The final major of the tennis season started Monday at the 2012 U.S. Open. We're previewing each section of the draw. Up next: The Williams Region.
Top Five Seeds
No. 4 Serena Williams
No. 8 Caroline Wozniacki
No. 12 Ana Ivanovic
No. 14 Maria Kirilenko
No. 22 Francesca Schiavone
Top Four First-Round Matches
No. 22 Francesca Schiavone vs. Sloane Stephens. Stephens upset No. 23 Petra Cetkovska in the second round at Wimbledon and held her own versus Sam Stosur in the fourth round of the French Open. If she can take out the 32-year-old Schiavone, the 2010 French Open champion, the draw opens up rather nicely for her. Schiavone won their only head-to-head matchup, but it was on Schiavone's preferred surface, clay. Schiavone is perfectly competent on hard courts (2010 U.S. Open quarterfinalist), but she is at least a bit more vulnerable.
No. 4 Serena Williams vs. Coco Vandeweghe. The 20-year-old Vandeweghe is still finding her way not he WTA tour (she currently ranks 75th), but she gave Williams a tough battle in their one match at the finals in Stanford in July. Williams pulled out the match, 7-5, 6-3, and should handle this one as well. But she has not necessarily performed well in the opening rounds of the last two slams (she did at the Olympics, but I'll ignore that for now), and a distracted Williams could get stretched pretty far by the big-hitting Vandeweghe.
No. 8 Caroline Wozniacki vs. Irina-Camelia Begu. Wozniacki has not had the most memorable of years. She lost her No. 1 ranking in January and has experienced diminishing returns throughout the summer. After losing in the Australian Open quarterfinals, she fell in the third round of the French Open and the first round at Wimbledon. It was her first opening-round slam exit since her first slam, the 2007 French Open. Still, Queens is a second home for her. She reached her lone slam final there (2009) and made the semis in each of the last two years. But she tweaked a knee last week in New Haven, and this match will be a serious form check for her against the 22-year old Begu, who has won just two slam matches in her career (both in Paris).
No. 32 Shuai Peng vs. Elena Vesnina. The 26-year-old Peng has put together a steady run of results in slams of late: fourth round at Wimbledon, third at the Frnech Open, fourth in three of four slams last year. She got a tricky draw with Vesnina, however. Vesnina is a doubles specialist who has begun to figure things out on the singles side again. The two have split four matches on clay, though Peng has handled both hard-court duels.
Top Three Storylines
What's Next, Serena? Serena Williams dropped 17 games in 12 sets in the Olympics in July. That is simply absurd. She dropped three games in the semifinals against world No. 1 Victoria Azarenka, then dropped just one to Maria Sharapova in the finals. When she is on, she is on a different level than anybody else. But she can lose her focus, as she did versus Angelique Kerber in Cincinnati, and as she did on multiple occasions in the first week of her eventual Wimbledon win (not to mention during her first-round loss at the French Open). Still, she should easily be considered the tournament favorite; it would be her fourth U.S. Open title and her 15th slam title overall, and it would bring the "Is she the best ever?" debate to an even higher decibel level.
Can Sloane Stephens Make Another Run? The 19-year-old Stephens is a very intriguing prospect to follow. She has played in only five slams but has advanced to the second round in her last four, to the third three times, and to the fourth once (2012 French Open). She has had an up-and-down year overall, but at 44th, she is one of the four youngest players in the WTA Top 100. And she has earned her point total despite playing in only 20 tournaments in 12 months. (No. 43 Urszula Radwanska, for instance, has played in 31.) If she can get past Schiavone in the first round -- quite a bit to ask -- then the only other seeds on her side of the "region" are a gimpy Wozniacki, a potentially gimpy Ana Ivanovic (who withdrew from Cincinnati with a foot injury) and No. 26 Monica Niculescu. Stephens could bring the year to a close with another nice run, but she has to get past Schiavone first.
If Serena Doesn't Win This Region, Who Does? If we pretend for a moment that Williams is upset, who does that leave? You have to start with Wozniacki, who has advanced to three straight U.S. Open semifinals. Wozniacki has had a disappointing year, but she tends to bring her A-game to New York. Maria Kirilenko, the 25-year-old Russian, is also worth watching. She made her second career slam quarterfinal at Wimbledon, finished fourth at the Olympics, advanced to the fourth round last year at the U.S. Open, and is playing lovely tennis right now.
Top Two Potential Later-Round Matches
Second Round: Shuai Peng vs. Ekaterina Makarova
Fourth Round: Caroline Wozniacki vs. Ana Ivanovic/Francesca Schiavone/Sloane Stephens
Top Player (i.e. the one making the semifinals)
Serena Williams. For the first time in a while, Erratic Serena made an appearance against Kerber a couple of weeks ago. But to say she is the considerable favorite here is an understatement.