Golden opportunity has become an A-list sports cliché. But frankly we can't think of a better way to describe the women's draw. With Serena Williams out, Venus Williams ailing and Kim Clijsters reeling, the ladies' field is uncharacteristically open. On paper, two-time champ Venus Williams is a likely favorite. But on paper, she doesn't have an abdominal muscle so strained that it has prevented her from playing since Wimbledon. Either Lindsay Davenport or Jennifer Capriati could seize the moment and cement her legacy with a fourth Grand Slam title. The feisty Justine Henin-Hardenne just as easily could bag a second major this year. But to our way of thinking, the truancy of Serena Williams will enable a Grand Slam virgin -- Amélie Mauresmo or Clijsters -- to enter the winner's circle for this first time.
1. Kim Clijsters: The new No. 1 will do herself -- and the credibility of the WTA Tour rankings -- a world of good if she can bag her first major. But will the mounting pressure coupled with the crisis her boyfriend is facing be too much to bear? Unlikely to face much opposition until the quarters. By then, it's up to her.
2. Justine Henin-Hardenne: Odds-on favorite to win her second major of 2003, particularly after such a strong summer.
3. Lindsay Davenport: Your exemplary career is winding down and you've been admirably candid in admitting as much. One-half of your two-headed nemesis is out of the draw; the other has been slowed by a stomach injury. You're playing on your surface of choice in your home country. Sounds like the makings of a great last hurrah ...
4. Venus Williams: The two-time champ is a favorite -- seedings be damned -- now that Little Sis is on the sidelines. But her midsection remains a big question. Ought to cruise through early rounds, thanks to the kindness of the draw. But what will happen when she faces a real test?
5. Amélie Mauresmo: As ever, there are lingering questions about her health and fitness. But Mauresmo's name unquestionably is on the list of candidates who could take huge advantage of this quirky, Serena-less draw. Says here the winner of Mauresmo's projected quarterfinal throwdown with Clijsters goes on to take two more matches.
6. Jennifer Capriati: Even before her shoulder injury, the Capster hadn't really found her form in 2003. But like so many, she has to be energized by the absence of the Williams juggernaut. Plus, she tends to play her best tennis on the biggest stages. If she can stay healthy, she ought to be clear until the quarters.
7. Anastasia Myskina: Has turned into a very hot-and-cold player. Shouldn't lose before the middle weekend, but hasn't shown much mettle against higher-ranked players.
8. Chanda Rubin: Yet another player who has a gilded opportunity. But like so many others, she has lingering health concerns. If she gets hot, it's not hard to see her draw opening up. At least until she likely meets Davenport for a spot in the semis.
9. Daniela Hantuchova: She can salvage a thoroughly disappointing year with a strong showing. Only problem is that she is still in need of a physical upgrade and, not unrelatedly, a surge in confidence. Hantuchova is too young and too talented to write off, but this year pretty much has been what we euphemistically call "a learning experience."
10. Magdalena Maleeva: One of those players who could slither through to the quarters. But no further.
11. Elena Dementieva: Overdue for a strong Slam showing the way Kevin Costner is overdue to make a decent movie. A semifinalist three years ago, she hasn't come close to replicating that feat. Could this be the year?
12. Conchita Martinez: The Cheetah quietly has put together an awfully nice year. Her days of contending for Slams are in the past. But if I'm, say, Rubin, I ain't happy she's in my segment of the draw.
13. Vera Zvonareva: Have to wonder about her mental state after squandering a 6-0, 5-1 lead to Anna Pistolesi in New Haven. Probable second-round match against Ashley Harkleroad could be a good one.
14. Amanda Coetzer: Her best days are long behind her. But, in that Ai Sugiyama kind of way, she has the potential to spring an upset against the right opponent.
15. Ai Sugiyama: Speak of the devil. See above.
16. Elena Bovina: A bit of a headcase but, as the adage goes, you can't teach size. Plus, she had a nice run here last year.
LOWER SEEDS WORTH WATCHING
17. Meghann Shaughnessy: Results have tailed off since the spring, but she's at her best on hard courts and has played well in Queens against higher seeds.
19. Nadia Petrova: Constantly battling the injury bug, but her game is a good one. Plus, she likely won't face a top-100 opponent until Round 3.
25. Eleni Daniilidou: Rarely brings the goods against better players, but has a lot of potential still waiting to be tapped.
26. Lina Krasnoroutskaya: Play the hot hand.
30. Magui Serna: A baroque ballstriker who quietly has put together a nice year.
Maria Sharapova: Provided she isn't overwhelmed by the occasion (an the obligatory New York Post story on her grunting), only a handful of players in the field should be able to beat her. Too bad Capriati -- her likely third-round foe -- is among them.
Mary Pierce: No longer a threat to win majors, but she's still dangerous because of her sheer power.
Alicia Molik: The faster the courts, the better her results.
FIRST ROUND MATCHES TO WATCH
Shaughnessy vs. Karolina Sprem
Hantuchova vs. Marion Bartoli
Pierce vs. Katarina Srebotnik
Dinara Safina vs. Carly Gullickson
Semifinals: Clijsters vs. Davenport, Williams vs. Henin-Hardenne
Final: Clijsters vs. Henin-Hardenne