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With Serena out, it's a wide open Open
For the women at the U.S. Open, it’s take your pick.
I cannot remember a Grand Slam draw with such a range of possibilities, so many question marks and so few top seeds showing title-winning form.
This rare situation has, of course, been created by the withdrawal of Serena Williams as a result of the bizarre foot injury she suffered by stepping on a piece of broken glass in a Munich restaurant in July. Justine Henin’s long-term injury has further depleted the list of former champions in the field, while the title holder — Kim Clijsters — is now nursing a hip problem she suffered while losing to Vera Zvonareva in Montreal last week.
Clijsters insists she will be fit to defend her crown and, if she is, the popular Belgian will become the automatic favorite, even though she is seeded No. 2. Caroline Wozniacki — ranked No. 2 in the world — received the No. 1 seed Tuesday despite never having won a Grand Slam title. Venus Williams was the No. 3 seed and Jelena Jankovic was No. 4.
Without wishing to decry her obvious talent and considerable potential, Wozniacki, the powerful Dane who has just turned 20, is one of the least likely No. 1 seeds at a Grand Slam in living memory. She burst onto the world scene by reaching the final at Flushing Meadows last year and charmed everyone along the way with her big smile, pleasing personality and powerful ground strokes.
But it says a great deal about the inconsistency of those below her that Wozniacki has been able to hold onto the No. 2 ranking (she fell to No. 3 for a while in the summer) while achieving such modest results. Since the U.S. Open, her Grand Slam results have been dire. She lost to China’s Na Li in the round of 16 at the Australian Open, to the eventual champion Francesca Schiavone in the quarters at the French Open and fell, 6-2, 6-0, to Petra Kvitova in the 16s at Wimbledon.
On the brighter side, she reached the final at Indian Wells, losing to Jankovic, and won two second-tier events at Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida, and — much to her fans' satisfaction — her hometown tournament in Copenhagen in July.
A 6-4, 6-1 loss to Marion Bartoli in the round of 16 at Cincinnati did not augur well for her hopes in New York until she started to produce something close to her best tennis between the showers in Montreal. In the delayed semifinal on Monday morning, she overpowered Svetlana Kuznetsova, 6-2, 6-3, before returning to the court to sweep aside Zvonareva, 6-3, 6-2, just a couple of hours later in the final.
Since Kuznetsova — the 2004 U.S. Open champion — had actually been showing a bit of form of late by winning the title in San Diego three weeks ago, these victories will send Wozniacki down to New York in better heart. She is intelligent and does not seem the type to get carried away by the heady notion of being the No. 1 seed.
“It’s just a number,” she said. “And when you are on court, you don’t think about it. I just want to beat every one of the girls that are in my way.”
It’s the old, boring but very sensible adage — take each match one at a time.
Apart from Clijsters, Kuznetsova and two-time winner Venus Williams, Maria Sharapova is the only other former champion in the field, and it is not too fanciful to believe that Maria might have enough matches under her belt now to mount a serious challenge.
Her long-standing shoulder problem probably means her serve will never be as consistent a force as it once was, but she has shown consistent form in the past few weeks, reaching the final at both Stanford and Cincinnati. Victoria Azarenka — who withdrew from her semifinal in Montreal with a foot blister while trailing 7-6, 1-0 against Zvonareva — beat Sharapova in the Stanford final, and, a week later, the Russian fell to Clijsters. So Maria should be in the mix.
Can one say the same of Venus? Of course, because you can never count out a Williams sister if she is fit to walk on court. The big problem here is that Venus has not walked on a competitive court since losing in such shocking fashion to Tsvetana Pironkova of Bulgaria, 6-2, 6-3, in the Wimbledon quarterfinal. Venus will have put that out of her mind by now but, at 30, it is not easy to go in to a Slam all guns firing with no match practice, and one can only hope that experience pulls her through to the latter stages.
Given the circumstances, one has to throw another half-dozen names into the mix while searching for a possible winner:
- Australia’s Samantha Stosur, a French Open finalist in 2009, is ranked No. 6, but she has been hurt recently and is also short on match play;
- This year’s surprise French Open winner, Schiavone, has done nothing on hard courts to suggest she can create another shock;
- Elena Dementieva missed Wimbledon with an injury but is always a threat;
- Poland’s Agnieszka Radwanska is the No. 9 seed, a position she has earned through consistency rather than winning anything big;
- and Vera Zvonareva should enter this Slam with a new sense of confidence after going all the way to the Wimbledon final and backing that up with her exploits in Montreal.
Melanie Oudin provided the bright spark for American tennis last year, but her recent form has not been promising. She obviously enjoys a big stage, and they do not come bigger than Arthur Ashe at the Billie Jean King Tennis Center.
History beckons for someone but those who like a bet will lay down their money with some trepidation. Clijsters is the only sensible choice, but it may all depend on the state of that hip.
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