What’s the most compelling storyline at US Open 2014? Serena Williams’ quest for an 18th Grand Slam title that would put her on a par with Evert and Navratilova? Maria Sharapova’s burning desire to win a second major trophy in a season for the first time her career? Simona Halep’s bid to complete a remarkable, nigh-on unprecedented transformation from nervy-mid-level counterpuncher to Grand Slam champion? This year’s event is not short on intrigue, and will no doubt offer some unforeseen drama once play gets underway. Until then, all we can do is look at the somewhat uneven draw and speculate.
Check out the Full Draw Here: US Open 2014 Draw
Serena’s opening match in New York will attract maximum interest: she’s playing one of the USA’s most promising newcomers, Taylor Townsend. Just 18 years of age, Townsend is a vibrant personality off the court and an explosive presence on it, an imaginative, hard-hitting, net-rushing player who clearly loves the sport. Can she beat Serena? No. But she’ll enjoy her moment on the big stage and will do enough to show that the future is bright for American women’s tennis.
Once the media blitz that accompanies that first round match dies down, Serena should make fairly low-key progress to the last 16. Neither compatriot Vania King nor 34-year-old Francesca Schiavone has the tools to consistently trouble her in round two, and her third round opponent is slated to be 32nd seed Shuai Zhang, to whom she’s never lost a set. Mona Barthel or Varvara Lepchenko could sneak through in Zhang’s place, but Serena won’t be fazed by them either.
If the seedings hold into the second week, Serena will play Carla Suarez Navarro for a spot in the quarter-finals. We all remember what happened when these two last squared off in New York: Williams humiliated the Spaniard 6-0, 6-0. Some good results on hard courts this summer, including a Montreal defeat of Maria Sharapova, suggest that Navarro could do a little better this time around, but she’s not going to win unless Serena is seriously hobbled. Might Coco Vandeweghe or Sam Stosur come through this section instead? Vandeweghe is a very impressive ball-striker and recently beat Ivanovic and Jankovic on her way to the Rogers Cup quarter-finals. The ever-unpredictable Stosur also seems to be on an upswing, thrashing Eugenie Bouchard in New Haven.
The good news for Ana Ivanovic’s army of admirers is that the Serb in playing her best tennis since 2008. The bad news is that she has landed in Serena’s quarter of the US Open draw. She may have upset her in Melbourne earlier this year and pushed her in Stanford a few weeks ago, but she was crushed in the Cincinnati final. Put simply, a lot has to go right for Ivanovic to trouble Serena, and everything has to go her way if she is to win. It’s hard to see Serena, burned by the 26-year-old in Grand Slam play already this season, throwing in another sup-par performance in New York.
But Ivanovic can’t complain too much about her potential path to the last eight. Alison Riske could be a slightly tricky customer in the first round (Ivanovic beat the American in a tight match in Auckland in January), but the likes of Yvonne Meusburger, Karolina Pliskova and Casey Dellacqua shouldn’t trouble her if she maintains her current form. Flavia Pennetta is the 11th seed and Ivanovic’s slated last 16 opponent; however, it would surprise few if Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova made it to that stage. Ivanovic is a resounding 6-0 in her head-to-head with the Russian.
Predicted quarter-final: Serena def. Ivanovic
The draw’s second quarter is perhaps the most interesting, based on the ups and downs of its most renowned players. It’s headed by Petra Kvitova, who seems to be gaining some traction in New Haven after poor showings in Montreal and Cincinnati. The Wimbledon champion will need to arrive in New York in good form if she is to progress through a nightmare section. She’ll face the erratic but dangerous Kristina Mladenovic in round one, after which comes a meeting with either Klara Koukalova or Petra Cetkovska. In the third round, Kvitova could play Madison Keys, a fellow-big server would would dearly love to claim a major scalp at her home slam and has the game and temperament to do it.
Victoria Azarenka’s injury woes this season have sent her ranking plummeting, and it was only thanks to Li Na’s withdrawal that she earned a top 16 seeding. Even living up to that could prove a challenge, especially if she runs into Washington Open champion and perennial dark horse Svetlana Kuznetsova in round three. Vika is 4-4 in her head-to-head with the 2004 US Open champion, and if her recent right knee injury is still restricting her movement she could find it very difficult to overcome such a big-hitting rival. That said, Azarenka has got through a lot in her career by fighting harder than anyone else. With finalist points to defend and few remaining opportunities to salvage her season, she’ll do whatever it takes to be ready for New York.
One player hoping for an easy draw was Eugenie Bouchard. The Canadian went 1-3 in her US Open build up, and needs a couple of low-key early round matches to play herself into form. Olga Govortsova shouldn’t pose too much of a problem in the first round, but could an in-form Heather Watson push harder in the second? The Brit qualified for both Montreal and Cincinnati, reaching the last 16 of the former event. At her best, she is a smooth mover, a solid defender and a great battler – the kind of player no mis-firing seed wants to face.
