Women's Look Forward: U. S. Open
With Serena Williams out, this looked to be the most wide-open Open in years even before sister Venus made it a Williams-less Slam. Not only is our top favorite out, but there is no #2 favorite. At Roland Garros this year, for instance, Justine Henin-Hardenne was the obvious second choice. At the U. S. Open, there is no second choice. There is only one past champions here -- Lindsay Davenport. And she's questionable. Davenport has a bad foot -- and her head is in far worse shape than her body; she's lost the ability to win finals. #1 seed Kim Clijsters can't win the big matches. Justine Henin-Hardenne has reached the point where she can, but this is fast hardcourt, which is a very bad surface for her. It's not good for Amelie Mauresmo, either, and she was sick at New Haven. Jennifer Capriati can't seem to find the consistency to win seven straight matches. Chanda Rubin has been hurt. Monica Seles is hurt. Martina Hingis is retired. For all the talk about the young Russians, they are sorely lacking in big wins. We're suddenly back in the days of three or four years ago, when you couldn't take anything for granted. If this were Wimbledon, Martina Navratilova would probably be asking for a wildcard in hopes of picking up one more singles title.
It's hard to write a preview in these conditions, knowing that more changes in the draw might happen at any moment. (One completed article has already made its way to the scrapheap due to changes in the field.) In recent years, the Open has tended to be the Slam where the highest fraction of players were healthy. Not this year; the rampant injuries on the Tour seem at last to be coming home to roost. Venus and Serena are out. Monica Seles is out. Anne Kremer and Tatiana Panova, both Top 25 before their injuries, are out. Anna Kournikova is out (and we suspect that the organizers are more concerned about that than about Kremer and Panova combined). But, in a very real way, that makes every match more important. Someone still has to win this Open -- and with so many candidates, and all of them relatively weak, almost every match could affect the outcome.
Which means that we aren't going to examine the draw the way we usually do. Instead, we're going to look down the draw seeking "stories" -- people for whom this Slam, or one of their matches, is especially significant. We'll just march down the draw to look at the players.
That starts at the very top, with #1 seed Kim Clijsters. Clijsters comes in with a #1 ranking that hardly anyone believes, and a disturbing record in Slams this year: She lost a match she should have won against Serena Williams at the Australian Open. She was absolutely terrible in the Roland Garros final. She couldn't beat an injured Venus Williams at Wimbledon. Now, she's #1 without having ever won a singles Slam. Can she redeem herself? She has a nasty draw -- Laura Granville in the second round, then under-ranked Svetlana Kuznetsova in the third, then rising Vera Zvonareva, then -- because of the failure to promote seeds -- Amelie Mauresmo, and then Lindsay Davenport or Chanda Rubin. There is no question about who has the toughest draw here!
Laura Granville has been watching her ranking sink dramatically in the past two months, and the hardcourt season is almost over. If she wants to get things back together, it's Now or Not Likely. She opens against fellow American Ansley Cargill before facing Clijsters.
Svetlana Kuznetsova has just reached the point where the pressure really comes on. A low ranking and age restrictions have held her back until now. But now that she's in the Top 30, she can get direct entry into any tournament except maybe Filderstadt and Philadelphia, and she can play more. Plus she's starting to get seeded. This is her first Slam as a Top 30 player. Can she keep rising, or will playing the higher-level events prove too much for her as they have for others?
Meghann Shaughnessy started 2003 in fine form and has faded. She opens against Karolina Sprem, who had some very nice clay results but who is new to hardcourts. Will Shaughnessy be able to pull things together as the hardcourt season ends?
Corina Morariu is as jinxed as they come. It's been a full year since she came back, so her injury ranking is gone -- but she hurt herself again in that time, and has had a lot of bad luck in her draws, and hasn't been able to find a regular doubles partner. And she has a pretty tough opening match against Maja Matevzic, who missed a seed by only four spots. Can she finally string something together?
Ashley Harkleroad was putting together some very solid results since getting hurt -- but she's done nothing since, and it's not clear how well she can do on faster surfaces. She opens against yet another young Russian, Vera Douchevina, then takes on Vera Zvonareva. It's not going to be easy for her to get back on track.
Daniela Hantuchova. Speaking of not being able to get things on track -- Hantuchova remains a frightful mess. And she has to start against hard-working Marion Bartoli. This is rapidly turning into a lost year for Hantuchova -- and she has big points to defend during the fall indoor season. She really needs to put things together now.
Bea Bielik. The college star had a big coming-out party at last year's U. S. Open. She's done very little to back it up since. She needs these points, and she has to start against Patty Schnyder. Ironically, she could face Tamarine Tanasugarn in the second round here, just as she did last year. But she has to get that far first.
