NEW YORK, New York - Breaking down the US Open's Elite Eight as the quarterfinals are set to begin on Tuesday.
No.3 Sloane Stephens
Slam title defenses haven't exactly gone well this season. Serena Williams had to skip the Australian Open for obvious reasons, Jelena Ostapenko crashed out in the first round of the French Open to Kateryna Kozlova, and Garbiñe Muguruza was hit off the court by Alison Van Uytvanck in the second round of Wimbledon.
But if there's anyone who knows how to flip a script, it's Sloane Stephens.
Stephens is bidding to become the first woman to defend a Slam since Serena won Wimbledon in 2015 and 2016, and the first to defend the US Open since Serena won three consecutive titles from 2012-2014. In fact, the last time a first-time major champion defended her maiden Slam was Victoria Azarenka, who won the 2012 and 2013 Australian Open.
Stephens has absolutely looked the part of the defending champion through four matches. She was tested in the second round by Ukrainian qualifier Anhelina Kalinina and battled hard for the three-set win. Since then she has been outstanding, playing the brand of aggressive counterpunching that only she can play to defeat Victoria Azarenka and No.15 Elise Mertens in straight sets.
Next up she faces the slicing and dicing Anastasija Sevastova in a rematch of last year's quarterfinal. The last time two players met in consecutive quarterfinals at the US Open was 2000-2001, when Serena and Lindsay Davenport split their back-to-back meetings. Last year, Stephens trailed 3-1 in the final set before coming back to take the match in a tiebreak, winning 6-3 3-6 7-6(4).
No.28 Serena Williams
When the serve is clicking, Serena is unstoppable. And the Serena serve has been clicking in New York.
The six-time US Open champion has faced just 9 break points through four matches and has been broken just three times, and holds the best hold rate of any of the remaining quarterfinalists (92%). She has lost just one set all tournament, coming against Kaia Kanepi in the Round of 16, which she came back to win 6-0, 4-6, 6-3. She leads the remaining field in aces (47), unreturned first serves (58%), 1st serve points won (81%), all while landing 59% of her first serves.
To provide context to these outstanding numbers, Serena's hold rate at Wimbledon this year, where she made the final on grass, was 84.7% (she's +7.3% at the US Open). Through seven matches, Serena served up 48 aces, an average of 6 per match. In New York she's already struck 47 through four matches, an average of just under 12 per match.
Serena has done all this while facing a far stiffer slate of opponents than she saw at Wimbledon. She already had to go through her sister Venus Williams in the third round, dropping three games, and the woman who knocked out the World No.1 in the Round of 16. Next she'll face the last woman to defeat her at the US Open, No.8 Karolina Pliskova.
Serena leads the head-to-head 2-1, but the two have not faced since that 2016 US Open semifinal, which Pliskova won in a clean 6-2, 7-6. Win that match and Serena could be facing a big showdown against another woman who has beaten her at a Slam, defending champion Sloane Stephens. That's not an easy path to a record-tying 24th major title, but Serena has been incredibly sharp and focused so far.
No.8 Karolina Pliskova
Pliskova beat Serena once in New York. Can she do it again?
The big-hitting Czech was the World No.1 here 12 months ago, and despite what she would consider a sub-par season, Pliskova is into her third consecutive US Open quarterfinal, her second major quarterfinal of the season. Teaming up with Conchita Martinez for the US Open seems to have provided the positive boost Pliskova needed to snap out of her general funk this season.
Pliskova came into the US Open at No.10 on the Porsche Race to Singapore Leaderboard, having failed to defeat a Top 20 opponent since early May. Whether it was her coaching shakeup after Wimbledon - she is also working with Rennae Stubbs - or just a change in mentality, Pliskova has played much more positive tennis in New York. She's into the quarterfinals without the loss of a set, and earned her first Top 20 win since Madrid in the Round of 16 over Ashleigh Barty.
No.14 Madison Keys
With all the attention on the two Americans in the top half of the draw - Serena and Sloane - Keys has quietly gone about her business in the bottom half of the draw to manufacture another deep run in New York. And unlike last year, where she came through dramatic late-night matches to make her first major final, Keys has been relatively drama-free through four matches.
