The final major of the tennis season get underway Monday at the 2012 U.S. Open. We're previewing each section of the draw. Up next: The Azarenka Region.
With the U.S. Open starting on Monday, let's take a look at each "region" (each region equals one-quarter of the bracket) of the tournament, its most interesting matches, and its most fascinating story lines. We now switch gears to the women's bracket. (See men's "regional" previews for the Federer Bracket and Murray Bracket.)
Top Five Seeds
No. 1 Victoria Azarenka
No. 7 Sam Stosur
No. 9 Na Li
No. 16 Sabine Lisicki
No. 18 Julia Goerges
Top Four First-Round Matches
Kim Clijsters vs. Victoria Duval. The run-up to the U.S. Open has almost become one giant eulogy for Kim Clijsters. The three-time U.S. Open champion has announced that this will be her final slam before she re-retires, and while her career is certainly worth celebrating, it is probably safe to assume she doesn't want her stay in New York to end too quickly into this fortnight. Her first-round opponent is a youngster; Victoria Duval was only three years old when Clijsters was winning the WTA's Most Impressive Newcomer award in 1999, which makes this form-check match for Clijsters an interesting aesthetic experience. Career prize money: Clijsters $24,395,888, Duval $7,024.
No. 7 Sam Stosur vs. Petra Martic. Thanks to a pretty awful summer, Stosur, the 2011 U.S. Open champion, has fallen to seventh in the world, and she has a ton of points to defend over the next two weeks. Since falling in an upset to Sara Errani in the French Open semifinals, Stosur has lost in the second round at Wimbledon, in the first round of the Olympics at Wimbledon, in the third round in Montreal and in the quarterfinals in Cincinnati. She could surge when she revisits the place of of her biggest triumph; she better, at least, because the road gets pretty tough, pretty quickly. Her first-round opponent, the 64th-ranked Martic, took her to a third-set tie-breaker in their only meeting (Madrid 2012).
No. 16 Sabine Lisicki vs. Sorana Cirstea. Thus far, the 22-year old Lisicki's career has been based mostly around success at Wimbledon. (She's the anti-Stosur, in other words.) She reached the semis in 2011 and the quarters in 2012, but her next-best level of success has come on the hard courts. She made the fourth round at both the 2011 U.S. Open and 2012 Aussie Open, but she's got a brutal first-round draw. Cirstea is ranked 38th in the world, made the third round at both Wimbledon and the Aussie Open, and has swept all three career meetings versus Lisicki, all on hard courts. Yikes.
No. 9 Na Li vs. Heather Watson. The last time we had reason to notice Heather Watson, she was blowing the doors off of two Wimbledon opponents before falling (hard) to Agnieszka Radwanska in the third round. Her upside seems to be rather high, but at 20, she still has a ways to go. Her match will be as much a form check for Li as anything else. The 2010 French Open champion is back up to eighth in the world following a tournament win in Cincinnati that saw her took out a murderer's row: Radwanska (6-1, 6-1) in the quarterfinals, Venus Williams in the semis and Angelique Kerber in the finals.
Top Three Storylines
There are plenty of catty rivalries in tennis, but it has been amazing to see the nearly unanimous, affectionate outpouring for Clijsters nearing the U.S. Open. She is stuck in probably the most difficult "region" in this tournament, but she has played the best ball of her career at Flushing Meadows, and it would be fun to see her make one more run.
What Have You Got For Us, Sam? Sam Stosur did make the French Open semifinals, so it hasn't been a completely lost year for the 28-year old Australian. But she has bowed out by the second round in the year's three other slams (well, the slams plus the Olympics), and her always shaky confidence has bitten her quite often. Perhaps she has something in reserve for defending last year's title, but she hasn't given too many hints in that regard.
What A Loaded Region. Victoria Azarenka's reward for receiving the No. 1 seed? A "region" that includes four of the last seven slam champions (Azarenka, Stosur, Li, Clijsters), plus a Wimbledon quarterfinalist (Lisicki) and an Australian Open fourth-rounder (Jie Zheng). Goodness. Granted, a good portion of those names are on the opposite side of the region from Azarenka (her most likely path would be Zheng in the third round, Lisicki in the fourth, and Stosur/Li/Clijsters in the quarterfinals), but still. Meanwhile, poor Varvara Lepchenko, the No. 31-seeded American, is stuck right in the middle.
Top Two Potential Later-Round Matches
Third Round: Kim Clijsters vs. Na Li
Fourth Round: Sam Stosur vs. Clijsters/Li
Top Player (i.e. the one making the semifinals)
Victoria Azarenka. Because she would only have to face one of the Li-Stosur-Clijsters trifecta, I'll give her the nod. It is somewhat easy to scoff at Azarenka being ranked No. 1 with the way she has been dominated by Serena Williams recently (she has now dropped 11 straight sets to Williams going back to the 2010 Australian Open), but the 23-year old from Belarus has had a lovely year regardless, and her best slam result (2012 Australian Open champion) came on the hard courts.