US Open Predictions: the Women By: D.K. Wilson 08/08/08
he Olympic Summer Games are serving as a break in the summer portion of both the ATP and WTA Tours. With that in mind, now is as good a time as any to give my US Open predictions and give some player analysis for both the men and the women.Maria Sharapova was the 2006 US Open women’s champion and is #3 in the world. However, Maria was forced out of the Rogers Cup with two strained tendons in her right shoulder after her first match in the Montreal tournament. The injury will force Sharapova to miss not only the Olympics but the Open as well.
This is not the first time Sharapova has had to take time off the tour with shoulder problems and the chronic nature of her injuries to that part of her body must be dealt with in full this time around. Persistent shoulder problems are nothing to play with for a tennis player and could cut her career short if she rushes her rehab or does not adequately strengthen the muscles in and around the area of the strained tendons.
Without Sharapova, who loves the quick US Open hardcourts, there are a host of women who have a chance to hoist the trophy at the tournament’s end.
Friday in the quarterfinals of the Roger’s Cup in Montreal, Jelena Jankovic squandered a 5-1 first set lead to Dominika Cibulkova. From that point on it appeared that the thought of becoming the world’s #1 with a victory against the #31 player forced Jankovic to choke mightily. Though this was match her fourth such opportunity to take over the top spot, Jankovic handled the chance poorly. The #2 player in the world won only two more games after that 5-1 lead and went away meekly to Cibulkova, 7-5 6-2.
Jelena is trying to overtake her Serbian countrywoman Ana Ivanovic for the top spot in the women’s game, and her next opportunity will be in Flushing Meadows, New York, the site of the US Open. Ivanovic, the Wimbledon finalist, took a month off after losing unexpectedly in the third round of Wimbledon to Jie Zheng of China and has appeared rusty since her return.
At the Rogers she looked erratic in her first match against Petra Kvitova but hung on to win, 6-3 4-6 6-3. Ivanovic had a difficult time closing out the match due to some shoddy and perhaps nervous footwork. As a result, her usually booming groundstrokes let her down. The Kvitova match was a portent for the future as Ivanovic was upset in her next match, a round of 16 loss to little-known Austrian Tamira Paszek, 6-2 1-6 6-2.
Now Ivanovic must go to Beijing and hope to get in enough match play there to regain her form from earlier in the season when she won the French Open title. The Flushing Meadows hardcourts should be kind to her big serve and equally big groundies. But Ivanovic will have to handle the pressure of being number one and having every player she faces give their best effort to have that upset of the world’s #1 as a notch in their belts.
Svetlana Kuznetsova is #4 in the world but has had an up and down 2008 campaign. Sveta’s best grand slam result was on clay at the French Open where she lost in the semis to Dinara Safina. Kuznetsova was a heavy favorite in that match and had a chance to move to number one with a win.
Safina crushed her, 6-3 6-2.
At the Rogers Cup Sveta advanced to the quarterfinals but was again taken down by Safina, 2-6 6-3 6-2. Kuznetsova is a former US Open winner (2004 over fellow Russian Elena Dementieva 6-3 7-5) and was last year’s runner-up to Justine Henin.
Two of the most dangerous players in the women’s Open draw are, of course, Venus and Serena Williams. Serena has played one tournament since her finals appearance at Wimbledon. Though she reached the semifinals in the Bank of the West Classic she was forced to withdraw with an injury top her left knee while in the midst of easily handling Aleksandra Wozniak, 6-2 3-1.
Serena won the Open in 1999, was a finalist in 2001 (to Venus), and won again in 2002 but has not gone farther than the quarterfinals in her other seven appearances at Flushing Meadows.
Serena can blow anyone off the court if she is serving well and is confident from the baseline. And while her shots explode through the court out of the reach of her opponents, she runs down shots that would be winners against anyone else.
Venus, on the other hand has stayed firmly in tennis’ background since winning her fifth Wimbledon. The new queen of the All-England Club has played consistently well at the US Open. She won consecutive Opens in 2000 and 2001, has been a finalist twice (including once to Serena), a semi-finalist three times, and a quarter-finalist once. Her worst outing at Flushing Meadows was a fourth round loss in 2004.
