NEW YORK, NY, USA - Can anyone, or anything, stop Serena Williams at the US Open? The way she has battled her way to the Australian Open, French Open and Wimbledon titles, only the bravest of souls would predict Williams not leaving New York with the Grand Slam - even if the pressure, internally and externally, is bound to hit unprecedented levels for the World No.1.
Thursday's draw, however, might have been kinder to Williams. Let's take a closer look at the path to, possibly, yet more history for Williams and how the rest of the draw shakes down.
First Quarter: Serena, Serena & Serena
What do we know about Williams' first opponent, Vitalia Diatchenko? Well, perhaps most relevantly, she has beaten only one player in the Top 60 in her career, Dominika Cibulkova. That stated, let's not forget at Wimbledon that Williams trailed by an early break to Diatchenko's fellow Russian, Margarita Gasparyan, as nerves surfaced to begin the tournament. Yes, of course, she came back.
If Williams passes that obstacle, which is fully expected, the next round could bring Mirjana Lucic-Baroni - and she is certainly dangerous. While the Croatian holds a 10-18 record in WTA main draws this year, she is 2-3 versus the Top 20, including another win over Simona Halep. Those three losses all went to three sets. Lucic-Baroni, too, took out a 'Williams' last season in the final in Québec City, Venus.
Sloane Stephens and Madison Keys loom in the third and fourth rounds, respectively, with both testing Williams in their most recent duels. And who could the quarterfinals bring? Maybe Belinda Bencic, one of only two players to beat Williams this year.
Prediction: Serena Williams def. Bencic
Second Quarter: The Return Of Maria
Maria Sharapova plays her first tournament since Wimbledon, having been sidelined by a leg injury, and faces someone who makes opponents earn every single point in Daria Gavrilova. Tough. Not only that, but the plucky Gavrilova has already defeated Sharapova this year on a US hardcourt, in Miami.
Sharapova isn't the only past US Open winner from Russia to make a comeback. Svetlana Kuznetsova falls into that category and, similarly, won't be thanking the draw gods after landing Kristina Mladenovic in the round of 128.
After Sharapova, the next highest seed in the quarter, Ana Ivanovic, also has a difficult opener in the form of Cibulkova. If she can navigate past the 2014 Australian Open finalist, Ivanovic - only beaten by the eventual champions in Toronto and Cincinnati - has a nice route to the quarterfinals. Don't discount Ivanovic confronting her countrywoman, Jelena Jankovic, in the last 16. Jankovic enjoyed another good week in Cincinnati, and the first seed she is scheduled to meet is the slumping Spaniard, Carla Suárez Navarro.
Elina Svitolina has made one Grand Slam quarterfinal this year, and with a solid Cincinnati behind her, she will be hoping for the same outcome in New York. The young Ukrainian could play Sharapova in the fourth round in a match-up that would favor the latter. But will Sharapova get that far?
Prediction: Ivanovic def. Svitolina
Third Quarter: Petra, Caro & Garbiñe
Many Top 10 pros don't play the week before a Grand Slam. They head to the major early, practice and get a feel for the conditions and environment. Caroline Wozniacki and Petra Kvitova have bucked the trend in the past and did so again ahead of New York.
Judging by what has happened at the Connecticut Open, it was a great choice. Wozniacki, last year's US Open finalist, went 0-3 in Stanford, Toronto and Cincinnati - without winning a set. There was, however, an injury to take into consideration. But in New Haven - where she usually thrives - she made the semifinals, stopped by a Kvitova on song. Her draw in New York in the early stages is a good one; if Wozniacki meets and gets past Flavia Pennetta, a quarterfinalist - at least - in her three past visits, in the third round, it's sure to be another confidence booster.
Kvitova, meanwhile, lost both her matches in Canada and Ohio and needed a dose of confidence. New Haven helped in that respect.
Completing the trio of Grand Slam finalists who struggled in Canada and Ohio is Garbiñe Muguruza. Muguruza, though, has shown that she elevates her game at the Grand Slams. The Wimbledon finalist is on a third round collision course with Andrea Petkovic, with Kvitova a potential fourth round foe.
Prediction: Muguruza def. Wozniacki
Fourth Quarter: Simona's Time To Shine At A Major?
No one needs to tell Halep how dangerous Lucic-Baroni is. She knows first hand, from both the French Open and last year's US Open. Halep is unquestionably in much better spirits now compared to Roland Garros and Wimbledon, but that doesn't mean her woes at Grand Slams will be quickly forgotten. The Romanian, herself, surely hasn't forgotten about the unexpected exits.
Indeed, for all the talk of Halep reclaiming No.2 in the rankings and thus not having to play Williams until the final, she'll have to first eclipse the opening week. As Jana Cepelova proved at Wimbledon, should Halep walk on court uncertain, her first opponent - in this case, the big-serving Marina Erakovic - could prosper.
With the likes of Halep, Victoria Azarenka, Sabine Lisicki, Angelique Kerber and Alizé Cornet - the latter might play Halep in the third round - the seeds in this quarter, there's no shortage of players who've topped Williams.
But their first task, prior to pondering an upset of Williams, is to reach the quarterfinals. Mind you, Azarenka must be chuffed not to be in the same half as Williams. Azarenka might be Williams' biggest threat; she starts against another potent server, Lucie Hradecka. Hradecka's fellow Czech, Lucie Safarova, is involved in the pick of the first round matches in this quarter, up against Lesia Tsurenko in a rematch of their New Haven semifinal won by the French Open finalist.
Prediction: Azarenka def. Halep
Semifinals: Williams def. Ivanovic, Azarenka def. Muguruza