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2014 US Open Preview: Thirty-Two Names You Need to Know, WTA Edition

It’s hard to believe, but the 2014 tennis season is reaching its apex already with the final major of the year in Flushing Meadows, New York.  The US Open may not be the final event on the calendar, but for many casual fans of tennis as well as the top players, it might as well be.  After the US Open is a series of events with inflated belonging on the tour, handing out large sums of cash and points mainly to allow players who struggled in the first eight months of the year to stay afloat both financially and in the rankings.  However, we here at the Bad Man Bureau are focused on the final major of the year and will be along the way as we provide a preview of the tournament and a recap of the goings-on.  We start with a breakdown of thirty-two players you’ll need to know for this event, either contenders (those ranked in the top ten that could hoist the trophy), darkhorses (players ranked outside the top ten who could stun the world with a successful two week stint), sleepers (unseeded players that could make some noise at this year’s US Open), some duds (highly ranked players who might be having a short stay in the Big Apple), the Americans (the hometown others who will be sure to garner fan support), and others to keep an eye out for.  We begin on the women’s side today and will tackle the men’s singles event later in the week.

The Contenders

Serena Williams’s play hasn’t looked great on court, but the results don’t lie: 12-1 with two titles. (Source: J.Conrad Williams/Newsday)

Serena Williams (rank: 1)—As with all of the majors, she’s your favorite until she’s knocked out.  Unfortunately for Serena, she’s been knocked out prematurely at all three prior majors this year, losing to Ana Ivanovic in Australia, Garbine Muguruza in Paris, and Alize Cornet in Wimbledon.  She’s not coming in with a ton of confidence at the majors, and her form has looked questionable during the US Open Series.  However, she’s still managed to win the titles in Stanford and Cincinnati and reach the semifinals in Canada, so even when she’s not at her best, she can go deep at an event.

Simona Halep (rank: 2)—By this time last year, Simona Halep was making her ascent up the rankings but was still being dismissed as a player who feasted on the low-tier events while failing to back it up at the majors.  We can’t say that anymore in 2014, and the Romanian has continued her climb up to a career (and national) high of two in the world.  Halep has the ability to attack and defend superbly, and she’s got tons of confidence from her last 18 months or so.  One cause for concern has been her lack of hardcourt preparation, but Halep simply knows how to win at this point.

Agnieszka Radwanska (rank: 5)—It wasn’t too long ago that I argued that Radwanska’s chances might have been blown after several close encounters with her maiden major title.  However, after her win in Canada, the elder Radwanska sister might have found just what she needs to turn it around.  Radwanska can play on every surface, though historically she hasn’t done as well at the US Open.

Maria Sharapova (rank: 6)—Maria Sharapova has turned into more of a clay specialist in the past few years, but she still can win matches on the hard courts.  As with all events in which she enters, she’s got to steer clear of Serena Williams to have a legitimate shot.  A year ago she missed this event, but now she’s one of the top ranked players on the year-to-date leaderboard.  She’ll be looking to clinch the Player of the Year honors with another strong showing at a major.

Eugenie Bouchard (rank: 8)—Dismiss the fact that she’s done horribly during the US Open Series.  Eugenie Bouchard is similar to players like Serena Williams and Sloane Stephens: she shows up for the majors.  The Canadian rising star is the youngest player in the top ten and the only player this year to reach at least the semifinals in all three prior majors.  If she can get through her first couple rounds, she could be poised for yet another huge run.

Ana Ivanovic (rank: 9)—It was only a few years ago that Ana Ivanovic was used as a cautionary tale as a player who couldn’t handle her rapid ascent into tennis superstar.  She plummeted into journeywoman status but has slowly and surely climbed her way back up in the rankings and in the conversation.  Her only major title may be on the clay, but her best surface is hard court.  With her potent forehand and revived serve, she could make lots of noise as evidenced by her run to the finals in Cincinnati.

 

The Darkhorses

Caroline Wozniacki (rank: 11)—Another player who reached the heights of the game only to fall off the radar afterwards, Wozniacki appears to have put her full focus into the game of tennis after her failed engagement to Rory McIlroy (who also has appeared to focus on his golf game to excellent results post-engagement).  Caroline won’t be able to overpower her opponents, but she has added more of an offensive game to her extremely solid baseline retrieving style.

Lucie Safarova (rank: 15)—A darkhorse in the truest sense of the word, Lucie Safarova is often forgotten yet somehow manages to hang around as a top thirty player.  She’s got a very good game in using her lefty strokes and power to push her opponents around on the court, but she also has difficulty overcoming the players ranked ahead of her.  However, if there happens to be a big upset in her part of the draw, she could be a big benefactor.

Ekaterina Makarova (rank: 18)—Makarova utilizes her lefty serve on hardcourts to near perfection in being able to pull her opponents right off the court and follows that up with excellent lefty spins and shots.  She’s done well for herself in the hardcourt warm-ups, reaching the semifinals of the Citi Open in Washington and Rogers Cup in Canada, both times losing to the eventual champion.

