Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Women's Draw Competitive at U.S. Open

The final tennis grand slam of the season kicks off Monday, August 29th in Flushing at this year's U.S. Open. For the WTA Tour, it promises to be ultra competitive. There's a new number one ranked player heading into the star studded event. It's 18-year-old Russian teenager Maria Sharapova. The 2004 Wimbledon champion is the fifth youngest world number one on the women's side with only Martina Hingis, Monica Seles, Tracy Austin and Steffi Graf holding it at a younger age. A semifinalist at each of the first three slams, Sharapova will try to justify her elite status.

Last year, Svetlana Kuznetsova became the first ever Russian to win the U.S. Open. However, she was the third different Russian woman to win a major in 2004- Anastasia Myskina (French Open), Sharapova (Wimbledon). This year, Kuznetsova has reached the quarterfinals at the Australian Open and Wimbledon. The defending champ enters this tournament as a fifth seed. Can she repeat?

This season has been a different story at the slams with familiar faces winning. First, it was American diva Serena Williams taking time out of her busy schedule to claim her second Australian Open and seventh career major. At Roland Garros, Justine Henin-Hardenne ruled Paris for the second time in her career, capturing her fourth slam. At the All England Club, a name from the past rose back to prominence. Venus Williams entered Wimbledon without many expecting her to do well but she had other ideas; going through defending champ Sharapova in the semis and fighting off championship points against Lindsay Davenport to win a three set epic for her third Wimbledon and first slam title since the '01 U.S. Open.

Ironically, all three women will be lower seeds. Henin-Hardenne is seeded seventh while Serena eighth and Venus 10th. They all have won at the Open- Henin-Harden ('03), Serena ('99, '02), Venus ('00-'01). This might not be good news for the rest of the field. That said, it's time to breakdown who has the best chance of winning this year's trophy.

Bracket One: This features top overall seed Sharapova with defending champ Kuznetsova at the opposite end. Other competitive players include ninth seed Nadia Petrova, 14th seed Alicia Molik and rising star Nicole Vaidisova. The 16-year-old Czech is over six feet and hits thunderous groundstrokes like Sharapova. She recently pushed Henin-Hardenne before losing in two close sets at Toronto a week ago. This will be her second appearance in Flushing.

Potential Sleepers: Sharapova could have a tough opening round match against Eleni Daniilidou. Daniilidou knocked out French Open champ Henin-Hardenne in three close sets in the first round at Wimbledon. Dinara Safina is the younger sister of Marat Safin. She has been on the tour over three years with her best slam result coming here two years ago when she reached the fourth round.

Analysis: It's hard not to like Sharapova to breeze through the first three rounds. There just doesn't seem to be anyone who can push her. That could change by the round of 16 where dangerous Aussie Molik could loom. Molik made a great run to the quarters in Australia this year but missed the last two slams with an injury. She's never made it past the third round in Flushing but that could change. On the bottom portion, Kuznetsova shouldn't be challenged until the third round where she could meet up with Vaidisova. If that match comes down, an upset is possible. Petrova is the overlooked player in this section because she has enough game to get to the second week. A quarterfinalist here a year ago, she should be waiting in the fourth round for either Kuznetsova or Vaidisova.

The Pick: Sharapova hasn't had many problems with Kuznetsova. If they play in a quarter showdown, the choice is obvious. However, it's possible she could have trouble with Molik. Off her Wimbledon victory last year, she bowed out to Mary Pierce in the third round. A year more mature and driven, she should be able to reach the final four.

Bracket Two: This section features the hottest player on the tour, fourth seed Kim Clijsters. Clijsters recently won The Rogers Cup in Toronto defeating Belgian nemesis Henin-Hardenne in straight sets to capture the U.S. Open Series. She has been on fire this season winning a tour high 49 matches and six titles including three this summer to lift her ranking into the top four. Other main competitors in the bracket include Serena and Venus Williams along with 18th seed Ana Ivanovic. This is Ivanovic's first slam year on tour. Her best result has been the quarters at Roland Garros.

Potential Sleepers: Daniela Hantuchova and Francesca Schiavone have both made quarterfinals at Flushing and can compete well from the baseline but neither should be a surprise. The one player who could be a dangerous opponent is Chinese teenager Shuai Peng. She is another powerful baseliner who can fire winners from both sides. She's never advanced past the second round but if somehow she did, Peng could be a potential third round opponent for Serena.

Analysis: Clijsters has nobody that can threaten her in the top half. If she's on, it should be cruise control till a possible quarter showdown with either Williams sister. After winning down under, injuries prevented Serena from competing at Roland Garros. When she returned at Wimbledon, she still was on a badly hobbled leg, which might explain an awful third round loss to Jill Craybas. She's only played one match since forced to default in the round of 16 at Toronto over a week ago. It's hard to predict which Serena will show. If healthy and motivated, she shouldn't have a problem reaching the fourth round. Venus should have an easy first two rounds and could face Hantuchova in the third round. If she's on her game, a round of 16 sister match-up looms.

