Surveying a Serena-less field
Serena Williams' withdrawal from the U.S. Open means there is no clear-cut women's favorite heading into the tournament, which begins Monday. The last time the field was this wide open at a major, the 2010 French Open, Francesca Schiavone ended up walking away with the title. With that important caveat, here's a list of who looks most likely to win the year's last Grand Slam:
If she could win it last year, just three events into her comeback, there's no reason she can't do it again this year. But Clijsters seems to have lost a bit of the fearlessness she had in those early stages, hasn't played much this year and tweaked her hip a bit at Montreal. All that said, she still looks like the strongest player in the field.
If she had won in Cincinnati two weeks ago, Sharapova would be the trendy pick to win the U.S. Open. Why not anyway? She was only one point away, losing to Clijsters in three sets after holding match point in the second. Her second serve continues to be a bit shaky, but otherwise she looks close to where she was before shoulder surgery in 2008. Even though it's not clear her endurance is all the way back, she can count on being the grittiest competitor in the field.
Changing coaches seems to work for Kuznetsova -- she switched soon before winning the French Open last year and looks revived again after taking on Loic Courteau, Amelie Mauresmo's one-time mentor. But it's some advice from Mauresmo herself that Kuznetsova credits with helping her get back on track after a lackluster year. "Amelie said to me, 'What are you doing, where is your game? You have to play topspin. Are you OK?'" She is now, it seems, having won in San Diego a few weeks ago and lost only to Sharapova and Caroline Wozniacki since Wimbledon.
A little inexperienced and still a bit hot-headed, but has all the weapons to win a Slam if she's healthy and playing well. She does seem to be playing well, having won at Stanford to kick off the hard-court summer and reached the Montreal semis before a foot blister forced her to retire. Unlike most of the other young players, she's capable of going toe-to-toe with the big guns. The question is whether she can sustain a high level for two weeks.
She was last year's surprise finalist and now, rather incongruously, will be the top seed thanks to Serena's withdrawal. Wozniacki has the consistency and concentration to win a lot of matches in a row against weaker or equal opposition, showing her mental toughness by coming out on top after a frustrating two-day rain delay in Montreal. The trouble is that her counterpunching game usually comes up short against the very biggest guns. But if they're misfiring, she'll take advantage.
She's perfectly capable of winning the whole thing. But for whatever reason, Venus hasn't gone all the way at a major other than Wimbledon since 2001 and has won only one top-level WTA event on hard courts since 2002 -- the year-end WTA Tour championships in 2008. Given that she hasn't even played a hard-court event this summer because of a knee injury, it's going to be a case of watching her round by round rather than expecting a lot going into the tournament.
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The sometimes-volcanic Russian has beaten Clijsters to reach the final of a big tournament twice this summer, first at Wimbledon, then at Montreal. Was it just a one-off (or, to be precise, a two-off)? It's hard to tell, but she has to be given an outside shot on the strength of that alone.
8. Sam Stosur
Her recent arm problem raises a bit of a question mark because so much of her game is centered around the big serves and heavy forehands it produces. Only if she can manage to play the way she did in reaching the French Open final a few months ago will Stosur be a threat to take it all. Hard courts don't boost her kicks and spins like the clay, but they're still the surface she's most comfortable moving on and has the most familiarity with.
Getting a calf tear at the French Open was bad luck for Dementieva, and she hasn't built much momentum since returning. Considered the best player on tour without a Slam title, she'll need to find a little spark next week to get her going. But if she can, she'll be dangerous.
10. Jelena Jankovic
Just as she declared she was "moving like a butterfly" again, the injuries started to crop up. Although now recovered, Jankovic has taken early losses in the past few weeks and is feeling a lack of matches. Given that she thrives on playing a lot, it's hard to see her counterpunching game being at its best next week. If she survives a couple of rounds, maybe her form will start to return.
Kamakshi Tandon is a freelance tennis writer for ESPN.com.
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