Lina Krasnoroutskaya. Nearly two years after hurting herself at the 2002 Australian Open, Krasnoroutskaya is finally seeded at a Slam again. She had the best result of her life at the Canadian Open. Her draw is fairly easy in the first rounds. We may learn a lot about her in the next week.
Amelie Mauresmo. With Venus Williams out, she should have been seeded for the semifinal, which is the round she reached last year. A big result here could possibly put her in the Top Five, and could clinch her place at the year-end championships. But she's had a lot of nasty luck: The Open did not promote seeds, so she's still in the same quarter as Kim Clijsters, and she got sick at New Haven. How will that affect her attitude? At least her draw is pretty easy in the early going.
Lindsay Davenport had to retire from the New Haven final because her foot was hurting her again. There seems to be no predicting how she will feel from day to day. She will probably never again have an opportunity this good to win a Slam. Can she stay determined long enough? She has an emotionally tough road to the final: The first seed she would face would be her good friend and doubles partner Lisa Raymond. After that, she could face the (admittedly "merely" physical) challenge of Amanda Coetzer. But then comes another close friend, Chanda Rubin. Is Davenport up for that many matches, physically or emotionally?
Daja Bedanova has been hurt. More than that, she's been slumping so badly that she's losing in the early rounds of qualifying (at New Haven, she went out to #66 Anca Barna). It was at this tournament that she scored her first big win, over Monica Seles. Can that revive her? If it doesn't, she'll be below #100 in short order.
Nadia Petrova is in a situation similar to Krasnoroutskaya's or Kuznetsova's: Expectations are rising for her. She hasn't really backed up her big Roland Garros very well. She's finally reaching the time of year when she has to defend points. Can she do it?
Amanda Coetzer did well enough this spring that some people were talking about a return to the Top Ten. It hasn't happened. It's highly unlikely that she can earn her way there during the indoor season. She hasn't had a good summer. So she's another player who needs to break through now or not at all.
Eleni Daniilidou hit a peak earlier this year and has been sliding since. Admittedly hardcourts aren't her preferred surface -- but anything is better for her than indoors. Her draw is not easy, with the suddenly-hot Myriam Casanova her first round opponent and Fabioloa Zuluaga, who just missed being seeded, waiting in the second.
Elena Likhovtseva just missed being seeded due to a very long slump earlier this year. She seems to be getting back into form. And she's in a part of the draw with several questionable players: Eleni Daniilidou and Chanda Rubin. Likhovtseva is the one true veteran found in the Russian Horde; this might be a chance to remind her younger countrywomen that she's still there.
In other circumstances, we'd say that this U. S. Open might be the chance for Chanda Rubin to prove what she can do. But she's been hurting for weeks now. It's not really known what sort of shape she's in. That could be important -- especially in the second round against Likhovtseva.
Jennifer Capriati is in an interesting situation. She's having an incredible run of luck. She just won her first tournament in a year and a half when both her semifinal and final opponents retired. When Venus Williams withdrew, the Open did not promote seeds, meaning that Capriati has been functionally promoted to the #4 seed -- and she doesn't even have a Top Ten player in her quarter. She faces weak opponents in the early rounds. It literally doesn't get better than this. But Capriati has had some other lucky breaks recently and hasn't taken advantage.
Maria Sharapova isn't seeded, but she is the next thing but, being in Alexandra Stevenson's section, and Stevenson is hurt. Sharapova has had mid-level results since Wimbledon; can she maintain or improve those? She'll face Capriati in the third round.
Elena Dementieva was one bit of luck away from the Top Ten. Had Lindsay Davenport come up lame in the New Haven semifinal rather than the final, Dementieva would have grabbed the #9 ranking. As it is, she has another shot here, and a fairly easy draw -- Vaskova, then Marrero or Perebiynis, then Dechy or Frazier or somebody. Then she might get the chance at Jennifer Capriati that she just missed on Friday. She is, after Capriati, the top threat to make the semifinal in what had been Venus Williams's quarter.
Katarina Srebotnik finds herself as the #33 seed -- which means that she's the de facto #4 seed. Her best surface is clay, but she won't face much opposition till she faces Francesca Schiavone in the third round. How far can she go on the strength of her seeding?
If Srebotnik is an impostor in her seeding, Anastasia Myskina is the closest thing to a pretender among the others seeded for the quarterfinal. She's been struggling for months. Now is a big chance to redeem herself -- and to make that one last push for the year-end championships.
Jelena Dokic's slump makes Myskina's look trivial. And she has a much tougher draw, with patient Emmanuelle Gagliardi in the first round and Mary Pierce her likely second round opponent. It's frankly too late to rescue Dokic's year. But she at least has a chance for respectability here.
