US Open preview: Top four Halep, Wozniacki, Stephens & Kerber lead wide-open field of contenders
Marianne Bevis looks ahead to the women's singles draw at the 2018 US Open
When the last seven Majors, dating back to the Australian Open 2017, have been won by seven different women, and when the No1 ranking has changed hands 10 times over the same period, shared by six different players, it is fair to say that the eighth Major, and last of 2018, is wide open.
The four reigning Major champions, Simona Halep, Caroline Wozniacki, Angelique Kerber and defending US Open champion Sloane Stephens, could make a case for being the quartet most likely to succeed, especially as all but Stephens has also enjoyed the No1 ranking within the last 14 months. As they prepare for their gruelling New York campaigns, they currently hold the top four places in the ranks.
But turn to the Race to Singapore, and a slightly different picture emerges—one that blurs the edges still further. Halep still resides at the top, Kerber is second, but Petra Kvitova, whose last Major came more than four years ago, and has never been No1, is at No3.
Then stir into the mix some additional former—and formidable—champions, the likes of Venus Williams, Maria Sharapova, and Washington champion earlier this month, Svetlana Kuznetsova, ranked 101 but playing with a wild card, and there are tough draws at every turn.
Big names face Round-1 tests such as Briton Johanna Konta
Take the biggest Round 1 contest in the draw: Kuznetsova was pulled against two-time US champion and No16 seed, Venus Williams, who was semi-finalist last year—though the 38-year-old will hope to regain the form that took her to the semi-finals in Indian Wells and quarters in Miami.
Take Wozniacki, twice a US finalist, seeded No2, and with another former champion, Sam Stosur, in her opener—though the Australian has managed just 20 wins this year and is ranked at 64.
And take the top seed, Halep, drawn against the powerful No44 Kaia Kanepi, twice a quarter-finalist at the Open, including last year.
And then there is No6 seed Caroline Garcia, who faces an unseeded Johanna Konta in her opener.
The Briton was seeded No7 here last year before a slump in form and confidence took her down to No46 after five first-round losses. But there have been signs of a turnaround, including a victory over a sub-par Serena Williams in San Jose plus wins against Jelena Ostapenko and Victoria Azarenka in Montreal. Konta pulled out of New Haven this week with illness, but will hope for good things where she first scored wins in a Major before her big breakthroughs to the semis in Australia and Wimbledon.
Serena back where she belongs
Six-time former champion Serena Williams, who has not fallen short of the semi-finals in New York for a decade, is ranked 26 following her steady return to competition after missing four straight Majors due to pregnancy, maternity leave, plus additional health problems.
Since her early return at Indian Wells in March, a limited programme saw her reach the final at Wimbledon, but win just one match through the US Series due to personal issues. Yet when Williams is playing—even through her bump to a No17 seeding profits her little—she is always a contender, and nowhere more than in New York. Just shy of her 37th birthday, she said:
“I’m not going in there thinking I’m going to lose. That’s not being Serena. That’s being someone else.”
It sums up her very real threat—even with sister Venus as a possible Round-3 opponent.
Halep hoping against hope and tough draw
Halep is arguably the most consistent player on the women’s tour, and was rightly rewarded with the No1 ranking last year after making finals at Roland Garros, Rome, Cincinnati and Beijing. This year, finals at the Australian Open, Rome and Cincinnati were punctuated by a first Major at the French Open, plus the Montreal title, but…
Her draw is perhaps the worst among the elite: Kanepi in Round 1, and one of three former champs possible in Round 3—two Williams or Kuznetsova—then Garbine Muguruza or Karolina Pliskova just to reach the semis. It looks a mountain of a task after a successful but demanding month.
Other reigning champs Kerber, Wozniacki and Stephens jostle for victory
Stephens surged her way back from injury in stunning style to win her first Major here last year—and ranked just No83. She has since proved what a big-time player she is, winning the Miami title via four fellow Major champions, then reaching the final at the French Open. Back on North American hard courts, she ran to the final in Montreal, only just edged out by Halep. She has also avoided many of the big names in her quarter—except for wild card Azarenka as a possible in the third round.
Kerber’s confidence and results, after a 2017 slide, have bounced back with a vengeance to their 2016 levels—when she won in New York. So far this year, she has made the semis in Australia, quarters in Paris and won Wimbledon. There are certainly tricky women in her way—the feisty Dominika Cibulkova in Round 3, Coco Vandeweghe or last year’s finalist Madison Keys in the fourth round, with Sharapova an always-worrying presence for the quarters.
