CINCINNATI, OH, USA - The Top 8 seeds at this week's Western & Southern Open sat down with the press before the start of their tournaments. The topics that dominated the conversation? Serena Williams, Belinda Bencic, and the grueling summer hardcourt season.
Maria Sharapova on her post-Wimbledon break:
"I like those weeks in between the grass and the hard to kind of resettle and work on a few things but be able to take your mind off the grind of the schedule and the travel."
Sharapova on her decision to withdraw from Toronto last week:
"I needed a little bit more time. Hurt my leg a bit in training and had a few tough weeks. And then had a little bit of a setback and it came right before I was supposed to fly. I am feeling better. Still working through it a little bit."
Sharapova on her decision-making process when it comes to balancing injuries and tournament play:
"I look at the bigger picture. I look at the importance, and experience, and knowing that I don't go out to a tournament to be part of the draw. I go there to try and win the event. If my body is not ready to do that there's no reason for me to be out there. It's not fair to myself, it's not fair to the tournament. Yes you do lose a big chunk of money, but that's not what drives me or the sport."
Sharapova assesses her injury-addled season:
"It could also be better, it could always be worse in many ways. I think I started out really good. Even though I've been healthy, I've had little things here and there that weren't very serious but have limited me right before big events - being sick in Paris, right before Miami Open - those haven't really helped. The timing hasn't been great. But I've still been able to bring it at certain times. Sometimes I feel like I'm quite fortunate to still be in a good position and be No.2 in the world."
"I'm okay. I'm better than yesterday. But still I have some stomach cramps and I'm not feeling 100 % recovered. But I am better. That means it's getting better day by day so it's good. I have enough time before my tournament starts. I just have to get better day by day. I feel good mentally."
They're fierce rivals on court, but Sharapova was full of praise in discussing what makes Serena great:
"I think consistency is sometimes very understated. Consistency in this sport goes a long way. To be able to keep such a high level and to be able to bring it event after event no matter what match you're playing, it's an incredible power to do that. We speak about the physicality she has on court and the presence that she has, but as an athlete - as a normal human being - you have days when you're just off and things are just not working. The fact that she's been able - not just just this year, but cumulatively throughout her career - to get to this point and put herself in this position is really incredible."
"I expect her to win. To win all four this year, but we'll see.
"Of course, you have to have the game to beat her. But the most important thing at this level - because everyone is playing good tennis - is to believe you have a chance to win against with her. Because mentally I think there's a problem with us players. Because she's the best, she's winning everything, and when you go on court you know she has to win."
Halep doesn't mind the spotlight being on Serena throughout the Emirates Airline US Open series.
"I speak more about Serena than myself in the last few months," she said laughing. "I like this. I don't have pressure when I go to the tournaments. She's the best and we have to speak about her. She wins everything. She's a great player. I feel that she has everything to win matches, to win titles. She has a complete game."
Serena on coach Patrick Mouratoglou:
"I feel like he's been a great factor in affecting a big part of my game. He's been really amazing and he's been really positive. What can I say? I think the numbers speak for themselves. Since Patrick and I got together, we've won an incredible amount of Grand Slams and won a lot of tournaments too. We kind of lost count. We've dubbed ourselves the Dynamic Duo. Maybe the Wondertwins."
"Belinda is really a future star. She's really improving. We played last year in Beijing and now she's like a different player. She got a lot fitter, she was moving better. Still there's room in her game she can work on, but her competitiveness is great. There you can see the difference between someone who is younger. She didn't struggle physically and she had tough matches day after day and she really looked fresh against Serena in the third set."
Fellow WTA Rising Star Karolina Pliskova was also impressed by Bencic's breakout run:
"Definitely for sure she's going to have a big future. If she's playing like this when she's 18, I don't want to see how she's playing like when she's 30."
"When we found out about the mono we cut almost everything. I was practicing just an hour in the morning and 30 minutes of fitness in the afternoon. Be more kind of relaxed. When I saw how I was playing against Vika that I really didn't have [enough] time on court. this time I practiced one hour in the morning and an hour in the afternoon. I hope I will be fine. I never know. Sometimes I wake up in the morning and I feel good. The other day I felt a little bit tired and sleepy. It's a little bit up and down. I never know."
One thing Pliskova has on her mind: Wrangling away the No.1 Czech mantle from her veteran compatriots:
"Actually it is a motivation for me but it's still far. Lucie and Petra are both still better than me, actually I beat Lucie but it doesn't mean anything in the rankings, so I still have to work a little bit."
Halep was incredibly flattered to hear her idol Justine Henin named her as her favorite player to watch. She draws inspiration from knowing the short-statured Henin was able to win majors against more powerful players.
"Because most players are tall and they have enough power. They can cover the court better than me because I'm short. They like to play from the baseline. It's easier, I think. If you practice for hours on the baseline, you start to have the right feelings, and all the balls are going in. It's a good thing for the players who can do this style. For me it's impossible. My advantage on court is to move fast and finish the point. I think I am fast. I have to play fast and try to go to the net. I'm trying to improve this part of my game. Still, when you're short it's a bit complicated."
Serena on her New York Magazine shoot:
"They saw a picture on my Instagram account when I was in the air. The photographer was really influenced by that and he wanted to take it to a new level and I was like, 'Awesome. Cool. Let's do it.' One thing that I always say is 'Strong is Beautiful', and I think that spoke to that."