As the world No. 1 and holder of 16 Grand Slam singles titles, Serena Williams enters every Grand Slam – and every tournament – she plays as the unequivocal favorite. If she plays her best tennis, there are just a handful of other top women who can equal her power and no one who can match her serve. That said, she has won just one of the year’s three Slams. She is beatable when not at her best but nearly lights out when she is, making her once again the favorite to win her fifth title in Flushing Meadows.
With the withdrawal of world No. 3 Maria Sharapova due to a right shoulder injury, the draw opened a little more for Serena to defend her US Open crown. Her biggest threat likely will come from world No. 2 and 2013 Australian Open champion, Victoria Azarenka. The two went three sets in the 2012 US Open final, with Serena rallying from down a break in the third set to claim the title, though Azarenka prevailed over the world No. 1 just last week in a three-set final in Cincinnati.
“I'm definitely really excited,” Serena said of getting back on court. “Every time I lose, I get so pumped afterwards and I just feel that way. I just feel like now I'm ready; now I'm prepared. I almost needed that to take my game to a new level.”
The win over Serena gave Azarenka some confidence, but she knows a Slam is much different and that what happened in the past surely does not predict the future.
“The new week is the new story. You can always take the best out of what happened last week and six months ago,” she said. “So I will definitely take [the win over Serena] into consideration, but the new week, we all start kind of from zero here. [It is] important is to build from match to match and improve.”
It is true the Slams this year have been full of surprises, with few predicting beforehand that the now-retired Marion Bartoli would be lifting the Wimbledon trophy, defeating Sabine Lisicki in the final, or that Serena would fall to fellow American Sloane Stephens in the Australian Open semifinals.
What will the fortnight in New York bring? Here are some players who might have something to do with writing the history of the 2013 US Open.
No. 1 - Serena Williams
Previous Best: Champion (1999, 2002, 2008, 2012)
Career US Open Record: 65-9
The world No. 1 and defending US Open champion is the heavy favorite again, and if she plays her best and is healthy, Serena is nearly unbeatable. She has the best weapon in the women’s game with her serve and dictates with a vicious backhand that eats up weak serves from her opponents.
No. 2 - Victoria Azarenka
Previous Best: Final (2012)
Career US Open Record: 18-7
If Serena is the favorite, No. 2 seed and 2012 finalist Azarenka is the definitive second pick. She is one of few who can hit with Serena from the baseline – and one of the few who has the athleticism to chase Serena ground strokes from corner to corner – in addition to being one of the world’s best returners and possessing a stellar backhand. Her come-from-behind win in Cincinnati gives confidence.
No. 3 - Agnieszka Radwanska
Previous Best: Fourth Round (2007, 2008, 2012)
Career US Open Record: 13-7
The No. 3 seed has had a consistent Slam year, with her best result the Wimbledon semis. Her game is built more on finesse than power, but she plays some of the best defense in the women’s game and is one of the quickest players on tour. She is in the same half as Serena, however, against whom she is 0-6, but an upset could clear the way for a run to the final.
No. 5 - Li Na
Previous Best: Quarterfinals (2009)
Career US Open Record: 12-7
Li, the 2011 French Open champion, has had a solid hard-court season with back-to-back semifinal showings in Toronto and Cincinnati, and she also reached the Australian Open final earlier this year. Li has the combination of power and movement to win the title here, but she has struggled with her serve on big points and in closing out matches as of late.
No. 7 - Petra Kvitova
Previous Best: Fourth Round (2009, 2012)
Career US Open Record: 8-5
The talented lefty is predictably unpredictable. She was the surprise 2011 Wimbledon champion but has not been back to a Grand Slam final since. She has the power and the serve to stay with the best but is as capable of being upset early as of reaching the final.
No. 9 - Jelena Jankovic
Previous Best: Final (2008)
Career US Open Record: 25-9
All credit to Jankovic for working her way back to world No. 11 after finishing 2012 out of the Top 20. She has a rock-steady backhand, one of her biggest strengths, and comes in on a hot streak, having reached the Cincinnati semifinals and defeated three Top 20 players before pushing Azarenka to three sets. Still, she has not been back to a Grand Slam final since losing to Serena in the 2008 US Open final.
No. 11 - Samantha Stosur
Previous Best: Champion (2011)
Career US Open Record: 17-8
It’s hard to believe the 2011 US Open champion has won just four career titles and that her title in Carlsbad, where she defeated Azarenka in the final, a few weeks ago was her first since her surprise win in New York. The No. 11 seed, she has power to hit with Serena and Azarenka, with a great forehand and athleticism.
Unseeded - Venus Williams
Previous Best: Champion (2000-01)
Career US Open Record: 61-11
Her world ranking has fallen to No. 60, mostly due to inactivity as she has battled a back injury this season, but Venus remains a threat and a player to watch. A two-time US Open champion, she does not move as well as she once did but can still produce serious power to threaten almost anyone in the draw.
PLAYERS WITH PROMISE
No. 15 - Sloane Stephens
Previous Best: Third Round (2011, 2012)
Career US Open Record: 4-2
The 20-year-old had her Grand Slam breakthrough in Australia, when she shocked Serena to reach her first-ever Slam semi. She has proven herself as a big match player since, reaching the fourth round in Paris and the Wimbledon quarters. She is extremely athletic with a world-class forehand and a power serve.
No. 21 - Simona Halep
Previous Best: Second Round (2011-12)
Career US Open Record: 2-3
The 21-year-old has not had a lot of Grand Slam success but comes in having the best season of her career, with four titles in 2013, and on a real hot streak, with a tournament title at the New Haven Open at Yale the week before the US Open, where she posted straight-sets wins over Caroline Wozniacki in the semis and Petra Kvitova in the final.
No. 23 - Jamie Hampton
Previous Best: First Round (2010, 2011, 2012)
Career US Open Record: 0-3
It has been a breakout year for the 23-year-old American whose game is highlighted by a world-class backhand. She is seeded at a Slam for the first time after pushing Azarenka to three sets in the third round in Australia and reaching the round of 16 at Roland Garros.
THE QUESTION: All right fans, it's your turn to predict. Who will win the US Open?