She won her first Grand Slam in New York a staggering 14 years ago, has won it three times since—and is defending champion—and has twice been runner-up. She has not fallen short of the quarters since her first appearance in 1998.
Yet now, with a tally of 16 singles Grand Slam titles and approaching her 32nd birthday, she is playing what many regard as her best ever tennis. She regained the French Open title this year—a decade after her only other win in Paris—and has added another seven titles this year.
She has played more pre-US Open matches than in any other season in her career, concluding it with a run to the final in Cincinnati last week to stack up 60 wins to just four losses.
So what looked like career-ending injury and illness in 2010 has, rather, revitalised and reinvigorated her—and since working with Patrick Mouratoglou in Paris last spring, she seems happier, more confident and fitter than ever.
It’s a remarkable story that has taken her back to No1 11 years after the first time, the oldest woman to hold the top spot. And while she is defending maximum points at Flushing Meadows next week, she is in no danger of slipping just yet: She has almost 3,000 points over No2, Victoria Azarenka.
The Belarusian is her biggest rival, and though Williams holds a 12-3 advantage in previous matches, this year has seen Azarenka claim both of their hard-court finals—most recently their three-set thriller in Cincinnati a week ago. Azarenka also won the Australian Open, and was runner-up in New York last year.
The big question at the previous Slams this year has been where the third of the ‘big trio’ would fall in the draw, but this time, No3 Maria Sharapova will be absent, a late withdrawal due to a shoulder injury.
And that has promoted the ever-consistent, ever-versatile Agnieszka Radwanska to that thankless No3 place, and she finds herself drawn with Williams, who has beaten her in all six previous meetings—though Radwanska almost claimed the win of her career by taking Williams to three sets in the 2012 Wimbledon final.
The other quarter is led by the pugnacious late-bloomer, Sara Errani ,who has an almost other-era all-court game honed as part of one the tour’s best doubles partnerships.
She hit a career-high No5 in singles earlier this year after a breakthrough season with a new racket in 2012—quarters in Australia, final in Paris, semis in New York and again in Paris this year—so her pedigree is almost as strong as her will to win. She has had precious little success against Azarenka, but that won’t stop her trying.
There are many other Grand Slam champions in the field—Sam Stosur beat Williams here in the final in 2011, while Petra Kvitova and Na Li took the Wimbledon and French titles just as Williams began to return from her year’s absence.
Both Stosur and Kvitova have fallen in Azarenka’s quarter, as has French titlist, Ana Ivanovic. Another French Open winner, Svetlana Kuznetsova, is also in the bottom half, an early opponent for Errani, and a dangerous one: Kuznetsova’s first Major came in New York in 2004.
Williams has drawn one French winner, Li, in her half, though the Chinese woman will first have to contend with Radwanska. However, Williams opens against yet another French titlist in the draw, the feisty veteran, Francesca Schiavone. The American beat the Italian with ease last week in Toronto, but it is nevertheless a fascinating match-up between two women who will both be playing in their 14th US Open. But for the astonishing Schiavone, it will be her 53rd consecutive Grand Slam appearance.
There is one other former champion who this year is unseeded: Her name is also Williams—older sister Venus, who won here in 2000 and 2001. As luck would have it, she has fallen in Serena’s quarter, but she has suffered a tawdry time from her debilitating illness again this year, winning just one match since the spring.
Also worth mentioning are three more Grand Slam finalists. Two have fallen into Radwanska’s quarter: Sabine Lisicki made the Wimbledon final this year, beating Serena Williams on the way, and Jelena Jankovic reached the US Open in 2008. The third falls in Errani’s quarter, the US 2009 runner-up, Caroline Wozniacki.
And worth remembering, too: as Marion Bartoli announced her retirement from tennis after winning her only Grand Slam at Wimbledon this year, Williams and Azarenka are the only women in the New York draw to have won a Major since Stosur won here in 2011.
