For the fourth, and the last, time of the year, it is time again to separate the cream from the milk, pick out the wheat from the chaff, to separate the tennis champions from the very good ones. It is the Grand Slam time again, featuring 128 players, seven matches (best-of-five among the men, best-of-three among the women), and two weeks of intense drama in the commercial capital of the world, New York City.
And the United States Open in New York is unique in itself to distinguish from the other three slams. If the Wimbledon is for the royal, laid-back, pristine, polite people appreciating the little things in tennis, U. S. Open is about glamour. The insanely high Center Court at the Arthur Ashe Stadium, matches under the flooding New York lights running late till the early morning, the Super Saturday (which has been under the scanner since the last few years due to the heavy toll it takes on the men’s finalists with back to back semis and finals), and the fifth set tie-breaker, all set this final Slam apart from the other three.
If the tennis is unique, the atmosphere is no different. New Yorkers involve themselves fully into the Slam as well, and they have their own favorites. Merely good tennis not sufficient to win this elusive major, because the audience will make sure to feel a player absolutely unwanted at Ashe in case he or she manages to aggravate them. We know what happened to Novak Djokovic in 2008, or Serena Williams last year. We also know how Jimmy Connors seemed to thrive at the Flushing.
If just the name “United States Open” is sufficient to bring a chill down your spine with excitement, the story lines preceding before the “Open” are more reasons to start counting days (now hours). On the women’s side, Caroline Wozniacki surprisingly finds herself at the top of the tree owing the pullout of Serena (which probably will be enough to shut down the critics who were all over the media questioning the state of her injury in the last one month), without even winning one significant title before Montreal. She may be the highest ranked player, but no one will mistake her as the best player, or the favorite, as the one just behind her, Kim Clijsters, is the defending champion and the second seed, followed by the two time champion Venus Williams, who is supposed to feature a new series of her self designed attire this time around.
Who will meet whom will once again be decided by the draws, which always plays an important part in the way a Grand Slam shapes up.
The quarter is surrounded by two girls on whom the bets will be more conservative than their seeds suggest. Wozniacki has played intensely through out this year despite injuries, and has not done well in the Slams after her maiden final appearance at the same venue. Her commendable performances, though, have both come on hard courts in the same continent, as a finalist in Indian Wells and titleholder at Montreal. Which is why it was surprising to many when she chose not to pull out from New Haven just a week before the Open, and even there she is playing with her full strength into a third set tiebreaker with Elena Dementieva.
On the other side, we have Li Na, always a consistent performer at the majors, albeit not a strong one. Which is why, the favorites, the two Ovas, appear somewhere in between the chart. Maria Sharapova, who has been on the rise ever since her first round exit at Australia (especially her serve which has improved since the start of the year), and Svetlana Kuznetsova who has found some of her form as well. With both being former title holders at this place as well, I don’t see the top seed justifying the honor given to her (especially if she starts thinking too much about it given the media pressure).
Semifinalist: Maria Sharapova
The first name that took my immediate notice (and there are very few worth attention in this quarter—who are these women?) was the Marin Cilic equivalent in the WTA—Yanina Wickmayer. Fantastic last year at the Open, she was expected to make in roads in the ever chaotic top-ten, but she has had hardly any results to show for, especially after her entertaining battle with Justine Henin at Melbourne. Is she primed again to rise at the Open? Highly likely, given that the other top women here are struggling themselves. Jankovic disappeared after Indian Wells, and just when we thought that Vera Zvonareva has been improving mentally with her uncharacteristically calm all throughout Wimbledon, she again showed her true self by suffering from a emotional meltdown in the doubles final. Petrova and Radwanska are always dangerous floaters but inconsistent to last five matches. Given all this, the stage is set for the lefty Belgian to make her comeback.
Semifinalist: Yanina Wickmayer
Look closely, and you will find a very familiar name here. USA and Russia had dealt with the Cold War for most of the later half of the nineties, but Melanie Oudin (and the New York crowd) staged a full fledged “Open” war against the Russians last year, as the teenage sensation romped apart four Russians on her way to the most inspiring run that we have seen in recent times. It’s a shame, then, that the household name crumbled under pressure after that, and with a truck load of points to defend, Oudin will needs a very good performance here.
Francesca Schiavone, on the other hand, has been on a high after her shocking French Open victory, and she’s been realistic to assume that it was a pleasant surprise rather than the signs of things to come, and enjoying life after that. Venus has not been in a semifinal outside Wimbledon for what? three years now, and given her injury with the knees, she will be struggling herself. Pennetta cooled down after her brief entry in the top-ten, and Shahar Peer is consistent, but with lack of weapons to make an impact.
With Serena not in the Open this time around, Venus has a great opportunity to win her first Slam outside Wimbledon in NINE years. If that was not enough, the cupcake draw will make her feel even more confident.
Semifinalist: Venus Williams
It was a fairy tale ride last year for Clijsters, as she played without any pressure in only her third tournament after her motherhood. With a fabulous crowd support, Clijsters lived her dream, and even her daughter Jada, became a baby celebrity. Things are a lot different now. She is now the second seed, and the heavy favorite. All eyes will be on her, not only with admiration and curiosity, but also with expectations. To her credit, she has played well with wins in Miami, and Cincinnati, but has suffered epic meltdowns in the Slams.
Alongside her, will be the new top-10 player Samantha Stosur, the surprise Wimbledon semifinalist, and the hard hitting Petra Kvitova, always a tricky customer Marion Bartoli, and capable-of-making-an-upset Alisa Kleybanova. Oh! And there is Ana Ivanovic too, who briefly regained her form at Cincinnati, but again went into oblivious with an ankle injury. Fate has not been kind on the Serb. And before I forget, there is Dementieva (I bet you have heard this name before), the best-women-ever-not-win-a-slam. But will her Mom again come with a I’m-gonna-burst-into-tears-anytime-now face?
This is Clijster’s surface and both her Slams have come on this very court. I see no reason why a third can’t come this year.
Semifinalist: Kim Clijsters
Semifinals: Sharapova d. Wickmayaer, Venus d. Clijsters
Champion: Venus Williams