The women’s game has been suffering from a credibility and identity crisis for some time now, with most of the top stars being injured or running through a confidence crisis and the rankings being dominated by players playing week-in and week-out without having major titles on their resumes.
But Serena Williams’ return has brought back the buzz around the women in time for the US Open, which begins in New York on August 29. After falling to Marion Bartoli in the fourth round of Wimbledon (which was just her second event after a 11-month lay-off due to injuries and health issues), Williams rebounded with back-to-back titles in Stanford and Toronto.
After winning her 12th consecutive match in Cincinnati (tying the longest winning streak on tour this year), Williams withdrew from the event with a right toe injury. This seems to be a minor setback and perhaps a way to keep herself fresh for the Open where Serena will be the overwhelming favourite.
Seeded 28th, Serena might encounter one of the top seeds as early as the third round but that should not be much of a concern for the American, who has made a habit of beating higher-ranked players when returns from long lay-offs.
Serena’s sister Venus Williams is still entered as the time of writing this article but even if she were to play in New York, Venus is unlikely to have a legitimate shot at another title in New York. Venus has played only 5 events in the last 14 months and has not played since Wimbledon – a viral illness forcing her to withdraw from her scheduled US Open warm-up events.
One player who is already out is the two-time defending champion Kim Clijsters. The Belgian has been plagued by injuries for the last 6 months – the latest, a stomach muscle injury, forcing her to miss her second consecutive Slam and ending her hopes of a three-peat in New York.
Another superstar trying to get back to the status of Grand Slam champion is Maria Sharapova. The former world no. 1 reached the semis at Roland Garros and the finals at Wimbledon - both times beaten by opponents who had too much game for the Russian handicapped by an unreliable serve.
Sharapova will be hoping to one better in New York and after some early losses on the summer hardcourt stretch (including one to Serena in Stanford), Sharapova won the Cincinnati event, beating Vera Zvonareva and Jelena Jankovic en route to that title.
Now up to no. 4 in the world and with #3 Clijsters out and #2 Zvonareva defending runners-up points, Sharapova, who only reached the fourth round last year, could likely end the tournament as world no. 2. But if she wants to win her second US Open title, the Russian will need to rely once again on her serve; for there are far too many women with a good return game who will break her unreliable serve and wavering confidence.
Caroline Wozniacki is the first player since Martina Hingis (1997-2001) to be named top seed at back-to-back Opens on the basis of her world no. 1 ranking. But the Dane comes into Flushing Meadows with a new yet-to-be-revealed coach, waning confidence and increasing media scrutiny.
After suffering early losses at the French and Wimbledon, Wozniacki fell early in her hardcourt events in the US losing to Roberta Vinci and Christina McHale, ranked no. 21 and 66 respectively. Wozniacki's new coach is unlikely to have a magic potion to work on the parts of her game she needs to beef up to compete against the bigger babes on tour and it might be 2012 before the Dane is back in a Slam final.
The two women in the New York draw who have won Slams this year - Li Na and Petra Kvitova - have failed to gain momentum on the summer hardcourt stretch but their experience of winning a Slam will hold them in good stead.
Ana Ivanovic, Svetlana Kuznetsova and Francesca Schiavone are former Slam champions in the draw. Kuznetsova is a perplexing player prone to losing to players not half as talented or athletcially gifted as her; Ivanovic comes to New York with a new coach in Nigel Sears but also with her old nerves in tow; and Schiavone returns to delight a New York crowd where she has a loyal fan following - the Italian is the only one of the trio likely to be around in the second week.
The tennis world has been waiting for Victoria Azarenka to breakthrough for a couple of years now. But the Belarusian, who has withdrawn from matches more than a dozen times since 2010 due to an assortment of injuries, is unlikely to turn Grand Slam champion in New York.
And world no. 2 Vera Zvonareva may have missed her best chance, going back to her mediocre form after reaching back-to-back Slam finals in 2010. Other seeded women likely to make the second week include Sam Stosur, on the back of a good summer after a disastrous first half of 2011, Poland's Agniezska Radwanska, who won the Carlsbad title, quirky Frenchwoman Marion Bartoli, Cincinnati finalist Jelena Jakovic and Germans Andrea Petkovic and Sabine Lisicki - with the big-serving Lisicki earning my vote for the dark horse in the women's draw.
Unseeded women who will be hoping to make a splash in New York include 19 year old American Christina McHale, 18 year old American Sloane Stephens, Canadian Rebecca Marino and 40 year old Kimkio Date-Krumm. I'm going with Serena for the women's title. Time to pick yours.