The US Open: Who'll shine brightest among the women?

Amazing parity marked the three previous majors as five different women made the finals. Will this intriguing trend continue?

Even if Serena Williams finds the right balance in time for the US Open, she’s clearly not “match tough” enough to win her 24th major title.   -  AP

The US Open – Act IV of the “As the Tennis World Turns” drama – arrives soon. Every player has a final chance at this last Grand Slam event to redeem or cap their year, settle a score, or break through with a big win or two.

Amazing parity marked the three previous majors as six different men and five different women made the finals. Will this intriguing trend continue?

The Flushing Meadows hard courts even out the odds because both grass court and clay court standouts can fare well there. Stifling heat can stimulate fight-or-flight responses in gruelling matches. The new shot clock, implemented to speed up play, could exasperate dawdling and exhausted players. And don’t forget the Fan Factor. US Open spectators, boisterous in the day and raucous at night, can energise the players they love or deflate the players they loathe.

The US Open: The men's galaxy of stars

Let’s gaze at the tennis galaxy and see which stars will shine most brightly and how much charisma they possess.

Serena Williams

Never-serene Serena had a provocative explanation for the worst loss of her 23-year pro career, 6-1, 6-0 to Britain’s Johanna Konta in the San Jose first round. She revealed on Instagram she had been in a “funk” because she felt she was “not a good mom.” She elaborated: “It’s totally normal to feel like I’m not doing enough for my baby. We have all been there. I work a lot, I train, and I’m trying to be the best athlete I can be. However, that means although I have been with her every day of her life, I’m not around as much as I would like to be. Most of you moms deal with the same thing. Whether stay-at-home or working, finding that balance with kids is a true art.”

Serena, moonlighting as a businesswoman, is also busy these days with a new denim collection she designed. “I set out to create a jean that would fit a curvier body like mine,” she explains.

Even if Serena finds that balance in time for the US Open, she’s clearly not “match tough” enough to win her 24th major title.

Charisma Quotient: 10 — Hyper-competitive, controversial, and always quotable.

Naomi Osaka

The 20-year-old born in Osaka, Japan, is blessed with so much potential that Tennis magazine (US) headlined a recent feature, “Is Naomi Osaka the WTA’s next dominant champion?” She sure looked like it when she won Indian Wells in March. She whipped Maria Sharapova, Agnieszka Radwanska, Karolina Pliskova, Simona Halep and and Daria Kasatkina, losing no more than eight games in any match.

With Serena-like power, the 5’11” Osaka can blow anyone off the court. Another example: at last year’s US Open, she overwhelmed then-two-time major champion Angelique Kerber 6-3, 6-1. But the streaky shotmaker can also beat herself with errors and lose to almost anyone. She’ll likely upset a seeded player and then be upset herself by an unseeded player.

Charisma Quotient: 9 — Quote machine, quirky, self-deprecatingly charming.

Caroline Wozniacki

In one of the most thrilling Grand Slam finals this century, Wozniacki outlasted Halep 7-6, 3-6, 6-4 at the Australian Open. She complemented her trademark consistency, composure, and patience with a more aggressive serve and forehand to capture her first major title. The 28-year-old Dane was fortunate, though, to face an exhausted and injured Halep.

When former No.1 Woz retreats into her cautious, counter-punching “comfort zone,” she is often overpowered. She found a winning formula in Melbourne, but this observer predicts she won’t stick with it. Perhaps her fiancé, retired NBA power forward David Lee, will give her some beneficial tips.

Charisma Quotient: 9 — Featured in the Sports Illustrated’s Swimsuit issue and is an endorsement magnet. Enough said.

Sloane Stephens

No one questions her terrific talent; many question her erratic commitment and focus. Her highs – winning the 2017 US Open and the 2018 Miami Open and reaching the 2018 French Open final – are very high. But her lows – losing eight straight matches, including the first round at the 2018 Australian Open-- are dismally low. Stephens shrugs off her critics as worry warts, telling the woebegone media at Melbourne: “Everyone is so depressed and so down. It’s not tough times. It’s just a learning experience. It’s a new season.” The 25-year-old American seems as nonchalant about her roller coaster results as her on-court winners and errors.