And before all that, the highest ranked unseeded woman in the draw, Alize Cornet, could bring her unpredictable tennis to bear in Round 2. But Kerber knows how to win in New York: she will be the one to beat in this quarter.
Caroline Wozniacki may have won her first Major in Australia, but after a strong first six months to the year, culminating in the Eastbourne title, she has won only one match as she struggled with injury. Twice the bridesmaid in New York, she must hope for full fitness to survive the likes of in-form Kiki Bertens, Naomi Osaka and Kvitova in her quarter.
Kvitova riding high—but can she break through in New York?
The popular Czech’s career may well have been ended by the attack to her playing hand before the start of the 2017 season, when she ended the year ranked 29. This year, though, she has won five titles, on all three surfaces, including the Premier Mandatory in Madrid.
And while the US Open has not been her most successful Major—twice into the quarters, including last year—she played some good tennis to reach the semis in Cincinnati last week, including a win over Serena Williams. Not that the draw has done her any great favours, with big-hitting Yanina Wickmayer in Round 1, the ever-improving Aryna Sabalenka as a first seed, and young stars Daria Kasatkina, a quarter-finalist in the last two Majors, and Osaka, who beat Kasatkina to claim the Indian Wells title, possible in Round 4.
Watch out for the fast-rising names…
There were last-minute rises for Bertens following her victory in Cincinnati, to take her into the top 16 at No13, just one place below Muguruza, who has slipped from the No3 she held at Wimbledon last month. Sabalenka, a semi-finalist in Cincinnati, is seeded for the first time at a Major, at No25, as is Maria Sakkari, who nabs the last spot, No32.
…And beware the unseeded dangers
· No80 Azarenka, two-time former finalist, who is playing for the first time since 2015 with a wild card
· No39 Agnieszka Radwanska, unseeded at a Major for the first time in over 11 years after recurrent injury problems
· No101 Svetlana Kuznetsova, champion in 2004, and playing with a wild card;
The facts and figures
Former champions in draw: Serena Williams x6, Venus Williams x2, Sharapova x1, Kuznetsova x1, Kerber x1, Stephens x1, Stosur x1,
Additional Major champions in draw: Kvitova, Muguruza, Azarenka, Halep, Ostapenko, Wozniacki
Hard court champions since Wimbledon: Halep, Bertens, Buzarnescu, Wang, Kuznetsova
Missing injured: Catherine Bellis, Peng Shuai, Elena Vesnina, Mirjana Lucic-Baroni
Britons in draw, and first opponents:
Konta vs Caroline Garcia
Heather Watson [via qualifying] vs Ekaterina Makarova
Draw size 128; 32 seeds; 16 qualifiers; eight wild cards
Top half, Halep quarter
R2 Jil Jakupovic or Dalila Jakupovic
R3 First seed Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova (27)
R4 Seeds are S Williams (17) and V Williams (16)
QF Seeds are Muguruza (12), Ashleigh Barty (18), Sakkari (32), Pliskova (8)
SF Stephens and Elina Svitolina are top seeds
Top half, Stephens quarter
R1 Evgeniya Rodina
R2 Kathinka von Deichmann or Anhelina Kalinina
R3 First seed Daria Gavrilova (25)
R4 Seeds are Barbora Strycova (23) and Elise Mertens (15)
QF Seeds are Julia Goerges (9), Anastasija Sevastova (19), Magdalena Rybarikova (31), Svitolina (7)
SF Halep and Pliskova top seeds
Bottom half, Kerber quarter
R1 Margarita Gasparyan
R2 Cornet or Johanna Larsson
R3 First seed Cibulkova (29)
R4 Seeds are Keys (14) and Vandeweghe (24)
QF Seeds are Garcia (6), Carla Suarez Navarro (30), Sharapova (22), Ostapenko (10)
SF Kvitova and Wozniacki top seeds
Bottom half, Wozniacki quarter
R2 Lesia Tsurenko or Alison Van Uytvanck
R3 First seed Anett Kontaveit (28)
R4 Seeds are Bertens (13) and Mihaela Buzarnescu (21)
QF Seeds are Kvitova (5), Sabalenka (26), Osaka (20), Kasatkina (11)
SF Garcia and Kerber are top seeds