The 2008 Wimbledon champ is no doubt in the process of rejuvenating and gearing up for the Open. Venus and Serena will play both singles and doubles in Beijing, so practice will not be a problem for either sister (they also won the 2008 Wimbledon doubles title).
Venus will use her punishing backhand, her legs, and her ability to come to net and volley well to frustrate opponents in New York. Unlike most of the other women with an opportunity to go deep into the US Open draw, Williams can construct points with the goal of moving forward and ending those points at the net. This facet of her game makes her a favorite to add a third Open crown to her already crowded trophy case.
The final woman with a very real chance to win the US Open is a surprise. Dinara Safina, Marat’s little sister, is coming into her own as a tennis player. Safina was the French Open runner-up this year and has won two titles to date. A sign of her maturity was on display during her quarterfinal match against Svetlana Kuznetsova. Having won in Los Angeles the week before, Safina found herself down 6-2 2-0 to a confident playing Kuznetsova. From that point on Dinara lost only three games and blew Sveta off the court, 6-3 6-3 in the final two sets.
Safina has always been able to hit as hard as any woman on the tour, But now that she has replaced the baby fat with muscle and gained control over her fiery temperament to the point where she can use it to her advantage, she is as feared as anyone on the WTA Tour. Though her serve can be erratic it is big enough to get her out of trouble. She is matured and now thinks her way through points and matches, and has added variety to her power game. Safina can now hit a beautiful slice backhand and has an excellent drop shot at her disposal. Though she does not come to net often, when she does she usually ends the point with strong, proficient volleys.
It is apparent now that other women on the tour are clearly afraid to play Safina. If Dinara continues to play the type of resilient tennis she has so far this spring and summer, she will find herself ensconced in the top five in the world by next year’s Australian Open.
There are other dangerous floaters out there like Elena Dementieva (#6), Anna Chakvetadze (#9), and Marion Bartoli (#15), and Dominika Cibulkova (#20), but all of these women have flaws that are fatal enough to keep them from consideration as winners in Flushing Meadows.
In brief, Dementieva tends to falter in tight matches against top players. Chakvetadze does not have the firepower to match the game’s big hitters. For Bartoli to win there would have to be some upsets and her serve, which her coach-father seems to tinker with weekly, is too weak to hold up consistently against the best in the game. Cibulkova will fight, but like Chakvetadze she is not a big enough hitter to make it all the way through the tournament.
So, which woman will win? Any of them can but only three have a viable chance at the year’s final grand slam.
Jelena Jankovic has proven that she cannot at all handle the pressure of being #1 in the world, as she has squandered four easy opportunities at that spot. Though Jankovic has impeccable timing with her groundstrokes and is a good volleyer, she does not have the firepower on any shot to hurt any of the top women.
Additionally, opponents have grown used to Jankovic’s antics that used to rattle opponents during matches. The stalling between points, calling for a trainer just before an important service game for the opponent, moping around the court appearing ready to give up one point and fighting to the death the next, have grown old. More and more the luster has been removed from the learning to play in a swimming pool during a war Serbian players, in general, but particularly with Jankovic, who is quicker to conjure this image than her compatriots like Ivanovic, Jankop Tipsarevic, and Novak Djokavic (who does grate at his opponents’ nerves as well).
Right now Jelena has an equal chance of losing by the round of 16 as she does reaching the semifinals. And a player like that cannot last under the glare of New York.
Ana Ivanovic is at the top spot and is worse for wear because of it. Rather than grabbing the number one position and keeping it for some time, it is much more common for players to reach the pinnacle of the sports and then falter. The newfound off-court responsibilities and pressures to conduct more interviews and public appearances around the world take their toll on a player’s concentration. The fact that every player below a newly-minted #1 feels they can take advantage of a newbie to that position is also difficult to deal with.
Opponents who previously would roll over in a match once they got down a set and a break in the second set, suddenly never give up on the match. Opponents who were once closer competition-wise and might get nervous on big points suddenly play as if they have nothing to lose and go for and make shots they would previously never attempt.
So, not only does a player have to reach the #1 spot, they must also learn how to say no to the off-court push and pull. Simultaneously they must learn to focus every point and apply a beat down to every weaker opponent and be secure enough to play fearlessly against the opponents close in rank to them.