Andrea Petkovic (rank: 19)—She has been sapped by some sort of illness in recent weeks, but Petkovic did have a good start to her hardcourt preparations, reaching the semifinals of the event in Stanford and pushing Serena Williams in the first set.  Petkovic plays well on hardcourts, as she can use her hard, flat groundstrokes to great effect when she’s on.  Injuries have plagued her during her career, so hopefully she can get over her illness in a week’s time.

Is Venus Williams back? If her summer results are any indication, the answer could be yes. (Source: Anthony Gruppuso/USA Today Sports)

Venus Williams (rank: 20)—Based on her post-Wimbledon results, Venus Williams may be playing something closer to Top 5 tennis than her ranking indicates.  She stormed to the finals of the Rogers Cup in Canada before running out of gas in the final against Agnieszka Radwanska, and she suffered narrow defeats to both Andrea Petkovic (Stanford) and Lucie Safarova (Cincinnati).  If she can keep the ball in the court, Venus could be pushing for a deep run.

Svetlana Kuznetsova (rank: 21)—Svetlana Kuznetsova won her first title in years at the Citi Open in Washington DC this summer.  She’s always had a very good game for hardcourt play, but a combination of injuries and mental walkabouts have derailed her chances in recent years.  However, she’s been playing well and staying focused, as evidenced by her three-set win over Eugenie Bouchard in Cincinnati.  The draw will say a lot, but the former US Open champion could be poised for a second week run.

 

The Sleepers

Camila Giorgi (rank: 38)—The young Italian announced her arrival on the tour last year at Flushing Meadows with a thrilling dismissal of Caroline Wozniacki.  Since then, she’s ascended to barely miss out on a seed at the year’s final major.  With her game of a power serve and power groundstrokes, she can blast anyone off the court as she did to Wozniacki.  Consistency is still a concern, but Giorgi is a player that could cause some big upsets.

Coco Vandeweghe might have found the right mix of sheer power and precision this summer, and it could pay huge dividends in New York. (Source: Al Bello/Getty Images North America)

Coco Vandeweghe (rank: 39)—Since winning her maiden title on the grass this year, the relative of former NBA star Kiki Vandeweghe has continued her solid play.  In the past, Coco would have a good week then follow that up with weeks of poor results.  However, she seems to have found a good medium between her potent yet erratic power game and steady baseline tactics; she recently stormed to the quarterfinals in Montreal as a qualifier, taking out two top ten seeds along the way.

Kaia Kanepi (rank: 49)—Kanepi has hidden away from the main tour, opting to play ITF and smaller clay events in favor of the US Open Series, but one thing about Kanepi is fairly certain: she is good for at least one upset each major.  In the last few years, she’s knocked off seeded players such as Jelena Jankovic, Angelique Kerber, Caroline Wozniacki, and Klara Koukalova (then Zakopalova).  If she’s healthy, she is a name that many players absolutely want to avoid.

Yaroslava Shvedova (rank: 50)—Shvedova is another player that the seeds would rather avoid in the draw.  She’s an up-and-down player, sometimes due to injuries and sometimes due to form—and is currently going through a down phase—but she can turn it around quickly.  She’s got good memories of the US Open, including a doubles title here with Vania King a few years back.

Kristina Mladenovic (rank: 73)—Since stunning Li Na at the French Open earlier this year, Mladenovic has kept up her solid play, reaching the semifinals of Istanbul and the quarterfinals of Baku and Washington DC, all hardcourt events.  Her results at the two big events in the US Open leadup—Montreal and Cincinnati—are troubling, as she lost in the qualies both times, but if she can summon the solid play she encountered just a month or two ago, she can cause yet another sizable upset.

 

The Duds

Li Na (rank: 3)—Li Na, who could have been a contender most likely, withdrew from the US Open due to a knee injury.

Petra Kvitova (rank: 4)—The Wimbledon champion remains an enigma, especially during the summer hardcourt season.  Kvitova blames her asthma as a reason for her poor results in the United States, and her results at the US Open back it up.  In the warm-ups to the US Open, she’s a pedestrian 1-2.  However, if there is one bright spot for Kvitova, it’s that she can take solace in the fact that both of her losses were to players who backed up their upsets; Makarova reached the semifinals in Canada, and Svitolina reached the quarterfinals in Cincinnati.

Dominika Cibulkova (rank: 13)—The tennis world may have wondered if Cibulkova had announced her arrival as an elite player with her surprise run to the Australian Open final this year, but since then her results have fallen back to Earth.  She played three events during the US Open Series thus far (she’s also playing in New Haven this week), but in those three events, she’s slumped to a poor 1-3 record.  In that span, her only victory came against a wildcard ranked nearly 200 places below her.  A strong run in Connecticut might turn her fortunes around, but her form has not indicated she’ll stay long in New York.

Last year’s finalist, Victoria Azarenka, will be lucky to replicate her result this year. (Source: David Goldman/Associated Press)

Victoria Azarenka (rank: 17)—Azarenka came so close last year to hoisting the trophy in Flushing Meadows, but since then it’s been all downward.  Most of that has been due to injuries, as she’s been off the tour for months.  The withdrawal from Cincinnati due to a knee injury is cause for serious concern about her ability to play well in New York, and without the match play to find her groove again, she could be an easy upset victim.

