The Surprise Champion at the 2012 US Open

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     Amazingly, seven different women have hoisted the singles champion trophy at the last seven Grand Slam events. To refresh your memory, the septet includes Kim Clijsters, Li Na, Petra Kvitova, Samantha Stosur, Victoria Azarenka, Maria Sharapova and Serena Williams.

     Even more amazingly, six of the seven—plus dangerous heavy hitters Julia Goerges, Sabine Lisicki, Nadia Petrova and Marion Bartoli—find themselves in the super-duper top half of the US Open draw. Only Serena resides in the very weak bottom half.

     We all know that when 14-time major winner Serena reaches peak form, she is unbeatable. After grabbing her fifth Wimbledon title in July, she used that grass-court momentum to play like Superwoman at the London Olympics. Every facet of her power game, not just her ace-machine serve, thrashed all her opponents, especially No. 1 Azarenka 6-1, 6-2 in the semis and No. 3 Sharapova 6-0, 6-1 in the final.

     But Serena’s memorable summer hot streak will end badly in the noisy, smelly, windy and hot atmosphere of Flushing Meadows. The sensory overload along with the ghosts of traumatic memories past—her horrendous mental meltdowns in the 2009 semis and 2011 final—will cause hyper-emotional Serena to self-destruct again. How and why, my trusty crystal ball does not say.

     Sharapova should emerge as the finalist from the brutal top half of the draw. Healthy and back to the form that produced three major titles during 2004−08, the 25-year-old Russian has shined on all surfaces this year. She gained the Australian, Indian Wells and Miami finals on hard courts, grabbed the French, Rome and Stuttgart titles on clay, and captured an Olympics silver medal on grass. She lacks defensive skills, but with four weapons in her serve, serve return, forehand and backhand, she won’t be playing much defense on the relatively fast hard courts. With lots of evenly matched contenders, three-set matches should abound, and Sharapova thrives on them, as her 22−1 three-setter record during 2011−12 attests.

     Kvitova has yet to repeat the brilliant form she showed winning Wimbledon and the WTA Championships last year, but she’s the only woman to reach at least the quarters at all the majors this year. And with a new asthma inhaler to help her breathe better, the explosive but error-prone Czech should get to the quarters again.

     Azarenka is hampered by a knee injury and three-time US queen Clijsters is simply too short of match play (she’s played only 6 tournaments and 25 matches all season) to win her farewell tour event. Fired up by coach Carlos Rodriguez, whom she hired just two weeks ago, Li won Cincinnati, beating then-No. 3 Agnieszka Radwanska, Venus Williams and Angelique Kerber. As the inimitable, 30-year-old Chinese put it, “Husband is husband and coach is coach. Otherwise, it’s too tough for my mind.” After losing in the US Open first round the last two years, Li will certainly fare better this time. Her highly aggressive game is too erratic, however, to survive a tough draw and win it all.

     Wimbledon finalist Radwanska, seeded No. 2, has an easy draw, but her low-risk, low-error game, like Caroline Wozniacki’s, isn’t big enough to capture a major title. Stosur’s US Open triumph a year ago was well-earned, but would you put your money on a player who has won only three career titles in 10 years?

     The most improved player during the past 12 months is my pick to become the eighth straight different player to win a Grand Slam title. That would be Kerber, a late-blooming, 24-year-old German. “The sky is the limit for this young lady,” said Katrina Adams, a former doubles standout and now a Tennis Channel analyst.

     Kerber finished 2011 ranked No. 32, thanks mostly to reaching semis at the US Open, her breakthrough tournament. This summer she ambushed Serena 6-4, 6-4 to end Serena’s 19-match winning streak at Cincinnati. There she also defeated Kvitova before losing to Li. Kerber, like Sharapova, relishes long matches, racking up a superb 19-2 record in three-setters during 2011−12. She credits improved fitness for her rapid rise to No. 6.

     Kerber covers the court better than one might guess, considering her stocky, 5’8”, 150-pound physique. That’s because she positions herself well laterally and close to the baseline, and anticipates beautifully. Her deceptive, subtle game is more than the sum of its parts. A compact backswing and low center of gravity enable her to handle powerful shots with control and consistency. Far more than a Wozniacki-style retriever, Kerber creates openings with sharp, accurate crosscourt shots and forces enough errors to keep opponents honest. A slow second serve is her only weakness, although it’s mitigated by a tricky, swerving, lefty spin.

     “Kerber plays high-percentage tennis,” says ESPN analyst Mary Joe Fernandez, a smart, steady former player who reached the Australian and French finals. “She forces her opponent to beat her.” Beating Kerber has become increasingly difficult this year as she’s defeated five of the last seven Grand Slam champions.

     The US Open hasn’t featured a three-set women’s final since Steffi Graf, the greatest German player in history, outlasted Monica Seles in 1995. This year Kerber will win a three-set final, most likely over Sharapova.

 

THE END

     Paul Fein has received more than 30 writing awards and authored three books, Tennis Confidential: Today’s Greatest Players, Matches, and Controversies; You Can Quote Me on That: Greatest Tennis Quips, Insights, and Zingers; and Tennis Confidential II: More of Today’s Greatest Players, Matches, and Controversies. Fein is also a USPTA-certified teaching pro and coach with a Pro-1 rating, former director of the Springfield (Mass.) Satellite Tournament, a former top 10-ranked men’s open New England tournament player and No. 1-ranked Super Senior player in New England.

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