You think the women’s fields tend to be, gloriously, open during “peacetime”? Well, try surveying the battlefield when so many top performers are missing, no one has played a Major in eight months, and the fog of a pandemic still hasn’t entirely lifted. After the world’s top-two players have pulled, we have a top seed who's never won a Major, a second seed who’s struggled mightily of late, and a third seed who turns 39 in a few weeks. All of this will infuse this unprecedented Major with extra uncertainty.
But who cares? Possibility and improbability lie at the root of why we like sports. In two weeks we will crown a champion; and if as many as, say 40 players, have a legitimate shot, sign us up to watch….
1. Karolina Pliskova: Ranked third but seeded first. Now 28 years old, she has done everything but win a Major. A lot to like here—starting with a fast court to punctuate what is arguably the best serve in the women’s game. Also, she’s made the U.S. Open final before. But lots of questions, too, amplified by her shaky play in the Cincy-off-the-BQE tuneup.
2. Sofia Kenin: Your eyes do not deceive you. That truly is a “two” next to her name on the seedings board. In the model of David Ferrer, here is an undersized player who gives no quarter, relishes the battle, and gets everything she can from her game. While it took her to the Australian Open title, she has struggled since. Her last match heading in—a straight set loss to Aliza Cornet—provokes questions.
3. Serena Williams: Well… the career track record speaks for itself. And she benefits mightily from both a day off between matches and knowing she will be scheduled on one of two courts. But lots of questions here, especially after five tune-up matches—all three sets; none against a top-20 foe; two of them losses; one of them a dismal loss. Bet against her at your peril, but ….
4. Naomi Osaka: Our pick to win. It'll be interesting to see how/if her activism impacts her tennis. Otherwise, your 2018 winner looks like a decent bet to take another Major. The fast court will work to her benefit as, perhaps, will the absence of fans. With more than a little grace, she is warming to her status as a global celebrity and global brand. But it’s her tennis that might get the biggest uplift here.
5. Aryna Sabalenka: For all the talk of “gears” and “yellow lights,” she still plays with all the subtlety of a jackhammer. Terrifically entertaining, but a heavy hitter with little in the way of nuance. She either destructs or self-destructs. Which makes for great viewing; but is not the strategy for getting through seven consecutive matches.
6. Petra Kvitova: Fast courts? Czech. Reduced chaos at an event that, usually, gives her discomfort? Czech. Healthy? Czech. We were thinking that the reduced chaos might help change her attitude about this event. An early loss in Cincy gives pause; and her modest track record in New York speaks (whispers?) for itself; but on the short list of contenders.
7. Madison Keys: Not unlike Sabalenka, always dangerous, always powerful, and seldom able to downshift and win. A straight set lost to crafty Ons Jabeur in her previous match. Keys was a finalist three years ago; she will benefit from fast courts (and reduced eyeballs?) but can she harness all that mighty power?
8. Petra Martic: A fine player (mostly on clay) and credit her for this significant mid-career upgrade. She serves well, moves well, and has sneaky power; but the slower the court the better she plays.
9. Jo Konta: Lady Jo remains a mystifying player. Sometimes she reaches the second week of Majors, looking like a force to win. Sometimes she forgets who she is. Another mid-career player who should benefit from the surface and context. The is some concern, however, about the impact of a recent heart palpitation.
10. Garbine Muguruza: Coming into form in 2020 and coming off a final appearance—a winnable final at that—in the previous Major. You worry about the ankle injury and the lack of a tune-up. But the talent is there. In this crazy year, she is precisely the type of player who can turn it on for two weeks and win a second Major.
11. Elena Rybakina: Talented Russian began the year with no Major single wins to her record. She’s now a top-16 seed. Watch her play.
12. Marketa Vondrousova: Like the meme of Homer Simpson backing into the shrubs, man, has she retreated since reaching the 2019 French Open final (as a teenager). A fun player to watch and lots of craftiness, but still prone to getting hit off the court.
13. Alison Riske: Pity she isn’t coming off the Olympics. But what a run for a player who has found her groove in her late 20s. She will love the fast courts and you never worry about her professionalism.
14. Anett Kontaveit: Rolling Estonian coming off a quarterfinal run in Australia.
15. Maria Sakkari: The Greek is the personification of “solid” and her record since the reset includes a three-set win against Serena Williams.
16. Elise Mertens: Coming off a semifinal run in Cincy.
17. Angie Kerber: Former champ.
19. Dayana Yastremska: A Next Gen star-on-the-make but game and attitude in equal measure.
27. Ons Jabeur: An imaginative sui generis player who builds her matches like a lawyer building a case. She's playing the best ball of her career.
28. Jenn Brady: Your Lexington winner comes in with a career-high ranking.
30. Kiki Mladenovic: An up-and-down player but the kind of athlete who will benefit from these circumstances.
Dark Horse Pasture
Fiona Ferro: One of only three WTA title winners, post-COVID-19.
Coco Gauff: Gets better and better. Just a pity Osaka looms early again. Then again, Gauff prevailed last time.
Jil Teichman: Swiss athlete keeps winning.
Sloane Stephens: Like southern Louisiana, she’s in a state of erosion. She’s 1-7 on the year and you wonder about her level of passion. But she’s three years removed from winning the title and leans in to her inconsistency. In a similar vein….
Kim Clijsters: Former champs get mentioned. And….
Venus Williams: Has looked terrific in the return, has retooled her game a bit and who will bring to bear a big serve on a slick surface.
Victoria Azarenka: Former finalist looked vulnerable in Lexington… and then nearly invincible in Cincinnati-in-Queens. Likely to play countrywoman Sabalenka in Round 2.
Venus Williams d. Karolina Muchova
First-round matches to watch
Clijsters v. Ekaterina Alexandrova: Big opportunity for the 37-year-old former champ.
Kontaveit v. Danielle Collins: Big opportunity for the former UVa star.
Keys v. Timea Babos: Note the combined ace count.
Jo Konta v. Heather Watson: Battle of the Brits continues
Peschke and Schuurs
Muguruza d. Konta
Osaka d. Pliskova