The greatest road trip in sports comes to a conclusion in Flushing Meadows on August 27, when the U.S. Open begins
Who are the contenders?
Justine Henin--The world's number 1 player hasn't won the U.S. Open since her dramatic victory in 2003, when--cramping throughout much of the match--she defeated Jennifer Capriati in the semifinals in one of the most exciting matches I can recall (it lasted 3 hours, and Henin was down 5-3 in the second set, and 5-2 in the third; on 10 occasions, she was 2 points from defeat). Though afraid she would have to withdraw before the final, she went on to win the title, defeating Kim Clijsters, 7-5, 6-1.
Henin was the U.S. Open finalist last year, losing to an astonishingly in-form Maria Sharapova, who just couldn't do anything wrong the entire tournament. Henin has a lot going for her this year: Sharapova has suffered with a shoulder injury for much of the season and has often seen her serve suffer because of it, and Serena Williams has been out with a thumb injury since Wimbledon. Henin showed in the Rogers Cup final last weekend that she is still the most impressive player on the tour, and her chances of winning a second U.S. Open title are very good.
Maria Sharapova--The defending champion has had a troublesome season because of a shoulder injury that has never totally healed, but has healed enough for her to compete. And recently, she sustained a shin injury (for the second time) that put her out of competition. But she did manage to win the Acura Classic in San Diego in between injuries, and her play in San Diego was very impressive. If Sharapova's shin injury heals (it healed quickly the last time), she still has a good chance to defend her title.
Serena Williams--As of this writing, no one knows whether Williams will be at the Open. I suspect she will not, since she had to withdraw from Pilot Pen Tennis in New Haven this week. But on the off chance that she plays in Flushing Meadows, I make her a contender. She entered this year's Australian Open with no matches behind her at all, and pretty much blew everybody away. She can do that; she is Serena Williams.
Jelena Jankovic--Some say she doesn't have what it takes to win a Grand Slam tournament; I am not one of those people. Jankovic, who was on her way to beating Henin in the semifinals last year when she had a mental meltdown over a line call, is as gifted a tennis player as you will see on the tour. She needs to work on her serve, but the rest of her game ranges from very good to breathtaking. In seven tries, however, she has not beaten Henin.
Venus Williams--Williams' dramatic sweep of Wimbledon has led many to call her a contender in New York. We should remember, however, that Williams came dangerously close to going out in the early rounds of Wimbledon, and that when her forehand goes off, it goes way off. On the other hand, it is hard to count her out. I counted her out for Wimbledon, and I ate my words.
Ana Ivanovic--Did Ivanovic lose in her first Rogers Cup match because she was tired? Many say she did. She had just won the title in Los Angeles, and perhaps was too exhausted to compete well enough to defend her Rogers Cup title. But Ivanovic has also shown herself to be a streaky, though very much improved, player. With that wicked forehand, improved movement and new confidence at the net, Ivanovic can certainly win the U.S. Open.
The dark horses:
Anna Chakvetadze--There are darker horses than Chakvetadze, but she still seems a bit physically fragile. Chakvetadze has been ill for several weeks with a virus or cold, and had she not gotten sick, it is possible she would would have won more than one U.S. Open Series tournaments. Chakvetadze is kind of streaky, too, but she could make more of a breakthrough at any time.
Svetlana Kuznetsova--It seems odd to list 2004 U.S. Open winner Kuznetsova as a dark horse, but--as talented as she is--she has not been able to raise her game to a level that would make her a real contender. But her talent and her experience make her someone to consider.
Nicole Vaidisova--She has been out for a while with glandular fever, and hasn't had much match play lately. Were it not for that, she might be considered more of a contender by some. Vaidisova is undeniably talented, but she has yet to prove that she is tough enough to stick with it during the rough patches of a match.
Players worth watching:
Marion Bartoli--Following Bartoli's glorious Wimbledon run, things have gone downhill because of illness and injury, much to the disappointment of her fans. But even if she cannot repeat her Wimbledon phenomenon, Bartoli is always worth watching. She has had a very good season, and when she is on, she is razor-sharp.
Tatiana "I'm more French than Marion Bartoli" Golovin--Russian-born French player Golovin, in between taking swipes at her countrywoman, has been trying out Mats Wilander as her latest coach. The improvement in her game was evident in her semifinal match against Jelena Jankovic in Toronto. Golovin is much more aggressive and is moving better. Unfortunately, she has a history of ankle injuries, and you never know when she is going to go over on one of them.
Nadia Petrova--What to do about Petrova? She swept the clay courts last year, then suffered an injury while practicing for the French Open, and she hasn't been the same since. Petrova has had to deal with both injury and low motivation, about which she has been very candid. She is a very gifted player, however, despite not meeting her potential.
Daniela Hantuchova--She clawed her way back to the top 10, and she runs hot and cold, but she is usually worth watching.
Martina Hingis--Will Hingis even be at the Open? She thought her long-running hip injury had totally healed, but now both her hip and her back are giving her trouble. It pains me to list her as a player to watch, rather than a contender.
Sybille Bammer--Though she was taken out of Pilot Pen Tennis today by Eleni Daniilidou, Bammer has been playing quite well lately.
Lucie Safarova--Safarova has been a bit streaky lately, but her performance at Wimbledon was quite impressive, and the second set of her match against Jelena Jankovic was the best set of women's tennis I've seen all year.
Sania Mirza--Back from an injury layoff with greatly improved skills, Mirza could be dangerous at the U.S. Open.
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