Unofficially, we’re calling the year’s fourth major championship in New York the US Wide Open. Or, perhaps, The Open to Suggestion?
Coming down the stretch of a turbulent two-year period, colored dramatically by the global pandemic, women’s tennis has been blessed with a dramatic dose of diversity and depth.
In the past 10 months, they’ve played two French Opens, an Australian Open, Wimbledon and, most recently, the Tokyo Olympics. Not only were there five different winners – there were, incredibly, 20 different semifinalists.
“So many interesting stories behind each of those 20 semifinalists, it’s really remarkable,” ESPN analyst Pam Shriver said. “I find it fascinating, say, just looking at the trajectory of Barbora Krejcikova this year. How could you have predicted that?
“There are so many players that have the weapons to win, if they happen to play their best over the two weeks. I mean, you just go down the list.”
A brief accounting for those of you who didn’t take proper notes:
2020 Roland Garros: Iga Swiatek, Sofia Kenin, Nadia Podoroska, Petra Kvitova.
2021 Australian Open: Naomi Osaka, Jennifer Brady, Serena Williams, Karolina Muchova.
2021 French Open: Barbora Krejcikova, Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, Maria Sakkari, Tamara Zidansek.
2021 Wimbledon: Ashleigh Barty, Karolina Pliskova, Aryna Sabalenka, Angelique Kerber.
2021 Olympics: Belinda Bencic, Marketa Vondrousova, Elina Svitolina, Elena Rybakina.
That’s a Who’s Who of today’s tennis, but not a single player got on the board twice. In 2016, for instance, the universe of women’s semifinalists was six fewer, 14. In 2012, it was only 10.
On the men’s side, four men – Novak Djokovic (5), Stefanos Tsitsipas (3), Rafael Nadal and Alexander Zverev (2) – advanced to multiple semifinals in those same five 2021 events. That means 12 different men appeared in those final fours, eight fewer than the women.
Barty, the world No.1 whose summer has included titles at Wimbledon and, last week, in Cincinnati, clearly has the best form coming in.
Last Sunday, Tennis Channel’s Lindsay Davenport began running down her US Open choices.
“Is Barty your favorite?” she was asked.
Davenport, a three-time Grand Slam singles champion, quickly answered, “Surprisingly, no and then cited the merits of Kvitova, Osaka and Serena (before she withdrew).
Coming in, there are numerous questions:
After withdrawing from her second-round match at Roland Garros, the No.3-ranked Osaka hasn’t seen much action. She lost her third match at the Tokyo Olympics and sat out the tournament in Montreal before falling to Jil Teichmann in the Round of 16 at the Western & Southern Open. Osaka has won three matches in three months, hardly the ideal preparation for a title run.
On the other hand, the 23-year-old from Japan has, by far, the best recent record in hard court majors. Remarkably, Osaka has won four of the past six combined US Opens (2018 and 2020) and Australian Opens (2019, 2021). She says she’ll try not to think about that in New York.
“I feel like my level is not that far off,” Osaka said in Cincinnati, “but I think I can’t put myself too much in the past, because I think if I’m constantly thinking about what my level is, where my level should be, it’s thinking in the past tense.
“I definitely wouldn’t go into a tournament thinking that I can’t win it. I would say for me right now I'm not even thinking about winning it, though. I’m thinking about going into the tournament and taking it one match at a time, and that’s how I play really well.”
No.1 Ash Barty since returning to the tour after being sidelined for 8 months last year:— WTA Insider (@WTA_insider) August 22, 2021
Yarra Valley Classic 🏆
Miami Open 🏆
And Olympic bronze in mixed.
Tour leader in match wins (40) and titles (5).
14-1 vs. Top 20. pic.twitter.com/JuV2IzdRDS
Likewise, 2019 US Open champion Andreescu has struggled, losing six of her past eight matches. She was winless at Roland Garros and Wimbledon and was beaten in her first match in Cincinnati by Muchova. Going back to the Australian Open, the 21-year-old Canadian has won only one match at a major championship this year.
No.2-ranked Sabalenka, No.9 Krejcikova and No.18 Sakkari all come in with career-high rankings. Sabalenka, though, lost her first match in Cincinnati to Paula Badosa in three sets. Krejcikova was a quarterfinal victim of Barty in Cincinnati, while Sakkari fell to Victoria Azarenka in the Montreal quarters.
Simona Halep, a 2015 US Open semifinalist, comes in questionable following her withdrawal from Cincinnati a week ago after beating Magda Linette in the first round. Citing a right thigh injury, Halep said she hoped to be ready for the US Open and has been practicing in New York. She’s played only two matches (also losing to Danielle Collins in Montreal) in nearly three and one-half months after a left calf tear in Rome forced her to miss Roland Garros and Wimbledon.
Here is why Barty is the favorite, courtesy of Teichmann, who lost to her in the straight-sets Western & Southern Open last week:
“Ash is a really, really complete player. She serves good, very big forehand, her slice, makes you change the rhythm. Yeah, I mean, she’s just really complete. She’s an exceptional No.1.”
Barty leads all WTA players with 40 match-wins in 2021 and five titles. Including Wimbledon and the Masters 1000s in Miami and Cincinnati. In the midst of a six-month road trip from her home in Australia, Barty loves the vibe in New York and has been itching to return after sitting out the 2020 event.
“I know this preparation leading up through Cincinnati has been good, but that doesn’t guarantee anything,” Barty said. “It’s a fresh start, a clean slate.
“For me, I keep it pretty lighthearted. I visit a few Aussie cafes, walk through Central Park and just try and connect a little bit with what is normal for me in a city that’s pretty big and in your face at times, but certainly an energy that I love.”
Shriver’s convinced that Barty’s 11-month hiatus from tennis has helped her grind through the sometimes difficult logistics of 2021.
“I believe by not playing last year, she’s reaping the benefits of not being in her second year of doing this,” Shriver said. “I’ve lived through it as a single mom with three teenagers, and I think the grind of the pandemic is not to be swept away and forgotten.
“Every time I see a meltdown on the court, on the men’s or women’s side, I wonder if it’s from the added stress and anxiety that players are feeling to keep COVID away, bubble life and its limitations. It’s the elephant in the room every tournament that’s been played since just over a year ago.”
If Barty wins the US Open, she’ll likely be the consensus Player of the Year.
If not, Osaka and reigning French Open champion Krejcikova certainly have an opening. Gold medalist Bencic, too? This is, after all, the US Wide Open.