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 Sharapova 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. 3 Maria Sharapova
No. 5 Petra Kvitova
No. 11 Mario Bartoli
No. 15 Lucie Safarova
No. 17 Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova
Top Four First-Round Matches
No. 15 Lucie Safarova vs. Melanie Oudin. Three years ago, a scrappy 17-year-old from Georgia, Oudin, made a charming, shocking run to the U.S. Open quarterfinals. She rode those points almost to a Top 30 ranking by spring of 2010, but the momentum and confidence vanished. She fell in the first round of every slam in 2011, and she was eliminated in the first round of qualifying for the 2012 Australian Open. Now 20, Oudin has begun to put the pieces together again; she won the Wimbledon tune-up event in Birmingham and beat Sloane Stephens in Carlsbad in July, but she will have to summon quite a bit of that 2009 magic to take out Safarova, the world's No. 17 player who has taken four of five sets from Oudin, all-time.
No. 11 Marian Bartoli vs. Jamie Hampton. (This one is ongoing. Bartoli took the first set, 6-3.) Bartoli has not had the best year. The 2007 Wimbledon runner-up found herself ranked seventh in the world in January, but after making the 2011 French Open semis and 2011 Wimbledon quarters, she has been out by the third round in the last four slams. She is now 11th in the world, but she should have enough to get by Hampton, a 22-year old from Auburn who has a solid power game but not much of a Plan B just yet if opponents neutralize her baseline strength.
Mallory Burdette vs. Timea Bacsinszky. Burdette is a 21-year old senior at Stanford who has only in the last year begun to work her way into pro tournaments. She has won two ITF (think minor leagues) tournaments this year, but she ranks just 252nd in the world. That's okay, though: her opponent, a 23-year old from Switzerland, is ranked 308th. Bacsinkszky made the third round at the U.S. Open in 2008, but she is still in the process of working back from a 2011 foot injury. This will be her first slam since the 2011 Australian Open.
Nicole Gibbs vs. Alize Cornet. If you're looking for this year's Oudin, the most interesting candidates (other than Oudin herself) could be either Burdette or Gibbs, a 19-year old Stanford sophomore. (Seriously, Stanford, you are ridiculous at every non-revenue sport.) Gibbs is the 2012 Pac-12 Player of the Year, but her draw is much more difficult than Burdette's. She gets 50th-ranked Cornet, who has advanced past the first round at the U.S. Open four times in five years. Cornet is a clay-court specialist, but it is still quite an upset opportunity for Gibbs.
Top Three Storylines
A Pre-Ordained Sharapova-Kvitova Rematch? Compared to the Azarenka region, this one is downright tame. It still features potential landmines like Bartoli or 30-year old Nadia Petrova (Petrova is a nine-time slam quarterfinalist, though she hasn't advanced that far in over two years), but it would take a pretty big upset to avoid a Sharapova-Kvitova quarterfinal. If it happens, it would be the fourth time in six slams that the two met; Kvitova dominated Sharapova in the 2011 Wimbledon finals, but Sharapova got revenge in both the Australian Open semis (in three sets) and the French Open semis (in two). Kvitova hit a pretty big slump earlier this year (which is why this match would take place in the quarters instead of the semis or finals), but she has won 12 of 31 matches in the hard court season, taking out Bartoli, Caroline Wozniacki and Na Li in Montreal, Shuai Peng and Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova in Cincinnati, and Lucie Safarova, Sara Errani and Maria Kirilenko in New Haven.
The American Region. If we are to get an out-of-nowhere run from an American this year, it will probably come in this region. Granted, Gibbs would probably face Kvitova in the second round if she were to beat Cornet, Oudin would have to pull a major first-round upset, and Burdette would be on pace to face Sharapova in the third round; so it's not incredibly likely. But hey, neither was Oudin's run in 2009, right? Think big! USA! USA!
Time For Anastasia? On her 20th birthday last July, Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova was ranked 13th in the world and was coming off of a quarterfinal appearance at the French Open. She would make the U.S. Open quarters as well. But she lost 14 of her first 19 matches in 2012 and plummeted. Still, she made the finals of the Citi Open in Washington, DC, and the quarters in Cincinnati (she fell to Kvitova, 6-3, 7-6, after beating Wozniacki in straight sets), and she appears to be regaining her form just in time to defend a lot of points from last year's U.S. Open. If she can get past 41st-ranked Daniela Hantuchova in the first round, her draw opens up rather nicely. She has won three of five all-time sets versus Bartoli, her potential third-round opponent, and has fared reasonably well against Kvitova, who she could face in the fourth round; she has taken two of six hard-court matches from Kvitova (and six of 14 sets), all-time.
Top Two Potential Later-Round Matches
Third Round: Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova vs. Mario Bartoli
Quarterfinals: Petra Kvitova vs. Maria Sharapova
Top Player (i.e. the one making the semifinals)
Maria Sharapova. Daring, right? Kvitova has caught fire on the hard courts, but she has a tougher road to hoe just to get to the potential quarterfinal matchup versus Sharapova, and Sharapova has dominated the recent matches in the series. Sharapova has also made the finals of two 2012 slams and the Olympics. Kvitova could make me feel dumb for this pick, but we'll go with Senorita Sugarpova.