova
Ana Ivanovic
Lurking: Genie Bouchard

Of note in the Wozniacki (4) quarter 
Petra Kvitova
Anna Karolina Schmiedlova
Andrea Petkovic
Garbine Muguruza
Sara Errani
Flavia Pennetta
Lurking: Aleksandra Krunic

Of note in the Halep (2) quarter
Lucie Safarova
Lesia Tsurenko
Vika Azarenka
Angelique Kerber
Timea Bacsinszky
Camila Giorgi
Alize Cornet
Lurking: Barbora Strycova

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