She rebounded from a slow start to defeat Aleksandra Krunic 4-6, 6-1, 6-2 in the third round and then played a confident match to defeat the always dangerous Dominika Cibulkova in the Round of 16. Keys split with coach David Taylor after Cincinnati and is being advised by Lindsay Davenport in New York, with assistance from the USTA's Ola Mlamqvist. Perhaps the reunion of familiar faces and energies have settled Keys back into her game.
She played just one hardcourt tournament before the US Open, a run to the quarterfinals of Cincinnati that included a three-set win over No.4 Angelique Kerber, but Keys has shown once again that she's a big tournament player. Outside of the Slams this season she has made just one semifinal, in Charleston, while making the quarterfinals or better at three of the four majors.
Keys is the highest-ranked player left in the bottom half of the draw, and she'll face off against Carla Suárez Navarro for a spot in the semifinals. Keys has never lost to the Spaniard, but all three of their meetings have gone the full three sets.
No.18 Anastasija Sevastova
There's just something about New York that brings out the best in the sardonic Latvian. She's into her third consecutive quarterfinal in New York, the only Slam at which she's reached the quarterfinal at all. The 28-year-old has had one of the toughest roads of any of the quarterfinalists, having to go through Donna Vekic, Ekaterina Makarova, and Elina Svitolina, all in three tough sets.
She has a tough task in getting through Stephens, against whom she's 1-2, but Sevastova knows she has a game that can bother the American. But she's going to have to keep her cool, and that's a tough ask when the largest tennis stadium in the world will be full of fans rooting against you.
The key to Sevastova's New York success this year? Her return of serve. Of the remaining quarterfinalists, Sevastova leads in both 1st serve return points won (77%) and 2nd serve return points won (68%). She's also tied with Lesia Tsurenko for the most breaks of serve, having broken 23 times so far.
No.19 Naomi Osaka
It was never a matter of 'if', but 'when' for the 20-year-old from Japan. Osaka checked off a series of milestones after her gutsy comeback win over the red-hot Aryna Sabalenka on Monday, rallying from a break down in the third set to win 6-3, 2-6, 6-4 to advance to her first major quarterfinal. With the win, Osaka became the first Japanese woman in 14 years to advance to the quarterfinal of a Slam.
How good has Osaka been in New York? At one point she had won 22 consecutive games, posting a rare third-round double bagel over Aliaksandra Sasnovich. While Serena Williams has been broken just three times, Osaka has been broken just four times, with three of those breaks coming against Sabalenka. Of the remaining players, Osaka leads in 2nd serve points won (59%) and has hit the second-fastest serve behind Serena, topping out at 119mph.
Osaka said the key to her win over Sabalenka was embracing the role as the favorite. She'll need to do it again when she faces Tsurenko, the lowest-ranked player left in the tournament, in the quarterfinals. The two have never faced on the tour-level.
No.24 Carla Suárez Navarro
The highest-ranked woman with a one-handed backhand, the Spaniard absolutely sizzled under the lights on Arthur Ashe Stadium on Monday to defeat Maria Sharapova in straight sets in the Round of 16. The loss snapped Sharapova's 22-0 record in night matches on Ashe, and it put Suarez Navarro into her first US Open quarterfinal since 2013.
Suárez Navarro came into the tournament on the heels of her first final of the year in New Haven, and had to fight through three consecutive three-set matches, including a nail-biter over No.6 Caroline Garcia in the Round of 16.
Having now made multiple quarterfinals at three of the four Slams, the Spaniard is will be looking to make the first Slam semifinal of her career on Wednesday when she takes on Madison Keys.
No.36 Lesia Tsurenko
The Ukrainian finds herself in her first Slam quarterfinal by being the toughest out in the bottom section of the draw. She came through the section anchored by No.2 Caroline Wozniacki and No.13 Kiki Bertens, paving her way through the draw by stunning Wozniacki 6-4, 6-2 in the second round. After that match Wozniacki tipped her visor to the 29-year-old, saying Tsurenko played a smarter match, goading the two-time US Open finalist into a whopping 35 unforced errors.
Tsurenko followed it up by coming back from 1-4 down to win 11 straight games to beat Katerina Siniakova. Then came the piece de resistance, a grueling three-set comeback win in extreme heat to stun 19-year-old Marketa Vondrousova 6-7(3), 7-5, 6-2. Afterwards, Tsurenko called it the toughest match of her career, and she'll have a much-needed day of rest before facing Osaka for a spot in the semifinals.