Mary Pierce can't seem to stay healthy long enough to get into form, but she's been playing better lately than at any time in the past three years. She is, arguably, the best player in her eighth of the draw. She would face Dokic in the second round. Does that spell opportunity?
Magdalena Maleeva had chances at the Top Ten this summer, and couldn't take advantage. It's going to be tough for her to do it indoors; she has too much to defend. So this is the big chance. Can she beat Pierce or Dokic? If she can, she just might have a chance.
Elena Bovina made her first really big impression here last year. After a very bad time around June, she seems to be getting back into form. She needs to do well here to keep her ranking up. She has an interesting assignment ahead of her: In the second round, she faces countrywoman Dinara Safina (who really should beat Carly Gullickson). Then comes Anna Pistolesi. And then Justine Henin-Hardenne. And Bovina has to get about that far to defend her points.
Justine Henin-Hardenne will face an interesting opponent in her first round match: Aniko Kapros, who beat her at Roland Garros last year. But this year, Henin-Hardenne is healthy. She's also playing the best hardcourt tennis of her career. And, really, her draw is quite nice: Kapros, then Talaja or Randriantefy, then Mikaelian, then Bovina or Pistolesi, then Myskina. Even though hardcourts aren't her best surface, she should be able to make at least the semifinal. And then she faces Capriati. And what happens if she faces Kim Clijsters in the final? It's interesting to speculate: Clijsters is the best hardcourt player in the draw. But she's not strong mentally. In terms of hardcourt skills, Henin-Hardenne is no better than the #4 player in the field (behind Clijsters, Davenport, and Capriati) -- but right now, her brain is in better shape than any of the others. The late rounds this year could well prove to be more about heart and brain than anything else. Which is something we never thought we'd say again about the U. S. Open.
The Rankings. There are two basic questions here: How high can Justine Henin-Hardenne go, and how low can the Williams Sisters go?
The answers to both are rather interesting. Henin-Hardenne comes in slightly more than 700 points behind Kim Clijsters, and slightly less than 700 points behind Serena Williams. Clijsters has 122 points to defend at the Open (meaning that it isn't even one of her Best 17). Henin also has 122. Serena has 1040.
Which means that Henin-Hardenne is guaranteed to end up ranked ahead of Serena. She even has a chance at #1 -- though she must reach at least the Open final, and probably must win. And Clijsters has to lose fairly early. Certainly by the semifinal.
Can Serena fall below #3? That isn't in the cards. Lindsay Davenport is 2400 points behind Serena, so even a win for Davenport should leave her hundreds of points behind Serena. Nor is Davenport likely to be threatened from below; even though she has 398 points to defend, that still leaves her with about an 800 point safe margin above Jennifer Capriati and Amelie Mauresmo. Thus it's a pretty good bet that the top four when this is over will be 1. Clijsters, 2. Henin-Hardenne, 3. Serena, 4. Davenport.
Venus Williams, though, is in big trouble. She leads Amelie Mauresmo by over 600 points, and Mauresmo has semifinalist points to defend. But Venus has 732 points to defend, to 230 for Jennifer Capriati, meaning that Capriati needs only about 130 points to pass Venus. A quarterfinal might do it; a semifinal guarantees is. And Capriati is in the weakest part of the draw. Mauresmo also has a shot at Venus, though she would have to at least defend her semifinal. So the possibility exists that Venus could fall to #7!
There being almost a 500 point gap between #7 Capriati and #8 Chanda Rubin, there is little chance of someone below #7 moving above that mark. But in this wide-open Open, things below that are quite wild. Rubin is nearly 200 points ahead of the #9 and #10 players, Hantuchova and Myskina. But #11 Dementieva is only 60 points off that pace, and #12 Maleeva only 66 behind her. They could end up in any order -- though Hantuchova is likely to end up near the bottom; she has 322 points to defend (she might find even her Top 15 spot threatened if she loses early). Even more likely to swap things around are the players from #13 to #16, separated by less than 100 points.
Lower-ranked players with a lot on the line include Elena Bovina, who has 330 points to worry about and could fall out of the Top 30; Svetlana Kuznetsova, who needs to beat Kim Clijsters to defend her 160 points; Monica Seles, who has 268 points to defend and will probably end up below #35; Daja Bedanova, who has 196 points on her record and looks like toast; and Francesca Schiavone, who has 210 points to defend. Even more likely to fall are Amy Frazier (198 points), Stephanie Foretz (102 points), and Yoon Jeong Cho and Marion Bartoli (140 points each).
In a sort of historical footnote, Martina Hingis will fall off the rankings after the Open.