Serena Williams hasn't been to Flushing Meadows since 2009, but she enters the 2011 U.S. Open as a favorite to win the championship. She won in both Stanford and Toronto, and ended her pre-New York run as the winner of the U.S. Open Series. Yes, she was out for a year because of two surgeries and a serious illness, but she's back in a very big way.
The three-time U.S. Open champion should have no trouble getting to the third round (Bojana Jovanovski is the unlucky player who drew her in the first round), and then, she's likely to meet Victoria Azarenka. The two have an interesting history, which I won't go into here, and they last played in Toronto, where Williams had a straight-set win. Both players withdrew from Cincinnati--Azarenka because of a hand strain, and Williams because of a swollen toe. Also in Williams' quarter of the draw are Jelena Jankovic and Francesca Schiavone.
Top seed Caroline Wozniacki, who would theoretically meet Williams in the semifinals, has her work cut out for her. Daniela Hantuchova, Andrea Petkovic and French Open champion Li Na are all in that quarter, as are Tamira Paszek, Roberta Vinci and 2004 U.S. Open champion Svetlana Kuznetsova, all of whom (and especially Kuznetsova) can be difficult opponents. Wozniacki just posted a fourth consecutive victory in New Haven, which should give her a confidence boost, which she probably needs after crashing out early in both Toronto and Cincinnati.
2nd seed and 2010 runner-up Vera Zvonareva shares her quarter with Marion Bartoli, Sam Stosur, the injury-prone but dangerous Dominika Cibulkova, and Nadia Petrova. Dallas champion Sabine Lisicki and Venus Williams are in that quarter, too.
Maria Sharapova, also considered a favorite by many, has to contend with Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova and Carlsbad champion Agnieszka Radwanska. Radwanska, unfortunately, has recently experienced nerve problems in her right shoulder. Peng Shuai is in that quarter, too, but her hip problems are chronic. Finally, it's worth noting that Flavia Pennetta--once a major hard court threat--is also in the Sharapova quarter. Though Pennetta's post-shoulder injury career has been less than stellar, her match against Bartoli at Wimbledon showed that--on the right day--she can still be a very tough opponent.
If we look at the top players' performances during the U.S. hard court season, we see mixed results. Williams and Radwanska (despite her shoulder) were strong performers. Li, Wozniacki and Kvitova probably made their fans quite anxious; Kvitova was beaten two weeks straight by Andrea Petkovic. Sharapova won in Cincinnati in spite of herself, but is that kind of toughness good enough to get her a second U.S. Open trophy?
The majors are different from other tournaments--even other big tournaments. Physical stamina is required to play seven matches, and mental stamina is just as big a requirement. Attitude is another key factor. There are players who become "switched on" at majors, and with that in mind, we should expect significant improvements in the games of both Li and Kvitova, who tend to shine at really important events. Li won this year's French Open, but she has historically given her best performances on hard courts. Kvitova prefers a faster surface, but certainly has the game to play on any surface.
So many questions swirl around us before this year's U.S. Open begins: Can world number 1 Caroline Wozniacki survive the constant pressure placed on her for not having won a major, and can she win this one? Will Sharapova's errant ball toss be her undoing? Can Azarenka avoid illness and injury long enough to make it through to the second week? Has the rather shy Kvitova recovered from the shock of becoming a sports celebrity? Should we be paying more attention to Zvonareva?
Perhaps the question that swirls the most is: Can anyone beat Serena Williams? She's the betting favorite (11/8), followed by Sharapova (6/1), with Kvitova and Azarenka (5/1) coming in third. Li has 12/1 odds, and the odds for Wozniacki are 14/1. Williams' return to hard court form has been rapid and impressive. At the majors, she tends to get better as she goes along and the matches become more competitive, but even in less than great form, she generally knows just what to do in order to win.