US Open 2015 draw: Enduring Serena Williams has tough road to 7th heaven

Marianne Bevis previews the women's singles draw at the US Open, where Serena Williams is bidding for her seventh title

Hot-foot from her second Cincinnati title, the mighty Serena Williams, world No1 with more than twice the points of No2, aims to make history—or more accurately, yet more history—in New York.

As this remarkable tennis player approaches her 34th birthday, it has become a growing challenge to put her achievements into context, for here is a woman who won her first Major as a teenager at the US Open in 1999, and she is now the hot favourite to win her seventh back where it all began, her 22nd Major overall—which would equal the Open era record of Steffi Graf.

And such is the longevity and dominance of Williams that she has bridged eras of great players—beginning with Graf herself. They played just twice, in a year that could be seen as a passing of the baton between one great champion to another. Just months before Williams won her first Major, Graf won her last at the French Open, and their two matches went to 7-5 in the third set, with honours shared.

In the years ahead, Williams met and beat great contemporaries—Justine Henin eight wins to six, Kim Clijsters 7-2, Amelie Mauresmo, 10-2—all in their 30s, all retired. Williams would also come back from a losing start to lead her elder sister—Venus, age 35, is also still competing—15-11.

Then Williams took on the challenge the next, younger wave and proved to be a near-insurmountable force: she leads former No1s Maria Sharapova 18-2, Caroline Wozniacki 10-1, Victoria Azarenka 17-3, Ana Ivanovic 9-1.

And now, she is putting together one of her best seasons in a career of outstanding seasons. She is on a 28-match Grand Slam streak, her last loss to Alize Cornet at Wimbledon 2014, and on a 21-match US Open streak, winning three back-to-back titles since losing to Sam Stosur in the 2011 final.

She is 48-2 so far this year, losing in two semi-finals to Petra Kvitova in Madrid and Belinda Bencic in Toronto. And among her five titles are three Majors—which means she is attempting one of tennis’s biggest achievements during her fortnight in New York. Only three other women have won a Calendar Grand Slam—Maureen Connolly, Margaret Court and, of course, Graf. They could soon be joined by Williams.

Yet Williams has not got here without huge physical and mental determination. It would have been easy to leave her sport after a year away fighting injury and a life-threatening illness, but she instead bounced back within 12 months to reclaim the Wimbledon title in 2012.

After a shock first-round loss at Roland Garros the month before, she also linked up with new coach Patrick Mouratoglou in an effort to overturn that result: she won the French Open the next year, having already reclaimed the No1, Olympic gold, the US Open and WTA Championships. She has been No1 ever since.

Far from easing off, then, Williams is compiling a ‘second career’ every bit as impressive as her first. Before her year’s absence in 2010/2011, she won 13 Majors among 37 titles in 11 years. Since then, she has won eight Majors among 32 titles… and counting.

With another big target on the line in New York, then, does the expectation weight heavy: “Yeah, but you know what? I decided I prefer to have that pressure than the pressure of not winning. Not everyone can handle that pressure, but I’m okay with it. I would rather be in this position than another one.”

Can anyone, then, thwart her home nation’s hopes and plans? Well, the biggest consistent challenge this year—indeed since her return to No1—has been Azarenka, the woman who Williams supplanted at No1 in 2013.

Eight times the two have played one another in those two and a half years: twice Azarenka has won and six times they have gone to three sets. As for their encounters this year, though all went Williams’ way, Madrid needed a final-set tie-breaker, and at the French Open and Wimbledon, Williams lost the first set.

As it happens, on both occasions that Azarenka reached the US Open final, she also faced Williams, and also lost after three gruelling sets. As luck would have it, the woman from Belarus, still climbing the rankings to No20 after her own injury absence, is drawn in the bottom half: Could a third high-octane final be looming?

However, Williams will also be mindful of the next generation, some of whom have shown the potential to rise to her challenge. Williams’ first seed is 22-year-old Sloane Stephens who, while still a teenager, upset Williams at the Australian Open, and she has twice this year been a set up against the top seed.

The quarter-final could set up a rematch with the fast-rising star, 18-year-old Belinda Bencic, who came from a set down to beat Williams in Toronto, going on to win the title. And in the bottom half, Garbine Muguruza may be confident of the kind of run that handed Williams one of her two defeats this year from a set down. The Spaniard then put up a great fight in the Wimbledon final having already beaten three top-10 seeds.