Though she may ultimately round into a solid #1, right now Ana Ivanovic is not quite strong enough mentally to do what it takes to deal with the singularly noisy and vociferous New York crowds, hold the many interviewers from around the world at bay, perhaps play the first match of the day under what can be brutally hot and humid weather conditions one day and play the last match of the night with an inebriated, unruly crowd in the stands the next, and fight through the U.S. Open draw.
No way, no how. Not right now for Ana.
So that leaves us with Venus, Serena, and Dinara.
Though the Williams sisters will get most of their tuning up before the US Open in Beijing, they have proven that whatever play they get at the Olympics is all the practice they need before the year’s final grand slam event.
Both sister’s games are tailor-made for the Flushing Meadows hardcourts; big, flat groundstrokes that fly through the court, big serves that can get them out of trouble or render an opponent helpless, and both are able to move forward and volley proficiently.
Of the two, though, Venus is less prone to swings in emotion and is able to handle the comparative craziness of the event. From having to play a night match followed by a day match to the loud crowds, to the food smells that permeate the grounds, Venus handles them all with aplomb. Serena, on the other hand, has a history of allowing the environment to get the best of her. In other slams, a home country player is roundly supported by the home crowd.
Not to in New York.
Crowds there tend to root for whomever they please and always root for a long match. So if Serena is up a set and two breaks in the second set and her opponent begins to pick up her play, US Open fans will switch allegiances to the underdog in a heartbeat. And when this happens Serena can become rattled.
Of the two sisters, Serena has the better service motion technically and can depend on her serve more in tight spots. Venus can lose rhythm due to her elongated service motion and find herself missing first serves and hitting weak second serves at crucial times in a match. Venus, though, has a better transition game from the baseline to the net and is a better volleyer than Serena.
But all in all, if the sisters are on the opposite side of the draw from one another a repeat of the Wimbledon finals is a distinct possibility.
Finally, there is Dinara Safina, the hottest player on the WTA Tour. Safina has won consecutive tournaments and easily won the US Open Summer Series tour which will guarantee her at least $250,000 in bonus money depending on her finish at the Open (she will receive one million dollars in bonus money should she win the Open and $500,000 if she is the singles finalist).
Safina has proven to be a smart player with powerful enough groundstrokes to blow through opponents on the Flushing Meadows courts. The one drawback to Dinara’s game is her serve. When it is on it is one of the best in the women’s game. However, with her high ball toss, timing is essential to the success of Safina’s serves. When her timing is off as it often is square in the middle of a match, she can double fault three times in a game in a heartbeat. Against quality opponents like the Williams sisters a mental lapse like this can cost her a championship.
But Safina does have the game to take the Open title.
Her slice backhand seemed to improve match-to-match during the summer series. When she does come to net her volleys are crisp, she anticipates her opponent’s passing shots well, and with her 6′1″ frame (she is taller than her 5′11 1/2″ WTA Tour bio listing) and long arms her reach at net is matched only by Venus Williams.
Provided she is playing no more tournaments after the Olympics, Dinara should be able to recharge her batteries in plenty of time for the Open.
So which of these three women will take the title? I’m going to go with the summer’s hot player and pick Dinara Safina, at age 22, to break through and win her first grand slam tournament…
If her finals opponent is Serena.
At some point the US Open crowd will swing in favor of the Russian. And though Safina will have problems consistently holding her serve, Serena’s forehand is equally shaky at any given time during a match. Safina will get in just enough first serves to put pressure on Serena - and the crowd will make Williams break.
Now, if Safina faces Venus Williams I feel Venus will win her second slam of the year. The two women’s games are so similar that in the end it will come down to which one can get to more shots and is consistently more aggressive. And when push comes to shove Venus can run down more shots than Safina and is a better volleyer. And unlike her sister, Veuns’ groundstrokes tend to hold up better under pressure.
So there you have it. If Dinara Safina plays Serena Williams or any other player not named Venus in the finals, Safina wins. And if Venus Williams reaches the finals against anyone including Dinara, Venus wins.
Those are my picks for the women’s side of the US Open and I’m stickin’ by ‘em.
**D.K. Wilson is a freelance sports writer. He is better known on the internet as "DWil," and writes for Sports On My Mind.