2015 U.S. Open Ladies Preview: Bright Lights, Big City, and Even Bigger Pressure

As the tennis world descends on New York City for the last major of the year, there really is only one story dominating the headlines. It is Serena Williams and her pursuit of the Calendar Year Grand Slam. She is aiming to become the first woman since Steffi Graf in 1988 to win all four majors in the same year. She is also bidding to tie Graf’s of 22 career majors. Second-most all-time. What Serena is doing is nothing short of remarkable. She is the overwhelming favorite, but that is why they put the nets up. Here is a look at the draw.

First quarter- Serena may be tested early

I believe the biggest obstacles between Serena and history are most likely to come early in the championship. She is looking at a possible second-round matchup with veteran ball basher Mirijana Lucic-Baroni who can cause problems for anyone on the right day, and a potential round three match with 29 seed Slone Stephens. The young American has beaten Serena before and is one of few players who can hang with Serena from and athleticism standpoint. The high seed in the bottom part of this quarter is (8) Karolina Pliskova. The big server from the Czech Republic has a bright future, but has yet to go beyond round three at major. Even as a high seed something tells me she will get tripped up yet again before closing Serena in the quarters. Swiss upstart (12) Belinda Bencic is also in this section. She is one of just two women to knock off Serena this year. However, she is not happy to see her name near 31 seed Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova. The Russian dismantled Bencic in Washington DC earlier this summer. With Serena coming off a win a week and a half ago in Cincinnati, is impossible to see anyone tripping her up here, but it will not be easy. The key for Serena is going to be staying relaxed.

Also here: 19 seeded American Madison Keys. Serena’s big sister Venus seeded 23, and 15 seed Aga Radwanska.

Semifinalist: S. Williams (d. Pavlyuchenkova. In QFs).

Second Quarter- The Return of Maria… or not

Third-seeded Russian glamour girl Maria Sharapova was due back from a mysterious leg injury that has kept her off court since Wimbledon, but she has just withdrawn less than a day before the event begins. With its highest seed gone, this part of the draw is WIDE open. 17th seeded young gun Elina Svitolina is my choice to take advantage. Tennis fans will get the opportunity to familiarize themselves with the talented Ukrainian. Sharapova’s scheduled first round opponent unseeded Daria Gavrilova now has a shot to make noise, along with American Lauren Davis.

The bottom part of this section is headed by 7 Ana Ivanovic of Serbia. She’s joined by her compatriot 21st Jelena Jankovic. The winner of their possible fourth-round match becomes the favorite to oppose Serena in the semis. Both have given Serena issues in the past. Ivanovic has the power to hit with Serena, and Jankovic the defensive capabilities to frustrate her.

Also here: Struggling 10 seed Carla Suarez Navarro who has not won a match since the French Open. There is also slumping Canadian 26 seed Eugenie Bouchard. Her struggles are well-documented on this blog and any other sports media outlet can think of. She has enlisted the help of American tennis legend Jimmy Connors for this tournament. I sincerely hope she can do something here that she can build on.

Semifinalist- Ivanovic (d. Svitolina in QFs)

Bottom half- Full of opportunity

I mean no disrespect to the players in this part of the draw. However, all of the big names are on the other side. So, instead of breaking down two quarters, I am just lumping it into one big half.

A case can be made for many in this half of the draw. I lean towards 4th seeded Dane Caroline Wozniacki. The best defensive player in the world always plays well here, and despite not winning a match in Canada or Cincy, she looked pretty good this past week and reached the semis in New Haven, CT. 5th seeded Petra Kvitova is a threat, but she is streaky, battling Mono, and has never gone beyond round 4 here. Names like 18th seeded Andrea Petkovic of Germany and 22nd seed Sam Stosur of Australia are well positioned here. Stosur was the champion here in 2011.

The bottom part of this section is about names for me (2) Simona Halep, (11) Angie Kerber, and (20) Victoria Azarenka. Halep has a very balanced game and is a great mover. She collected runner up trophies in Canada and Cincy, but has been overpowered at majors this year. Kerber is a gritty left hander who gets better the longer matches go. She may face Azarenka in round 3. Azarenka is the only one who can regularly test Serena when she is in good form and healthy. However, she has been neither for a year now. Azarenka’s issues took a strange turn when she retired from her last match in Cincy leading by a set and 3-0 with no clear sign of an injury.

Round 1 Upset Alert in this section- Witthoft over (9) Muguruza

Coverage begins at 11 a.m. tomorrow at 11 a.m. on ESPN3 and TV coverage starts at 1 on ESPN2. The ESPN family of media outlets will have exclusive all day and night coverage throughout the event. Here are my full picks for the late rounds.

