US Open 2017: Quest for No1 continues for Simona Halep, but can she beat Sharapova in opener?
Simona Halep’s hopes for No1 have moved to the US Open, where she is now just five points behind Karolina Pliskova
Simona Halep, one of the most consistent and persistent women on the tour, has needed to draw on all her focus and resilience this year as chances to claim the No1 ranking evaporated before her eyes.
But all the signs are that the US Open will at last deliver one of the biggest achievement of her career.
Twice the Romanian has been runner-up at a Major—both times at the French Open. She has also been a semi-finalist at Wimbledon and the US Open, yet thus far, she has failed to pick up one of the landmark titles. But her form through the US Open Series suggests she will be tough to beat: a semi run in Toronto followed by a final finish in Cincinnati. Maybe this time…
She has also enjoyed long stretches as the world No2: from August 2015 through to 2016, and now since the French Open this year. She then came within touching distance of No1, in a battle that has raged since Angelique Kerber displaced the absent Serena Williams after more than three years at No1.
Battle for No1 set for replay in New York
Until now, that battle has been joined repeatedly by up to five women through the clay and grass seasons, and Halep is the one who has been a constant after an injury-blighted start to the year. Her surge began in Miami, then came a semi run in Stuttgart, victory in Madrid, the final in Rome, and the No1 ranking was hers if she won at Roland Garros. She was runner-up.
After losing to Jelena Ostapenko at the French Open, she had another bite of the cherry in Eastbourne: she fell to Caroline Wozniacki. The odds then seemed in her favour at Wimbledon as she came within touching distance of the semis, which would have sealed the deal, only to lose 7-6, 6-7, 4-6 to Johanna Konta.
Instead, it would be Karolina Pliskova who rose to No1, despite losing in the second round at Wimbledon.
Halep’s hopes were ignited again through the US Open Series, and come Cincinnati, Halep, Elina Svitolina, Kerber and Wozniacki—the Toronto runner-up—were all in contention, and Halep could grab the No1 with the title. Sure enough she made the final, only to be beaten by Garbine Muguruza.
So Halep’s hopes for No1 have moved to the US Open, where she is now just five points behind last year’s runner-up, Pliskova. But now, there are no fewer than eight women who, mathematically at least, could end the final Major of the year as No1.
Halep sets the pace for No1—but troubles ahead
Halep, however, has drawn the shortest of straws in the draw, facing wild card and former champion Maria Sharapova. The Russian has won all six of their previous matches and has never lost before the third round in New York. The only saving grace is that Sharapova has suffered injury problems since her return from a doping ban, and arrives having played only one match on hard courts: She retired after her opener in Stanford.
Halep could face another contender for No1, No6 seed Johanna Konta, in the quarters, though the in-form Julia Goerges may have other ideas, and No11 seed Dominika Cibulkova, has just become runner-up in Connecticut. There are dangerous floaters, too, in the shape of Sloane Stephens and Roberta Vinci.
Should she get through, Halep is then faced with no fewer than three more contenders for the No1 ranking in the semis.
Wozniacki is seeded No5, but she could face another woman in the No1 frame, 37-year-old Venus Williams, seeded No8. Remarkably, the elder Williams won her two titles in New York in 2000 and 2001, and was last No1 more than 15 years ago, yet she is the only woman this year to have reached two Major finals.
Muguruza on the march
However, the biggest danger once again could be Muguruza. Her second-round loss in New York last year means she has big points to gain, and she trails the top two women by fewer than 600 points after winning in Cincinnati. She is also the only woman among the top five to have won a Major—and she now has two of them.
The tall, elegant Spaniard has to reach at least the fourth round for a chance of grabbing No1, but should not have too much trouble doing so. Beyond that, though, there is a tricky path to the quarters blocked by Petra Kvitova—who has the unpredictable Jelena Jankovic in her opener—and Caroline Garcia.
To reach the semis, she could come up against Williams or Wozniacki, but she is many experts’ pick for the title, despite having won just two matches here in four previous visits.
Elina Svitolina, just 22 years old, has won five titles this year, including the prestigious Rome, Dubai and Toronto Premiers. From a ranking of 14 at the start of the year, therefore, the athletic Ukrainian has risen to No4—and No3 in the Race—but she will have to perform at her best level to come through a tough quarter.
Her first seed, Daria Gavrilova, is has just won in Connecticut, but unseeded players in these first rounds include Kayla Day and Eugenie Bouchard. Madison Keys is a challenge lurking in the fourth round, and defending champion Kerber and French Open champion Ostapenko are possible opponents in the quarters.
Kerber, displaced at No1 in the summer, is not among the eight who could reclaim it—her champion’s points from last year have seen to that. Her wayward form—not a single win over a top-20 player this season—will not encourage, either.
Other young players to watch include the remarkably confident Ostapenko, who was ranked 36 last year, but now the 20-year-old is ranked 12. She also reached the quarters at Wimbledon, and has the kind of attacking game to upset anyone on her day.
More young blood breaking into the top 32 seedings are teenage Ana Konjuh and 21-year-old Anett Kontaveit, while 23-year-old Gavrilova has just won her first title in Connecticut.
Also worth watching is 22-year-old Madison Keys, who has bounced back from a long injury absence to win Stanford—though she is in the demanding Svitolina/Kerber/Ostapenko quarter.
US Open champions in draw
Angelique Kerber (1)
Maria Sharapova (1)
Svetlana Kuznetsova (1)
Venus Williams (2)
Can Konta cash in?
Johanna Konta is one of just two British women in the draw with Heather Watson, but she too is in with a shout of the No1 ranking. All she has to do is win her first Major, but then New York is arguably her most decent shot at doing just that.
Konta only broke the top 50 at the start of 2016, did not win her first title until Stanford last year, and won her first Premier Mandatory this March in Miami. She has built a 5-7 record over top-five opponents and a 14-9 record over top-10 players, but she first showed her full promise in New York. It was 2015, she was ranked 97, and she came through qualifying to reach her first fourth round at a Major, beating world No9 and No18 in the process.
Now with her second Major semi-final behind her, she will have to come through the testing Halep quarter, beginning with the 77-ranked Aleksandra Krunic but progressing to Goerges, Cibuklova and Halep. However, it is entirely possible.
But let us not forget…
That Pliskova was runner-up in New York last year, has three titles to her name this year, and likes to remain under the radar despite her height and power on a hard court.
She has some tricky customers in her quarter, including Kristina Mladenovic, Agnieszka Radwanska and Coco Vandeweghe, though the highest ranked woman is that last of the eight in contention for No1. Svetlana Kuznetsova also happens to be a former US champion, and at the age of 32, is consistently going deep in the biggest tournaments.
Garbine Muguruza (needs to reach R4)
Elina Svitolina (needs to reach SFs)
Karolina Pliskova (needs to reach final)
Caroline Wozniacki, Johanna Konta, Svetlana Kuznetsova and Venus Williams all need to reach final and have other results go in their favour