Williams, then, has her work cut out in New York, drawn into a dangerous quarter and a tough half. But even when under the weather in Paris, and enduring five three-setters, she won. On her most successful surface, with finals day already sold out in expectation, surely this should be Serena’s finest hour.

Former champions in draw: Serena Williams (6), Stosur (1), Sharapova (1), Svetlana Kuznetsova (1), Venus Williams (2).

Serena Williams quarter

R1: Vitalia Diatchenko.
R2: Mirjana Lucic-Baroni, whose R4 last year was her best Major run since 1999, or Kiki Bertens.
R3: First seed Stephens, unless tough fellow Americans Coco Vandeweghe or Bethanie Mattek-Sands rise to the occasion.
R4: Survivor between Agnieszka Radwanska and Madison Keys.
QF: Bencic has a tough draw if she is to set up QF vs Williams: Venus Williams, then Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova or US Open Series winner Karolina Pliskova.
SF: On paper, it will be Sharapova, though she has been carrying a thigh injury, so alternatives are the in-form Elina Svitolina, Jelena Jankovic, or Ivanovic—who was a break up in the final set vs Williams in Cincinnati.

Matches to catch:

R1 Stephens vs Vandeweghe
R3 Williams vs Stephens
R3 Keys vs Radwanska
R3 Venus Williams vs Bencic
R3 Pliskova vs Pavlyuchenkova

Maria Sharapova quarter

R1: Daria Gavrilova, ranked at career-high 37, beat Sharapova in R1 in Miami, and has other top-10 scalps this season.
R2: Ana Konjuh or Tatjana Maria.
R3: First seed is 2004 US champion Kuznetsova, also suffering recent leg problem.
R4: Winner between Ekaterina Makarova and Stanford and Cincinnati semi-finalist Svitolina. Heather Watson is also in this segment.
QF: No7 Ivanovic is seeded to meet Sharapova but has a tough R1 against Australian Open runner-up Dominika Cibulkova. Alternative for QF place are Jankovic or Bouchard, aiming to kick-start some wins with the help of Jimmy Connors.
SF: Sharapova, if she makes SF vs Williams, will look for her .first win over her nemesis since 2004.

Matches to catch:
R1 Ivanovic vs Cibulkova
R1 Bouchard vs Riske
R1 Sharapova vs Gavrilova
R3 Ivanovic vs Bouchard

Caroline Wozniacki quarter

R1: Jamie Loeb.
R2: Christina McHale or Petra Cetkovska.
R3: First seed Flavia Pennetta, who saves her best for New York: She has only fallen short of the quarters once in last six visits.
R4: 2011 US champion Stosur or Sara Errani.
QF: One from a tough segment topped by Kvitova, who contests New Haven final today but has never gone beyond fourth round in New York, and Muguruza, who could face qualifying Briton Jo Konta in the second round. Also here is Andrea Petkovic, a possible second-round opponent for returning Briton Laura Robson.
SF: If Wozniacki’s leg is fit, the No4 seed could reach the semis where she was finalist last year—and in 2009—and with their rivalry poised at 5-5 since Kvitova’s win in New Haven this week, a tight QF could decide it.

Matches to catch:
R1 Petkovic vs Garcia
R1 Goerges vs Schmiedlova
R3 Stosur vs Errani
R3 Petkovic vs Muguruza

Simona Halep quarter

R1: Marina Erakovic.
R2: Yulia Putintseva or Kateryna Bondarenko.
R3: First seed Cornet.
R4: Sabine Lisicki plays late bloomer Timea Bacsinszky, who made it past the third round of a Major for first time this year—at both Roland Garros and Wimbledon—for R4 face-off.
QF: Stanford winner Angelique Kerber or Azarenka and Irina-Camelia Begu or in-form French Open finalist Lucie Safarova, who contests New Haven final. The popular Czech has a tough opener, a repeat of the New Haven semis and 2013 US first round, Lesia Tsurenko.
SF: Any one of Halep, Azarenka or Safarova could make a run here, and even reach the final if they find their best form.

Matches to catch:
R1 Safarova vs Tsurenko
R1 Bacsinszky vs Strycova
R1 Schiavone vs Wickmayer
R3 Bacsinszky vs Lisicki
R3 Azarenka vs Kerber

NEXT: Can anyone oust Djokovic, Federer and Murray in New York?

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