The final major of the tennis season started on Monday at the 2012 U.S. Open. We're previewing each section of the draw. Up next: The Radwanska Region.
Top Five Seeds
No. 2 Agnieszka Radwanska
No. 6 Angelique Kerber
No. 10 Sara Errani
No. 13 Dominika Cibulkova
No. 20 Roberta Vinci
Top Four First-Round Matches
Venus Williams vs. Bethanie Mattek-Sands. After making almost no noise whatsoever in her first two career slams, Venus Williams announced her presence in the women's games with a wonderfully exciting run to the U.S. Open finals at 17 years old in 1997. Fifteen years, and two titles, later, she's still at it. Her 14th U.S. Open run (she missed 2003 and 2006) begins against another old hand of sorts. Bethanie Mattek-Sands played in her first U.S. Open in 2001, but the doubles specialist has won only four singles matches here and is currently ranked 212th in the world. Williams is an extreme wild card, and she should get the ball rolling with a semi-easy win here.
No. 21 Christina McHale vs. Kiki Bertens. Two interesting 20-year olds face off in this one. McHale, a product of Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, has made a rather quick ascent to 24th in the world; she is 10 months younger than anybody else in the Top 25, and she has advanced to the third round of each of the last four slams. Her draw isn't incredibly difficult -- at least, not until she would face off against Angelique Kerber in the fourth round -- and she'll start her Open versus Bertens, a virtual unknown at the beginning of 2012 who has quickly climbed into the Top 75. McHale beat Bertens in three sets in the first round of the French Open.
Yaroslava Shvedova vs. Vania King. It's always awkward when doubles partners have to face off in singles. King and Shvedova have advanced to the Women's Doubles finals in each of the last two U.S. Opens -- they won in 2010 -- but are forced to meet between the singles lines for the first time. Shvedova has been in fine form of late. After struggling through 2011 with a knee issue and falling out of the Top 200, she is back to 45th in the world after reaching the quarterfinals at the French Open and the fourth round at Wimbledon. (She also won the second "golden set" in tennis' history, sweeping through 24 straight points over Sara Errani at Wimbledon.) She should take this one, but hey, King, the 52nd-ranked 23-year old from Florida, certainly knows the full scouting report.
No. 2 Agnieszka Radwanska vs. Nina Bratchikova. This is a form check for Radwanska, who pulled out of the August's tournament in New Haven with shoulder soreness. She has never faced Bratchikova, a journeywoman of sorts from Russia, and if 100 percent, she should cruise against the world's No. 91 player. But it probably goes without saying that a wonky shoulder could impact your game considerably. We'll see how she's doing.
Top Three Storylines
How Is Radwanska's Shoulder? If she is 100 percent, Agnieszka Radwanska faces a rather favorable draw -- if seeds hold (granted, they almost never do), she would get No. 30 Jelena Jankovic in the third round (Radwanska has won both hard court meetings between the two, albeit in three sets each), No. 13 Dominka Cibulkova in the fourth (Radwanska is 3-0 all-time) and surging Angelique Kerber in the quarterfinals (Radwanska is 3-2 all-time, though just 1-2 on hard courts). A different woman has won the last seven slam titles, and Radwanska and Kerber have to be considered the favorites to stretch that to eight, but Radwanska does not score many easy, quick points, and she will need to be full strength to have a chance.
How Are You Doing, Venus? In dealing with Sjögren's syndrome, Williams' singles play has been hit-or-miss recently; she has won only one match in her two previous slams (just like 1997!) and has only advanced beyond the third round of a slam once since the start of 2011. She picked up her play on the hard courts, however, taking out 2011 U.S. Open champion Sam Stosur (along with Maria Kirilenko and Sara Errani) in Cincinnati. To say the least, Williams is the ultimate bracket-bomb, an unseeded player who has spent a good portion of the year playing at a Top-20 level. But even if she finds good form, how long will she maintain it? Long enough to take out Kerber in the second round? McHale or Errani in the fourth?
How Good Is Christina McHale? McHale is not intimidating from a physical standpoint, but again, she has reached the Top 25 well in advance of her 21st birthday. She crafts points about as well as any American tennis player right now, male or female, and she has taken down plenty of top players, from Petra Kvitova to Caroline Wozniacki. But she has hit a potential ceiling in slams of late, making it to the third round four straight times and never further. This year's third-round opponent would probably be French Open finalist Sara Errani, who has won all three contests between the two (though they haven't played on hard courts since 2008, when McHale was 16). She held her own with Kerber in their only hard-court meeting (Kerber won, 7-6, in the third set at Indian Wells earlier this year), and nobody in her eighth of the draw is untouchable, but can she navigate what are still some rather tricky waters?
Top Two Potential Later-Round Matches
Second Round: Angelique Kerber vs. Venus Williams
Quarterfinals: Agnieszka Radwanska vs. Kerber/Williams
Top Player (i.e. the one making the semifinals)
Angelique Kerber. It really has been an incredible year for the 24-year-old from Germany. She was ranked 34th last December and has just continued to pile up the results, reaching the quarterfinals of three of the last four slams, reaching the semis at both Wimbledon and last year's U.S. Open, and, less than two weeks ago, becoming the first woman since the French Open to beat Serena Williams. She is interesting to watch -- no player in the world generates more of her power from her legs; she's 5'8 but looks like she's 5'1 on her ground strokes -- and with Radwanska at least potentially gimpy, she is the default favorite.