At her best, “Sloane is so dangerous going from defence to offence with her power,” pointed out ESPN analyst Pam Shriver. “No one has a better forehand in women’s tennis than Sloane for power, placement, and consistency.”

Stephens also has the best smile in tennis. She’ll smile a lot during the Flushing Meadows fortnight when she makes the final.

Charisma Quotient: 8.5 — When she’s engaged, fans are engaged, even enthralled. When she’s not…

Angelique Kerber

No woman, other than Halep, can match the high-level consistency of Kerber for both style of play and results this season. The smiling, 30-year-old German captured Wimbledon for her third major title. She also won Sydney; reached the semis at the Australian Open, Eastbourne and Dubai; and made the quarters at the French Open, Indian Wells, Miami, Doha and Rome.

On the secret of her success, Chris Evert says, “Mentally, she’s so fierce and intense. She’s so solid and doesn’t give you any free points.”

Kerber is playing almost as well as she did two years ago when she finished No. 1. She’ll make either the quarters or semis.

Charisma Quotient: 8 — Down-to-earth, tactically smart, and tenacious.

Elina Svitolina

With seven-time major winner Justine Henin as a special coaching consultant, the 23-year-old Ukrainian hopes to grab a major herself. Svitolina, who peaked at No.3 last September, has captured 12 Tour titles, but has never advanced past the quarters at a major. This season she defeated Pliskova and Konta to win Brisbane; Kerber and Kasatkina to capture Dubai; and Kerber, Kasatkina and Halep to take Rome.

The slender blonde possesses effective volleys to complement her solid ground strokes. But insiders wonder whether a significant loss in weight has caused a loss in her shot power this year. With a game similar to Halep’s, No. 5-ranked Svitolina lacks a knockout punch, and that will prevent her from reaching her first major semifinal.

Charisma Quotient: 8.5 — Sexy, fiery, and tenacious.

Elina Svitolina possesses effective volleys to complement her solid ground strokes. But insiders wonder whether a significant loss in weight has caused a loss in her shot power this year.   -  AP

 

Caroline Garcia

Andy Murray picked her as a future No.1 when she was a teenager. After improving her year-end ranking for eight straight years and finishing No.8 in 2017, Garcia is now a career-high No.6. An elite athlete with a French flair for the dramatic, she hits aggressively and positions herself aggressively, often inside the baseline.

At 24, Garcia is finally realizing her potential, as her wins over Svitolina, Maria Sharapova, and Stephens indicate. But her groundstrokes lack the power of Jelena Ostapenko, Garbine Muguruza and Petra Kvitova, and the consistency of Halep, Kerber and Wozniacki. Garcia isn’t quite ready to go deep at a major.

Charisma Quotient: 8.5 — You gotta love her unique post-victory “airplane” celebration.

Garbine Muguruza

What’s wrong with Garbine? As the defending champion at Wimbledon, she shockingly lost in the first round. Then Muguruza pulled out of both San Jose and Montreal with an arm injury.

Once considered the heir apparent to Serena’s throne, the two-time major champ has floundered this year other than reaching the French Open semis and the Doha final. Even if she’s injury-free in New York, it’s highly doubtful the 6’ Spanish power hitter will regain the form that took her to No.1 a year ago.

Charisma Quotient: 8.5 — Attractive face, exciting game, and appealing personality.

Petra Kvitova

The 28-year-old Czech’s successful comeback following a horrific knife attack in December 2016 is the feel-good story of the decade. This year, Kvitova has shown signs of regaining the championship form that produced Wimbledon titles in 2011 and 2014. She’s won a Tour-leading five titles – on hard courts (Doha and St Petersburg, Russia), clay (Prague and Madrid) and grass (Birmingham). On the debit side, she’s performed poorly at the majors, winning only two matches.

Despite suffering from asthma, Kvitova boasts a superb 15-3 record in three-set matches this season, including a victory over Serena at Cincinnati. The 6’ lefty who features both power and touch should match her 2017 result by gaining the quarters.

Charisma Quotient: 8.5 — Statuesque blonde, friendly, and forthcoming.

Karolina Pliskova

Fortune favours the brave, and the 6’1” Czech is a pure power hitter. Unfortunately, Pliskova is one of the worst defensive players on the tour, and her competitiveness sometimes wavers when she falls behind. The 2016 US Open finalist, now ranked No.9, could lose early against a hungry opponent.