Sabine Lisicki (rank: 27)—It’s a tried and true statement for the player affectionately nicknamed “Boom Boom”: expect her to do well on the grass but avoid picking her at any other major.  Lisicki simply has trouble at the majors outside of Wimbledon; she’s 23-6 at Wimbledon, but just 21-18 at the other three majors, including 8-6 at the US Open.

Roberta Vinci (rank: 29)—One half of the WTA’s best doubles team, Roberta Vinci has struggled with her singles game in recent months.  In fact, it hasn’t been since May of this year that Vinci has beaten anyone ranked higher than 38 in the world, and that victory came on clay.  Since her run to the final in Istanbul (which is a hardcourt event), Vinci has lost all three matches she’s played: Zahlavova Strycova in Canada, Lisicki in Cincinnati, and Makarova in New Haven.

 

The Americans

Sloane Stephens has had a disappointing 2014, but she can turn it around with a strong run at the home slam. (Source: Richard Deutsch/USA Today Sports)

Sloane Stephens (rank: 22)—Sloane Stephens could have been placed in the Darkhorse category based on her ability to focus for the majors.  She also could have been placed in the Duds category for her pedestrian 3-3 record during her summer hardcourt preparations.  She has played better in recent weeks; the coaching change from Paul Annacone to Thomas Hogstedt has appeared to make her more aggressive with her court placement and her forehand.  If she can avoid Jelena Jankovic (the player who knocked her out of both Montreal and Cincinnati), she could replicate last year’s results.

Madison Keys (rank: 28)—Madison will be seeded for the first time in her career at a major, and while it’s uncertain how this might affect her mentally, her game is strong enough to at least live up to that seeding.  She’s a very dangerous player to play against with her booming serve and potent groundstrokes.  She suffered a bit of an injury at Wimbledon and may still be feeling some effects from it, but if she’s healthy, she could be primed for a breakout major result.

Christina McHale (rank: 43)—McHale had a solid spring this year that’s helped propel her back into the Top 50 after a bout with mono.  She’s never really going to contend for any major titles, but she has been known to pull of an upset here or there, particularly at the US Open, which is in her backyard (She’s from New Jersey).  She’s reached a couple third rounds in New York, and depending on the draw, it’s not out of the question that she reaches another.

Varvara Lepchenko (rank: 52)—Though she’s slipped from the ranks of the seeded players this year, Lepchenko continues to plug along.  Her US Open Series results have been mixed: a semifinal in Stanford, where she beat Agnieszka Radwanska; a loss to Samantha Stosur in the first round in Cincinnati where she qualified for the main draw; and a first round exit in qualifying in New Haven.  Being a lefty will give her an advantage over other players, but she’s just got to tough out wins like she should have against Angelique Kerber in the semifinals at Stanford.

Taylor Townsend (rank: 103)—Taylor got in as a wildcard, but her ranking has been steadily climbing in 2014 with results that show promise for future gains.  She’s had a decent summer in which she entered the qualification draws in both Washington DC and Cincinnati and promptly reached the second round of the main draw in both instances.  With a solid showing at the US Open, Townsend can crack the Top 100.

 

The Others

Garbine Muguruza (rank: 26)—She’s cooled off from her breakout run at the French Open, as she’s only compiled a 4-3 record during the US Open Series with her first round victory over Sara Errani in New Haven.  She has taken out a couple of higher ranked players though; in addition to the aforementioned Errani, she defeated Cibulkova in Stanford.  Can Muguruza find her form in time for the final major of the year?

Elina Svitolina has played incredibly well on the hardcourts this summer. Keep an eye out for her. (Source: Elsa/Getty Images North America)

Elina Svitolina (rank: 34)—Quick question: who is the teenager with the most titles?  Answer: Elena Svitolina, who at age 19 (she turns 20 in September), is the two-time defending champion of the Baku Cup.  Svitolina, depending on the withdrawals, could be seeded or the first unseeded player in the draw.  Either way, players won’t want to be against her, as she has been great on the hardcourts this summer.  In addition to defending her title in Baku, Svitolina also reached the quarterfinals in Istanbul and Cincinnati, where she knocked off Petra Kvitova and Carla Suarez Navarro.

Belinda Bencic (rank: 59)—Bencic has been promoted as a player with a lot of promise, drawing comparisons to the most famous Swiss female tennis player: Martina Hingis.  She hasn’t ascended up the rankings like Hingis did, but she’s solidly in the Top 100 now.  If she wishes to have a long stay in New York though, she’ll need to turn it around quickly: she’s failed to win a main draw match since Wimbledon.

Alisa Kleybanova (rank: 94)—If you’re looking for a feel-good story to root for, look no further than Alisa Kleybanova, who’s still making her return from Hodgkin’s Lymphoma (the same disease which has sidelined promising young American Victoria Duval).  Klebyanova still hasn’t returned to the peak of her powers, when she was a Top 20 player, but she’s slowly but surely making her way back up the rankings.

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