Also standing in Bouchard’s path to a fourth consecutive Grand Slam quarter-final are Barbora Zahlavova Strycova, Ekaterina Makarova, Elina Svitolina and Dominika Cibulkova. Of that quartet, Svitolina has the most impressive recent form – she reached the quarter-finals in Ohio. But the young Ukrainian has never been beyond the third round of a Grand Slam, so the spotlight-loving Bouchard will have a major advantage should they clash in NYC.
Predicted quarter-final: Azarenka def. Bouchard
Unfortunately, the third quarter has much less potential for interesting match-ups. Seventh seed Angelique Kerber will face qualifiers in her first two rounds, and is seeded to meet Kurumi Nara after that. Elsewhere, many fans will be hoping for another edition of Stephens v Jankovic. Sloane and Jelena have met twice in the last three weeks; the Serb won on both occasions but each match was an entertaining and closely-fought battle. Both women have a navigable path to the third round and both would love a shot at Kerber in the fourth.
Much has been said about how Agnieszka Radwanska needs the draw to break her way if she is to claim a maiden Grand Slam title, namely that she needs to avoid big hitters early on so as not to be too tired in the latter rounds. Well, it’s hard to imagine a more favourable route for the Pole: she’ll play Sharon Fichman in her opener and Shuai Peng/Jie Zheng in round two. The slumping 28th seed Roberta Vinci awaits in the third round, and at the last 16 stage Radwanska will most likely face Lucie Safarova or Alize Cornet.
Perhaps surprisingly, Safarova has beaten Aga four times in their five meetings. But we should bear in mind that all of those came before 2012, the year Aga cemented her position at the top table of women’s tennis. Cornet has had a season to remember and one of the highlights was a defeat of Radwanska at the Katowice Open, but the Frenchwoman has struggled since the tour switched from grass to hard courts.
Predicted quarter-final: Radwanska def. Kerber
That section’s relative lack of big-name players makes the star-studded final quarter seem even more dazzling. Simona Halep, Maria Sharapova, Venus Williams and Caroline Wozniacki are all in here, and any one of them could reach the semi-finals. Sharapova hasn’t been at her best since Roland Garros but is more than capable of playing herself into form. Halep didn’t go deep in Cincinnati or New Haven, but on the plus side the injury-prone Romanian will be well-rested. Wozniacki has been playing her best tennis since she last topped the world rankings, and Venus has been a revelation on hard courts this summer.
Sharapova has been drawn against Maria Kirilenko in the first round and it’s hard to know if that’s a good or a bad deal. On the one hand, Kirilenko is a former top ten player who has beaten her more high-profile compatriot twice in the past. On the other, she is currently ranked 113th after missing much of the season with a knee injury. A similar scenario applies to Sharapova’s potential third round opponent, Sabine Lisicki. Should she be wary of the big-serving former Wimbledon finalist? Or will she be relieved at the prospect of facing such an inconsistent and mentally fragile player?
So excellent has Wozniacki’s recent form been that it would be a disappointment if she failed to live up to her 10th seeding in New York. Yet she’s been handed a difficult draw, opening against Magdalena Rybarikova, who beat Halep in New Haven, and possibly running into Andrea Petkovic in round three. The Dane’s fans will be hoping that her early exit from the Connecticut Open will leave her raring to go at Flushing Meadows. She’ll certainly need to be at her most energetic to get past those players, and she’ll need to be at her absolute best to have a chance at taking out Sharapova in the last 16. But Wozniacki could do it, especially if the fifth seed hasn’t fully warmed up by that stage.
Venus Williams, who first reached the US Open final in 1997, will undoubtedly be a fan favourite this year. But the 34-year-old is more than a mere sentimental choice; she is a legitimate contender for the title. There’s no reason why she can’t emerge from a section in which the most accomplished players are the under-powered Sara Errani and Kirsten Flipkens, and what’s to stop her from upsetting Halep in the fourth round? Venus won the pair’s most recent encounter, a knife-edge duel in Tokyo last year. Brimming with confidence, she can do so again with the vocal backing of the home crowd.
A win for Venus would potentially deprive us of another Halep v Sharapova showdown, however. This has become one of the most riveting match-ups on the WTA Tour. Their clashes in Madrid and Paris were high-quality epics, and even their error-filled bout in Cincinnati was compulsive viewing. Should Halep make the quarters in New York, you’d be inclined to bet that it’s her turn to be the victor.
Predicted quarter-final: Halep def. Sharapova
Semi-finals: Serena def. Azarenka; Halep def. Radwanska
Champion: Serena def. Halep
With such a loaded bottom half of the draw, it’s easy to imagine a Serena-Sharapova, a Serena-Radwanska, a Serena-Venus or even a Serena-Wozniacki final. But it’s not easy to imagine a final without Serena. After a stop-start first half of 2014, she enjoyed her most consistent run of success on North American hard courts, playing three events in a row and taking home two trophies. And although winning the US Open will entail a lot more tennis under a lot more pressure, she knows she can do it.
Triumph would push Serena up a notch on the list of all-time greats – a major source of motivation even if she won’t admit it. Perhaps even more motivating, however, is the sobering thought of what failure would mean: ending 2014 without a Grand Slam title.