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Serena, Kvitova, Sharapova among players to watch as U.S. Open looms

Petra Kvitova has had only limited success during the North American summer hard-court swing. Photo:

Petra Kvitova has had only limited success during the North American summer hard-court swing.

The summer hard-court season kicks into high gear next week with the first of two Premier tournaments ahead of the U.S. Open, which begins on Aug. 25. With the Rogers Cup in Montreal and the Western & Southern Open in Cincinnati on tap for the next two weeks, here's a look at some of the WTA players to watch through the last Grand Slam tournament of 2014. (Click here for men's players to watch.)

Serena Williams: The No. 1 has one more chance at a major to redeem a lackluster season by her lofty standards. Though the 32-year-old has won three titles, she hasn't made a Grand Slam quarterfinal and her Wimbledon ended with a lot of concern and question marks. She's the defending champion in Canada, a defending finalist in Cincinnati and the defending champion at the U.S. Open. That's a load of points to defend and plenty of pressure to deliver; if she struggles, the top ranking could be in jeopardy. Friday's quarterfinal victory over Ana Ivanovic at the Bank of the West Classic was a step in the right direction for Williams, who rallied after being blitzed in the first set and regrouped after being broken when serving for the match in the third.   

Simona Halep: She might get labeled as a dark horse contender for the U.S. Open ... but can the second-ranked player really be a dark horse? With Li Na sidelined through the U.S. Open because of a knee injury, the 22-year-old Halep will rise to No. 2 after the Rogers Cup without even touching a racket. She is not playing in Montreal and will return in Cincinnati, then try to defend her title in New Haven, Conn., to finish her U.S. Open preparation. Halep's success in the first six months of the season has taken some pressure off her as she prepares to defend points from winning three post-July titles and reaching the fourth round of the U.S. Open last year.

Petra Kvitova: Was Wimbledon a positive blip in the 24-year-old's roller-coaster career or the sign of things to come? Kvitova has generally struggled in the North American heat and humidity, though she won Montreal and New Haven in 2012 for her only titles on the continent. She made the quarterfinals in Canada last year, the third round in Cincinnati and the final in New Haven before winning only three games against Alison Riske in a third-round loss at the U.S. Open. We all know what the fourth-ranked Kvitova can do, good and bad, so we'll just have to sit back and see which Petra we get.

Maria Sharapova: In contrast to Williams, the sixth-ranked Sharapova has a pressure-free stretch in store. She played just one match after Wimbledon last year thanks to a shoulder injury, leaving Sharapova with only one point -- one! -- to defend for the rest of the season. After her strong clay-court season, Sharapova is already No. 1 in the Road to Singapore standings, which are based on points earned in 2014 and determine the eight-player field for the WTA Championships in October. If the 27-year-old Russian plays well through the U.S. Open, she could set herself up for a charge at the season-ending No. 1 ranking.

Eugenie Bouchard: Like Sharapova, the Wimbledon finalist is well positioned to raise her ranking. Bouchard didn't make it past the second round of the four North American summer tournaments she played last year, losing three times to top-10 players. But she was ranked outside the top 50 then, and now, at No. 7 after becoming the only player to be a semifinalist or better at the first three majors of 2014, she will benefit from more favorable draws. Expect lots of fanfare when Bouchard, 21, returns home to Montreal next week.  

Angelique Kerber: All three of her titles have come on hard courts, and the world No. 8 is threatening to win a fourth this week at the Bank of the West Classic. The 26-year-old German is coming off a quarterfinal run at Wimbledon, where she defeated Sharapova for her first victory over a top-five player at a major. 

Victoria Azarenka: It's all about the long view for Azarenka. It has to be, because the present isn't very pretty. Plagued by a left foot injury throughout the season, Azarenka on Monday will fall out of the top 10 for the first time sine 2010. In addition, no one besides Williams is defending more points through the U.S. Open than Azarenka, who won Cincinnati and was runner-up in New York last year. The 25-year-old Belarusian, who is 8-6 this year, needs to play as many matches as possible to recapture her form. 

