US Open 2021 preview: No1 Barty and defending champ Osaka face hard roads to title

Even without Williams sisters and Kenin, draw is full of interest for home fans

Ashleigh Barty
Ashleigh Barty (Photo: Mutua Madrid Open / Alberto Nevado)

There is certainly reason to celebrate the last and biggest Major of 2021, the US Open, when it welcomes a full complement of fans to a Major for the first time since the Australian Open in 2020.

But the capacity crowds will be missing their favourite daughters after six-time champion Serena Williams and her sister, two-time champion Venus, both pulled out injured from this year’s jamboree. It marks the first time since 2003 that neither features in New York.

There was a second blow when the highest ranked of 16 American women in the top 100, Sofia Kenin, was forced to withdraw following a positive Covid test. A blow, because the 22-year-old is already a Major champion, in Australia 2020.

Not that the home nation wants for quality and quantity in this year’s draw. For a start, there are 22 women among the 128—and that before the qualifiers are added. Four of them are seeded, too, led by No13 Jennifer Brady, while Alison Riske only missed a seeding by one place. Inevitable, then, that some American women should be drawn together in the first round, though what were the chances that the only former champion in their number, Sloane Stephens, would be drawn against the woman she beat in the 2017 US final, Madison Keys?

The winner of that latest battle between the good friends will then face the American tipped for the very top, Cori Gauff. Still only 17, she is the No21 seed—but aside from that formidable second-round prospect, she finds herself in one of the toughest sections of the draw.

For it is topped by No3 Naomi Osaka, the defending champion who is bidding for her third US title, her fifth Major title—with all four thus far won on hard courts. Not that 2021 has been a smooth ride for the Japanese woman who has spent much of her career based in the USA. Since winning the Australian Open, she has won just seven matches during a season when she revealed mental health struggles that have been exacerbated by facing the press at tournaments.

Osaka, then, could face Gauff, Stephens, or another former champion, Angelique Kerber—who has a 4-1 record against Osaka—in Round 4. Kerber has, too, recently regained some of her best form in over a year: the Bad Homburg title, then the semis at Wimbledon and Cincinnati.

Whoever comes through this segment could face another Major champion, Simona Halep, or No5 seed Elina Svitolina, in the quarters, though former No1 Halep has been wrestling with a calf injury for months, forcing her to miss both the French Open and Wimbledon, and she went on to withdraw from her second match in Cincinnati just a fortnight ago.

But where are the other threats to Osaka’s campaign in the bottom half? For a start, there are three Major champions in another packed segment headed by No8 seed Barbora Krejcikova and No9 seed Garbine Muguruza, with Victoria Azarenka, last year’s runner-up, slotted between them.

In the very bottom section, topped by No2 seed Aryna Sabalenka, are some more stronger performers this: Danielle Collins, winner in San Jose, and Ons Jabeur, at a career high No21 after winning her first career title in Birmingham, reaching her first Wimbledon quarter-final plus a quarter run in Montreal.

The powerhouse Sabalenka herself ended 2020 with a bang, and cranked up this season to reach the final in Stuttgart, win Madrid, and make the semis of Wimbledon and Montreal. She is, too, a player with multiple skills who has a slew of big doubles titles, and will be a serious threat for the US title.

If she makes the final, however, most expect her to meet world No1 Ash Barty. The Aussie who put her tennis on hold for much of 2020 to stay within the quarantine bubble of her homeland, has done the opposite since reaching the quarters in Melbourne this year.

She took to the road to consolidate her place at the top of the ranks with aplomb: She leads the tour with 40 match wins, a 14-1 record over top-20 opposition, and five titles, including Wimbledon, Miami and Cincinnati.

She opens against 2010 US Open runner-up Vera Zvonareva, though the veteran Russian is currently ranked outside the top 100. Barty will face a second-round test against one of two quality young women: either Lyon champion Clara Tauson or Lausanne runner-up Clara Burel.

Brady is the highest seed in this segment, but the quarters could produce the Olympic gold medallist Belinda Bencic or last year’s French Open champion Iga Swiatek, who won in both Adelaide—where she beat Bencic in the final—and Rome this year. Their possible fourth-round clash is one of the stand-outs before the quarters, and the winner versus Barty in the quarters equally so.

Whoever survives this tricky quarter is scheduled to meet either No4 Karolina Pliskova, who is back at No4 after a final run at Wimbledon and Montreal, or No6 seed Bianca Andreescu, the teenage champion in 2019.

The young Canadian has suffered injury problems and a Covid 19 infection in the stop-and-start year and a half since that victory, and after she retired in the Miami final, she has managed just four match-wins. With Jelena Ostapenko, Maria Sakkari and Petra Kvitova before the quarters, this will be a severe test of the Canadian’s fitness.

Amid so many scenarios, then, there is little certainty, especially—as the WTA background feature this week points out—because there have been five different winners of the biggest titles since the last US Open: two French Opens, an Australian Open, Wimbledon and the Tokyo Olympics. Not only that, the five tournaments produced 20 different semi-finalists, and those did not even include the likes of Halep, Muguruza, Azarenka, Gauff, and many more.

Britons first round

Johanna Konta vs Kristina Mladenovic

Heather Watson vs Kaja Juvan

Top half

Barty quarter

Round 1: Zvonareva; Round 2 Burel/Tauson; Round 3 First seed Veronika Kudermetova; Round 4 Karolina Muchova/Brady; Quarter-finals Bencic/Jessica Pegula/Anett Kontaveit/Swiatek; Semi-finals: Pliskova/Andreescu

Pliskova quarter

Round 1: Catherine McNally; Round 2 Zarina Diyas/Amanda Anisimova; Round 3 First seed Petra Martic; Round 4 Paula Badosa/Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova; Quarter-finals Kvitova/Sakkari/Ostapenko/Andreescu; Semi-finals: Barty/Swiatek

Bottom half

Osaka quarter

Round 1: Marie Bouzkova; Round 2 Alycia Parks/qualifier; Round 3 First seed Yulia Putintseva; Round 4 Gauff/Kerber; Quarter-finals Halep/Elena Rybakina/Daria Kasatkina/Svitolina; Semi-finals: Sabalenka/Krejcikova

Sabalenka quarter

Round 1: Nina Stojanovic; Round 2 Tamara Zidansek/Bernarda Pera; Round 3 First seed Danielle Collins; Round 4 Jabeur/Elise Mertens; Quarter-finals Muguruza/Azarenka/Ekaterina Alexandrova/ Krejcikova; Semi-finals: Osaka/Svitolina

MORE: US Open 2021 preview: No1 Djokovic goes for Grand Slam glory as young stars give chase

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