QFs:

S.Williams d. Pavlyuchenkova.

Ivanovic d. Svitolina

Wozniacki d. Petkovic

Kerber d. Halep

SFs:

S.Williams d. Ivanovic

Wozniacki d. Kerber

Final: In a rematch of last year S. Williams d. Wozniacki

Why Cincinnati’s Western and Southern Open Tennis Event is Awesome

Well folks, my favorite week of the year has arrived. The world’s best tennis players have gathered in Cincinnati for the Western and Southern Open. It is the last major stop before the year’s fourth and final major, U.S. Open begins in two weeks. I spent the weekend at the tennis center watching the qualifying rounds. Here are some reasons why every Cincinnati native should make an effort to attend or at least follow the event.

History- Believe it or not Cincinnati is proud owner of the longest running tennis tournament in the world still held in its original city. Cincinnati has played host to world-class tennis since 1899.

You do not have to break the bank to enjoy yourself- Tickets for individual sessions are fairly well priced. While most sessions still have tickets available for both day and night matches, they are going fast. The alternative to this is a wonderful little thing called a grounds pass. A certain number of grounds pass are set aside for each day. A grounds gives you access to everywhere on tournament grounds except center court for $10.

Something for everyone- Not a tennis fanatic? No problem. The tournament features live music every day, and eclectic mix of options in the food court, and a full-service bar. The food court is incredible this year. It has everything from Skyline Chili to fish tacos to chicken and waffles.

The best of the best are here- Serena, Venus, Sharapova, Murray, Federer, Djokovic, Nadal, and Azarenka are all in town this week. In fact 48 of the top 50 men and women have come to reach for glory this year. If this player field does not get you excited, nothing will.

Catch Serena as she chases history- Serena Williams’ last stop before attempting to become the first woman since Steffi Graf in 1988 to win all four majors in the same year is right here in Cincinnati. Seeing this phenomenal athlete before she goes to New York City to chase tennis immortality is a very unique opportunity that all sports enthusiasts should not pass up. This week also marks the second to last pro tournament in the career of a man who spent much of his career as the top-ranked American in the world, Mardy Fish. Fish has dealt with a litany of physical issues over the last four years, limiting him to just a handful of matches Thus, the former world number seven has decided to call it quits after the U.S. Open. Fish is very well respected on tour and a two-time runner-up here. If you want to catch his Cincinnati swan song, I suggest you hurry. If he wins his first round match, Andy Murray awaits.

What to expect on the court this year- Roger Federer and Serena Williams are the defending singles champions. They both are certainly in the conversation to repeat. For Federer it would be Cincy title number 7. Djokovic, Nadal, and Murray will all have something to say about that. Murray won in Canada over Djokovic last week and Federer and Nadal could meet in the quarters. If you are looking for an outsider to make a run, keep an eye on big serving Canadian 9 seed Milos Raonic. I lean ever so slightly towards Murray this week. However, Djokovic surprisingly has never won here and will be hungry. Also, Federer will be fresh having skipped Canada last week.

For the women, Serena is the favorite. However, she is coming off just her second loss on the year to Swiss upstart Belinda Bencic in the Toronto semis. She seemed to be bothered by an arm injury, but she and her camp are not saying much. Maria Sharapova always plays well in Cincy. I would like to think that has something to do with the fact that I am usually in the stands. The Russian ice queen also has and health questions. She is making her first appearance since Wimbledon after straining her leg in practice. Like Serena, she and her camp are being stingy. After watching her practice Saturday, she seems ready to go to me, but no one really knows. Given the health questions surrounding the two biggest stars in the sport, we could see a surprise name holding the trophy. I will look at 6th seed Ana Ivanovic, unseeded former top ranked Belarusian Victoria Azarenka, or maybe even talented young American Slone Stephens.

I hope the city will back this amazing event like it does every year. Like I said, tickets are going fast, but do not forget about grounds passes. The men’s matches begin each day starting at 11 A.M. on Tennis Channel. Unfortunately, the ladies matches are not televised until Thursday. ESPN3.com will have extensive coverage of all courts from the start of main draw play (today) to the end of the tournament. The ESPN family of networks will share coverage with the Tennis Channel beginning Thursday. ESPN/ESPN2 will have exclusive live coverage of semifinal and finals on Saturday and Sunday. Night session matches typically begin at 7 PM. I will be spending a lot of time at the tennis center is this week, but will blog as much as I can.