The build-up to the US Open gains speed this week as an incredibly strong WTA field heads to Montreal. Li Na and Simona Halep are the only notable absentees in the 56-player draw, and with 900 ranking points and $467,000 going to the champion, we can expect an ultra-competitive week of topflight tennis.
Check out the Full Draw Here: WTA Montreal 2014 Draw
All eyes will be on Serena Williams as she attempts to reassert herself as Queen of the tour. The world number one put her Wimbledon woes behind her by winning the title in Stanford last week, but she’ll need another strong performance in Canada to fully quell murmurs that she’s losing her aura. Although Serena has triumphed three times at the Coupe Rogers when playing in Toronto, she has never hoisted the trophy in Montreal – one of the very few gaps in her diamond résumé.
There are rarely any easy matches at a Premier 5 event, and Serena could be tested in her very first one: after an opening round bye, she’ll play either Sam Stosur or Monica Puig. Stosur thrashed the Puerta Rican for the loss of only two games at this year’s French Open, and if she scores another victory here she’ll meet Serena for the 10th time. Although no longer an elite player, Stosur holds a better record against Williams than most of her cohorts, having defeated the American three times.
The most significant of those wins, of course, came in the 2011 US Open final. Will Stosur recall her bravura performance that day and produce another fearless display in Montreal? Or will the memory of that match spur Serena on to a clinical beatdown? Assuming the latter to be more likely, Serena will face a less formidable foe in round three. Lucie Safarova is the 15th seed in this section, but Sorana Cristea, runner-up to Williams in Toronto last year, could sneak through.
What fans and tournament organisers are crossing fingers and toes for is a blockbuster quarter-final between Serena and Eugenie Bouchard. The Canadian is in action for the first time since her stellar run to the Wimbledon final, and would love nothing more than to pull off a heroic upset on her biggest home stage. To reach the last eight, Bouchard will have to shake off the rust against either qualifier Shelby Rogers or wild card Ajla Tomljanovic and then, potentially, get through a third round battle with Caroline Wozniacki. There’s little doubt that Bouchard has greater firepower than the Dane, but might she be troubled by Wozniacki’s relentless defence in their first ever meeting?
Predicted quarter-final: Serena def. Bouchard
Also back on the courts for the first time since Wimbledon is Maria Sharapova, who is in an enviable position. The Russian effectively nixed the second half of her 2013 season, so she has no points to defend for the rest of 2014 and can begin a serious ascent of the rankings. The fourth seed will need to be on top form from the outset, however: awaiting in round two is the fast-rising Garbine Muguruza, who reached the last eight of the singles in Stanford and won the doubles title there. Sharapova beat the Spaniard in Paris a couple of months ago, but Muguruza loves hard courts even more and will be well aware that Maria is beatable when short of match practice. Muguruza’s doubles partner and compatriot Carla Suarez Navarro is also in this section of the draw, along with Washington finalist Kurumi Nara.
If Sharapova can dial in and make the quarter-finals, she could find herself up against Angelique Kerber or Venus Williams. Neither match would be an easy one for the French Open champion: Kerber conquered her in a classic fourth round contest at the All England Club and finished runner-up in Stanford on Sunday, while Venus has been in good from too, taking out Azarenka in California. Kerber, though, has won three of her four meetings with the elder Williams sister.
Predicted quarter-final: Sharapova def. Kerber
Speaking of Azarenka, we should note that the Belarusian’s situation is the polar opposite of Sharapova’s. While Maria has enjoyed a superb first half of the season and has a blank slate for the remainder of the year, Vika has done very little of note in the 2014 so far and has 2,300 points to defend over the coming weeks. Now ranked 11th and still visibly short of match fitness after a major foot injury, Azarenka needs a strong result in Montreal if she is to be considered a contender in New York.
Fortunately for her, she has been handed a manageable draw. She’ll open against either Lauren Davis or Alize Cornet, and is seeded to meet Dominika Cibulkova in the last 16. None of those players is in intimidating form at the moment, which should give Azarenka a chance to get her groove going.
The competition stiffens at the last eight stage, but not frightfully so. Players such as Madison Keys, Sabine Lisicki and Washington champion Svetlana Kuznetsova have the ability to hit through Azarenka with booming serves and unchaseable groundstrokes, but none of them is a beacon of consistency. Sara Errani and Agnieszka Radwanska utilise a wholly different set of weapons, but they too have been less than impressive recently. Moreover, Azarenka has a 7-1 winning record over Errani and is 12-5 against Radwanska.
Predicted quarter-final: Azarenka def. Radwanska
How much do we read into Petra Kvitova’s Wimbledon victory? Was it the rebirth of one of the WTA Tour’s most gifted players, heralding a period of Serena-esque dominance? Or is it merely the most recent highlight of a career that is destined to wax and wane and, ultimately, disappoint? Few doubt that Kvitova has the tools to make an impact on North American hard courts, but at the same time few would be shocked if she fell to either Kirsten Flipkens or Casey Dellacqua in the second round of the Coupe Rogers. If the Czech can extend her winning streak as far as round three, she could encounter another hot player in Andrea Petkovic. The German has won eight of her last nine matches and holds a 4-3 edge in her head-to-head with Kvitova.
Elsewhere, seventh seed Jelena Jankovic will be looking for her first win since May. Although still firmly resident in the top 10, the Serb didn’t win a set during the grass court season and opted for a long post-Wimbledon vacation. In theory, this should provide an opportunity for another struggling player, Sloane Stephens. The American suffered an ugly three-set loss to Christina McHale in Washington last week, dropping the decider 6-0. Can new coach Thomas Hogstedt help her turn things around in Montreal? Stephens has a tough but winnable opener against local favourite Aleksandra Wozniak, after which she has as good a chance as anyone of dispatching Jankovic. A win there would put her into a possible third round battle with Ana Ivanovic, a player she beat in Indian Wells earlier this year. Ivanovic looked great in Stanford, but needed treatment for her hip and will have little time to recover.
Predicted quarter-final: Kvitova def. Stephens
Predicted semi-finals: Serena def. Sharapova; Kvitova def. Azarenka
Champion: Serena Williams
At Wimbledon, Serena looked tentative and indifferent, as though she had lost her enthusiasm for the fight. Yet in Stanford, she willed herself through a series of tough matches, proving once again that she loves nothing more than winning. The ever-enigmatic 17-time Grand Slam champion is never more dangerous than when she has something to prove, and she has some making up to do after a – by her stratospheric standards – mediocre season so far. She may wobble against Bouchard in an electrifying night match on Friday, but she’ll rebound with yet another convincing defeat of Sharapova the following day. Either Azarenka or Kvitova would be a worthy and testing final opponent, but we’ll hold out for a showdown between the best ball strikers in the game.