US Open 2016: Can Serena Williams hold off Kerber, Muguruza & Radwanska in race to No1?
Serena Williams is facing competition from Angelique Kerber for the US Open title and the world No1 spot
It seemed hardly credible at the start of 2016 that, by the US Open, the dominance of Serena Williams in the rankings could be close to its end.
When the mighty Williams last rose to the top of the rankings, she became the oldest woman to do so. Three and a half years later, and now less than a month away from her 35th birthday, she is still there, and will match Steffi Graf’s 186 consecutive weeks by the conclusion of the last Major of the year, Williams’ home Slam.
But unless the six-time US champion wins her seventh title here, her remarkable tally of 309 weeks could end. Not only did that seem a distant dream for the rest of the tour before the Australian Open, but it seemed an impossible dream for the woman who is within a hair’s breadth of dethroning the queen of the rankings.
Seven months back, Williams had almost 10,000 points, while No2 Simona Halep had around 6,000. Garbine Muguruza had just passed the 5,000 mark and Agnieszka Radwanska was at No5 with 4,500.
Way down at No10 was Angelique Kerber with 3,590, but two weeks later, she beat Williams to claim her first Major title in Melbourne—and the 28-year-old German had begun her charge to the top.
In almost 10 years on the main tour, Kerber had reached two Major semis and two more quarters, but last year, she ended the season with as many match-wins as anyone, and this year, she arrived in New York already with more wins than anyone else, 47-14: the next in line has won 37. She has also posted the most top-10 wins and the most hard-court wins—though also made the final of Wimbledon, where Williams exacted revenge to finally match Graf’s 22 Majors.
By the time Kerber reached the Olympic final, though, the tiredness began to show, though silver was a fine reward. But by now, two titles from six finals, plus three big semi runs, brought the No1 ranking within touching distance. All she had to do to displace Williams, who had been forced to pull out of the Cincinnati with a shoulder injury, was win the title. Her relentless schedule finally told and she faded in the final.
Yet now she stands within 190 points of Williams, with only third-round points to defend in New York against Williams’ semi points. If Kerber reaches the quarters, Williams must reach the final; if they contest the title, the winner will be No1.
That Williams has one of the tougher draws is one problem for the former champion. Another is the uncertainty over her physical fitness. Since Wimbledon, she has played just three matches—losing in the third round in Rio—as she dealt with a shoulder problem.
She was giving little away when asked about it this weekend:
“I have not played a lot. I haven’t practised a lot, but I’m just now starting to feel a little better. Hopefully just every day I will keep going higher.
“The US Open is obviously a special place. Usually I prefer to play more coming into the final Grand Slam of the year, but there is nothing we can do about it. You just have to make the best of every single opportunity.”
But Kerber is not the only woman who has closed the gap at the top. With Victoria Azarenka, who beat Kerber here last year, absent as she expects her first child, Maria Sharapova, who was No4 at the start of the year, currently banned, and the defending US champion Flavia Pennetta, who was No8 at the start of the year, now retired, there has been plenty of jostling for position.
Another newly-crowned Major champion this year was Muguruza, who backed up her Wimbledon final run last year—where she lost to Williams—with the Roland Garros title and the No2 ranking. Her results were subsequently thin until making the semis in Cincinnati last week.
Thus far, the US Open has yielded the Spaniard’s poorest Major results, but if she should win the title here, and Kerber fails to make the final, the top ranking would be hers.
Then there is the ever-consistent, ever-popular Radwanska, winner in New Haven this weekend and at the top of the US Open Series league table—and that could earn her the biggest payout in tennis along with the No1 ranking if she goes on to win in New York.
It is hard to believe that the slight Pole who owns as much all-court craft as anyone on the tour, first played a Major over 10 years ago, when she reached the fourth round at Wimbledon. Still only 27, New Haven was her second hard-court title of the year and she made her first semi run at the Australian Open—though the US Open has failed to deliver great results. Perhaps that has been the result of over-playing in previous seasons, in which case, a 36-13 record this year may bode well.
However, Radwanska could have to negotiate two US champions, Venus Williams in the quarters and sister Serena in the semis, to even reach the title bout.
There are, too, other threats in the draw in this post-Olympic gruelling summer. Running into form are Briton Johanna Konta, winner in Stanford and quarter-finalist in Montreal and Rio, and Karolina Pliskova, who supplemented a strong grass season with the semis in Indian Wells and the title in Cincinnati last week.
Elsewhere, young Monica Puig is riding a high after beating Kerber to claim Olympic gold, Dominika Cibulkova got back to winning ways on all three surfaces this year, and veterans (and former US champions) Venus Williams, Svetlana Kuznetsova and Sam Stosur all look in good physical shape.
So who will the big names have to overcome to top the charts?
The top seed opens against the left handed Ekaterina Makarova, ranked just outside the seedings and No8 just a year ago. The Russian has made the quarters and semis here in 2013 and 2014, too.
Both Rounds 3 and 4 could bring Major champions in the shape first of Ana Ivanovic and then Stosur. The resilient Halep, Montreal champion and on a 13-1 run since Wimbledon, is lined up for the quarters, with Williams’ sister Venus or Radwanska for the semis. However, the two women who beat her to Major titles this year—and threaten her No1 crown—Kerber and Muguruza, are in the bottom half.
How much will the Pole have left in the tank as she takes on a first week that throw unseeded Laura Robson and Eugenie Bouchard in her path before the unpredictable Caroline Garcia? The quarters should bring Venus Williams or Pliskova, though Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova can also turn on the power on a good day, and Yanina Wickmayer and Julia Goerges are non-seeds buried in the bottom section.
The Spaniard faces possibly the worst draw of all. After an opening qualifier, she could have a rematch with Puig, who beat her in Rio 6-1, 6-1. The fourth round brings Konta, who beat her here last year and also in Eastbourne, though all three of their matches have been three-setters. Other dangers, if they are fit, include Belinda Bencic and Andrea Petkovic, while the quarters could bring Kuznetsova, former finalist Caroline Wozniacki, and Montreal finalist Madison Keys. And all that before a semi showdown with Kerber.
Kerber should make light work of the first few rounds, but in Round 4, it is Svitolina or Petra Kvitova in the mix. Perhaps the biggest danger in the quarters is Cibulkova, and although No7 seed Roberta Vinci was runner-up last year, her form has been in and out this year.
Konta, who plays Monday, has a winnable first match against wild card Bethanie Mattek-Sands, fresh from her mixed doubles gold in Rio. Her first seed is Bencic, who is yet to make a big impression since her injury woes.
Heather Watson plays Dutch qualifier Richel Hogenkamp, but the Briton has struggled with form since the spring, so may not get beyond her first seed, No31 Timea Babos, though their Australian Open first-round match was a marathon contest.
Robson, who came through qualifying, takes on Naomi Broady, ranked 82, for the first time, and Robson, who reached the fourth round here as a teenager before repeated wrist problems, may well steal the second-round contest against Radwanska.