​Ana Ivanovic: The WTA's 2014 leader in victories (41) will return to the top 10 next week for the first time since 2009. Her midseason coaching change was surprising, given that she won three titles under Nemanja Kontic before replacing him with Dejan Petrovic. Besides getting over an abdomen injury and what she described after the loss to Williams as a pinched nerve on her side, one short-term goal should be to try to secure a top-eight seed for the U.S. Open.

​Caroline Wozniacki: The 24-year-old Dane hasn't beaten a top-10 player since last year's Western & Southern Open. But her play has improved since the French Open, even if her first title of the season, last month's Istanbul Cup, came against a weak field. 

Andrea Petkovic: The German -- who was scheduled to play Serena in the Stanford semifinals on Saturday -- is back in the top 20 and has 305 points to defend through the U.S. Open. At No. 14 in the Road to Singapore rankings, she has an outside chance at the WTA Championships. Qualifying would be a remarkable achievement for the 26-year-old, given that injuries derailed her in the previous two years and her ranking plummeted to No. 177 in March 2013.

Sloane Stephens: She split with coach Paul Annacone after Wimbledon, where a first-round loss dropped her from the top 20, and is working with Thomas Hogstedt, formerly with Sharapova and Wozniacki, on a trial basis. Their partnership didn't start well, as Stephens lost to Christina McHale in the first round of the Citi Open, getting bageled in the third set. Stephens, 21, told reporters before the Citi Open that she always feels added pressure and attention when she plays in the U.S., but experience has taught her how to cope better. We'll see how that plays out over the next five weeks. 

Venus Williams: It bears repeating: The 25th-ranked Wiliams was the only player to take a set off Kvitova at Wimbledon and that match was decided by just a handful of points. Williams, 34, had flashes of high-quality play at the Bank of the West Classic, where she lost to Petkovic 7-5 in the third set in the quarterfinals. Seeking to fine-tune her game via match play, Williams is entered in both Montreal and Cincinnati. She won just two matches last year during the summer hard-court swing.

​Madison Keys: The 19-year-old says she's healthy again after withdrawing from her third-round match at Wimbledon with a leg injury. Ranked a career-high No. 27, she has little to defend through the U.S. Open, having lost in qualifying last year in Canada and in the first round of the U.S. Open. Keys will be seeded for the first time at a Slam in New York, which means potentially easier early-round draws and an opportunity to win some matches and continue to boost her ranking. She's already the tour's highest-ranked teen.​

Garbine Muguruza: Because she shut down her 2013 season after Wimbledon to have ankle surgery, the 28th-ranked Muguruza has no points to defend for the rest of her breakout year. Muguruza, 20, who upset Serena en route to the French Open quarterfinals, will be making her Montreal and Cincinnati main-draw debuts and will be seeded at the U.S. Open for the first time.

Camila Giorgi: Ranked 39th, Giorgi is in contention to earn a seed at the U.S. Open. The top players wouldn't mind that, because she's a dangerous floater when her aggressive game is clicking. Giorgi, 22, did not play a U.S. Open lead-up tournament last year, but she went on to qualify and upset Wozniacki to make the fourth round. In March, the Italian qualified for the hard-court BNP Paribas Open and ousted Petkovic and Sharapova in another fourth-round showing. Giorgi is entered in Montreal and Cincinnati.​

CoCo Vandeweghe: Vandeweghe's name doesn't come up often in discussions about young prospects, but the 22-year-old American has been playing well over the last two months and hit a career-high No. 41 in July. With her big serve and forehand, the 48th-ranked Vandeweghe can be an uncomfortable player for top seeds to face in the early rounds. She won the Topshelf Open as a qualifier in June for her first WTA title, she knocked out Muguruza ​in the first round of Wimbledon and she pushed Kerber to three sets in the second round of Stanford. Watch for where she lands in the draw in New York. 

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