Williams’ hot form coming to New York makes her the favourite to win her fifth title here, and should she do so—and Azarenka is not runner-up again—she will hold the No1 ranking to the year’s end.
She has already won the US Open Series with her win in Toronto and final finish in Cincinnati—and that’s aside from a stop-over in Bastad to win a clay title after Wimbledon. And that puts her in line for a record payout should she take the Open title of $3.6 million ($2.6 million first prize plus a $1 million bonus for winning the US Open Series).
She will not underestimate Schiavone in the first round but she will underestimate even less the seed she could face in the quarters, Sloane Stephens. The young American upset her in the quarters at this year’s Australian Open, but Stephens first has another American seed, Jamie Hampton, to beat.
Williams is lined up to meet her unseeded sister in the quarters, but Venus has a tough first-round match against the rising Belgian woman, Kirsten Flipkens, seeded 12 and a semi-finalist at Wimbledon. Flipkens beat Williams in Toronto in three tough sets, too, and looks a strong contender for the quarters.
The other seeds who could advance to a meeting with Serena Williams are Angelique Kerber—semi-finalist here in 2011—Kaia Kanepi and Carla Suarez Navarro. And a dangerous newcomer in the bottom of the quarter is teenage Eugenie Bouchard, a fast riser playing in her first US Open: She took Serena to three sets in the Cincinnati.
Semi-finalist: Serena Williams
The US Open has been Radwanska’s least successful Slam: she has never made it beyond the fourth round in seven previous visits.
She also has a heavyweight quarter, with Li a possible quarter-final opponent and two other Grand Slam finalists—most dangerously Lisicki in the fourth round: the German beat Radwanska in the Wimbledon semis. The other, former No1 Jankovic, is seeded nine and could meet Li in what should be a closely contested match: their head-to-head is 4-4.
However, Jankovic has the talented Madison Keys in her opener. The 18-year-old reached the third round of the Australian Open and Wimbledon to surge up the rankings, missing a seeding here by a few places.
Seeded to meet Li in the third round, indeed seeded in a Slam for the first time, is Briton Laura Robson, No30. In a quirk of fate, they met at the same stage last year, in Robson’s breakout Slam run, and she beat Li after also beating Kim Clijsters, finally losing to Stosur in the fourth round.
Robson’s first match is far from straightforward, against the No53 32-year-old Lourdes Dominquez Lino, who won their previous two matches—though their last in Katowice was a close three-setter.
The absence of Sharapova has given Errani a real chance of backing up last year’s semi finish here. Her first seed certainly has the past pedigree to cause an upset…Kuznetsova is a former champion and has a winning record over the petite Errani. But the Italian won their last meeting, the French Open 2012, and seems constantly to surprise with her great movement and all-court skill.
Errani could face Maria Kirilenko in the fourth round, and she has dominated her in most of their matches, but Simona Halep may in any case cause an upset against Kirilenko judging from her post-Wimbledon form, and she comes to New York on the back of dominant win over Kvitova in the final of New Haven.
It is Briton Heather Watson’s misfortune to face 21-year-old Halep in her opener, especially as Watson’s own form, following glandular fever at the start of the year, continues to fluctuate.
The No2 seed arrived in New York to the news that she is the second woman to qualify for the WTA Championships in Istanbul this year, a further confidence boost after beating Williams, plus Jankovic and Wozniacki, in Cincinnati.
She has a tough draw here, if not in the opening rounds then in the fourth with either Ivanovic or Dominika Cibulkova, who beat her in their last match at the 2012 French Open. She then faces Kvitova or Stosur, who scored her first win over Azarenka in nine attempts in Carlsbad this month.
Stosur has a tricky opening seed in the big and powerful Nadia Petrova, who has won all but one of their six hard-court meetings, before her likely meet with Kvitova, who also has the advantage, most recently in Toronto a fortnight ago.
Final: Williams beats Azarenka