The Pick: Clijsters has an easy first three rounds. The only potential for a competitive round of 16 match is Ivanovic and that's a big if. She should be waiting in the quarters for either Serena or Venus. At Wimbledon, their anticipated fourth round match never came down but this time, it should. Though she hasn't had much success against her younger sister, a fitter Venus should prevail to setup an elite eight showdown with Clijsters. That match would be a toss-up because both are extremely quick and can go from defense to offense. In a recent final at Stanford, Clijsters won in straight sets. She's playing great. So, we'll take her to setup a semifinal showdown with Sharapova.

Bracket Three: Section three features third seed Amelie Mauresmo at the bottom with Henin-Hardenne on the opposite end. Other top competition includes 12th seed Mary Pierce and 13th seed Anastasia Myskina. Mauresmo, Henin-Hardenne and Pierce all have had solid seasons and could come out of this bracket. Myskina struggled earlier this year but is playing better and shouldn't be taken lightly.

Potential Sleepers: Elena Likhovtseva is a veteran who has reached the fourth round in Queens four times. This year, the 29-year-old Russian made her first ever slam semi at the French. She's good enough to play into the second week and be competitive. Serbia and Montenegro's Jelena Jankovic is in her third year. Only 20, the 17th seed had her best showing at a slam reaching the third round in London. This is her second U.S. Open. If there is the potential for a surprise, it could come from Bulgaria's Sesil Karatantcheva. In her first full slam season, she upset Venus at the French on her way to the quarters. The 16-year-old is a talented baseliner who could make some noise.

Analysis: Henin-Hardenne shouldn't have much trouble early on but could play American Angela Haynes in the second round. Haynes gave Serena a tough first round match at Wimbledon. She has a lot of talent from the ground but has never been consistent. Henin-Hardenne should be weary of that. She should get through and reach the fourth round where she could face Pierce. At the bottom, Mauresmo could meet Karatantcheva in the second round but her depth of groundstrokes and experience should be too much. She should be waiting in the round of 16 for either Myskina or Likhovtseva.

The Pick: Henin-Hardenne had no trouble beating Pierce for the French Open title. But Pierce shouldn't play as badly if they meet in the round of 16. Henin-Hardenne should still advance to the quarters and await either Mauresmo or Myskina. Mauresmo has been more consistent this year and usually goes deep into tournaments. She should play Henin-Hardenne for a chance at the semis. But when push comes to shove, Henin-Hardenne is tougher in big matches and should make the final four.

Bracket Four: This section features second seed Lindsay Davenport, who held the number one ranking since last October before a bad back forced her to the sidelines during the U.S. Open Series allowing Sharapova to claim the top spot. She just returned this week at New Haven and hasn't had any problems. The bracket also includes sixth seed Elena Dementieva, 11th seed Patty Schnyder and 15th seed Nathalie Dechy.

Potential Sleepers: Japan's Shinobu Asaqoe is a vet who reached the quarterfinals last year. However, her best result at slams this season has been the second round. France's Tatiana Golovin is only 17 but in her second full year. She made the round of 16 twice last year and went into the third round in her U.S. Open debut. Golovin enters play seeded 23rd. Croatian Karolina Sprem is always under the radar but she's never advanced past the opening round in her previous two tries. But the 20-year-old is talented enough to get to the second week.

Analysis: If her back doesn't act up, Davenport should have no problems reaching the fourth round. Once there, she could wind up playing Dechy or Golovin. Dementieva hasn't had a great season but the '04 Open runner-up should advance into the round of 16 without a sweat. A potential match with the tricky Schnyder could be on the horizon.

The Pick: Davenport defeated Dechy in an Australian Open semifinal but made the match an adventure. If she's right, look for her to win easier this time and get to the final eight. Dementieva's best showing is the fourth round in each of the year's first three slams. She has a chance to advance further but will probably have to play Schnyder. Schnyder is a difficult opponent because she's a lefty and has a variety of spins on her shots. But Dementieva is more talented and should advance to play Davenport for a shot at the semis. Unless her body is broken down, Davenport is the choice to reach the final four and meet Henin-Hardenne.

Breaking Down The Final Four: Clijsters would meet Sharapova in one semifinal. Both are exceptional baseliners who can run down shots. Sharapova has more steam on her serve and forehand but Clijsters is great at keeping points alive and is more consistent. All year, Sharapova has fallen short in big matches. Clijsters' problem has been losing twice in tough three setters to Davenport in the fourth round at the last two slams when she had a lower rank. She has never won a slam and usually tightens up in big spots. But she has been building towards changing that. I like her to reach her fifth slam final.

Davenport has been the best player on the WTA Tour since last August. But she still hasn't been able to win her fourth career slam since triumphing at the 2000 Australian Open. Her biggest issue lately has been health. When nothing's bothering her, she hits the cleanest ball on the circuit. Henin-Hardenne also endured health problems earlier this year, which contributed to a first round loss at Wimbledon. However, she is better now and should be a handful for Davenport because of her footspeed. This match is a toss-up because both can wear down. It should go three sets. I'll pick Davenport to advance to her second straight slam final and third of the season.

Who Will Be Holding The Trophy: Kim Clijsters, Belgium. Clijsters would have to conquer her toughest opponent in Davenport to claim the prize. But she has been playing great tennis. Davenport could wear down on the hard court, which should benefit Clijsters. She has indicated that she might retire in 2007 due to injuries, which should be more incentive to win. If she does, it would be the 22-year-old's first ever major. Long overdue.

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