Charisma Quotient: 7 — Appears too unexcited to get fans excited.

Jelena Ostapenko

More than anything else, the 21-year-old Latvian is fun to watch. Ostapenko wears her heart on her sleeves after almost every point. When she misses a shot, she’ll whack herself on the thigh or pout. But she quickly regains her focus and battles for the next point.

When she’s good, she’s extremely good, as she proved by winning the 2017 French Open. But, as all-time great Martina Navratilova said, “The problem with Ostapenko is that she doesn’t have a Plan B. She just hits the ball her hardest and tries her hardest.” That should be good enough to make the US Open quarters.

Charisma Quotient: 9 — Fun-loving, bold, and cute.

Madison Keys

The 23-year-old American smacks the ball as hard as anyone, but she lacks the consistency, defensive skills and tactical acumen of her good friend Stephens, who outplayed and outsmarted her in the US Open final a year ago and in the French Open semifinals this year. Put differently, her high-reward, high-risk style results in way too many errors. And that results in bad losses, such as to No.120 Evgeniya Rodina at Wimbledon, No.117 Danielle Collins at Indian Wells and No.129 Sara Sorribes Tormo at Madrid. Her one-dimensional game will lose early at Flushing Meadows.

Charisma Quotient: 8 — Amiable, and exciting when her winners exceed her errors.

Kiki Bertens

After a slow start this season, the 26-year-old Dutchwoman won Charleston and made the Madrid final and Wimbledon quarterfinals. The 6’ Bertens is only 2-6 at the US Open, but her complete game is evidenced by her victories over Wozniacki, Sharapova, Garcia, Venus Williams, Keys and Pliskova. She’s overdue for a strong showing in New York.

Charisma Quotient: 7.5 — She lets her racket do the talking.

After a slow start this season, the 26-year-old Kiki Bertens has won Charleston and made the Madrid final and Wimbledon quarterfinals.   -  AFP

 

Daria Kasatkina

A cross between versatile Martina Hingis and touch artist Agnieszka Radwanska, the 21-year-old Russian is a show-woman nonpareil. “I’m not boring in life, and I’m not boring on the court. Together, it’s connected,” Kasatkina tweeted in June.

All-time great Evert agreed with the tweet. During Kasatkina’s engrossing 6-3, 7-5 Wimbledon loss to Kerber, Evert said, “I saw drop shots, angles, change of pace. It’s been all power for a few years. We missed that [variety and finesse] in the women’s game. It’s so much better for the fans.”

With a weak, inconsistent serve and insufficient groundstroke power, this crowd-pleaser won’t make the second week on Flushing’s fast hard courts.

Charisma Quotient: 9.5 — She relishes being a trickster during matches and a quote machine baring her soul during press conferences.

Simona Halep

“Simona Halep has become one of the most determined, resilient, gritty athletes in women’s tennis,” commented ESPN analyst Pam Shriver after Halep survived four set points to grab the opening set tiebreaker, 8-6, against Sloane Stephens in the Rogers Cup final. Despite a painful blister on her left big toe and losing her serve seven times, the 26-year-old Romanian prevailed 7-6, 3-6, 6-4.

After three heartbreakingly close losses in Grand Slam finals, Halep finally won her first major at the 2018 French Open. There she also beat Stephens in three sets.

Tennis tests an athlete’s character as much as any sport. On Halep’s evolution as a top competitor, ESPN analyst Chris Evert noted, “Simona still gets down on herself, but she regroups a lot better than she used to.”

Halep has added both power and finesse to her counter-punching game that’s based on superior groundstrokes, speed and stamina. But it is her improved mental toughness that enables her to win marathon matches that will produce her second major title at the US Open.

Charisma Quotient: 8.5 — Her girl-next-door persona is appealing, and her fighting spirit is admirable.

Dark horses

Fast-improving, 20-year-old Aryna Sabalenka, of Belarus, has whipped Wozniacki, Pliskova, Julia Goerges and Johanna Konta in her breakthrough year. Camila Giorgi, who finally added consistency to her booming shots to make the Wimbledon quarters, is extremely dangerous. And be sure to watch American teenage standouts Amanda Anisimova and Whitney Osuigwe. Both 16-year-old wild cards could become future stars.