The U.S. Open draws are out. An astonishing eight women could leave New York as World No.1. Throw in the return of Maria Sharapova, to Grand Slam play after nearly two years and this is one of the most intriguing events in recent memory. Here are some opening round matches to watch.
(2) Simona Halep vs. Maria Sharapova- Holy smokes folks. Everyone in tennis had to hit the floor when they saw this first round pairing. The Romanian second seed has had a very good year and Sharapova’s much publicized comeback has yet to really get out of the blocks.
On that alone, this should be fairly routine for Halep, but dig deeper. All six of their previous meetings have gone the embattled Russian’s way, including a classic in the 2014 French Open final. Sharapova has always managed to eventually overpower Halep.
There are many questions about Sharapova right now. However, her mental toughness is never in doubt. She has had loads of adversity over the years, some of it self-inflicted. She easily could have called it a career during her recent doping suspension, but she keeps coming back.
These moments are what get Sharapova out of bed in the morning. Even though this is just an opening rounder, winning matches like this are what has made her a five-time Grand Slam champion. The same cannot be said of Halep who has had plenty of heartbreak this year. She blew a huge lead in the French Open final and has failed to take over the top ranking despite having three separate opportunities.
Something tells me Sharapova will find a way if she can stay close early, but it is a coin flip. Whoever wins this one has a very manageable path to the final weekend of the tournament. Regardless, the world cannot wait to watch this one.
(31) Magdaléna Rybáriková vs. Camila Giorgi- The Slovakian used her surprise run to the semifinals of Wimbledon to snag a seed here. Her streaky Italian opponent is on a good stretch this summer. Giorgi has also developed a reputation for knocking off seeded players over the years. Her power will be an interesting test for the finesse of Rybáriková.
(21) Ana Konjuh vs. Ashleigh Barty- Konjuh made a name for herself by reaching the last eight at this event last year. She is one of a precious few teenagers inside the world’s top 100.
Barty possesses a funky but good all-around game, she is not afraid to come into the net and is very capable of pulling a minor upset here. 2017 has been a year of comeback for the Aussie who returned to the tour this year after taking a hiatus to pursue professional cricket. She scored her biggest win yet by beating Venus Williams in Cincinnati.
Roberta Vinci vs. Sloane Stephens- The veteran Italian is still plugging away during her final year on tour after her Cinderella run to the finals at this event two years ago. She will have to deal with playing an American on home soil.
Stephens is really starting to build momentum again after missing nearly a year with a foot injury. She reached consecutive semifinals in Canada and Cincinnati this summer. Her forehand will be the biggest shot on the court, but Vinci’s slices are capable of irritating any opponent.
Top Half: World No. 1 and top seed Karolína Plíšková leads off the draw. The big serving Czech has been playing just okay this summer. Fortunately for her, she landed in the weaker half of the draw.
Defending champion Angelique Kerber, French Open champion Jelena Ostapenko, tenth seed Agnieszka Radwańska, and two time Grand Slam winner Svetlana Kuznetsova have all struggled to win matches this summer.
The biggest threats to Plíšková in this half are (4) Elina Svitolina and (15) Madison Keys. Keys hits the ball harder than many of the men. However, the most promising prospect in all of American tennis has yet to figure out how to win matches when she’s not playing her absolute best. Her time will come at a Grand Slam, but not here. Her form probably hit its peak a little too early when she won the title in Stanford and played a couple really tough matches in Cincinnati.
Unseeded American teenager CiCi Bellis may not be a legitimate threat to reach the semis, but this youngster is already well-known inside tennis circles and has a draw that could allow her to reach the second week of a Grand Slam for the first time
Svitolina is a very complete player. Nothing in her game stands out, but she does everything well. She leads the tour tournament victories this year, including her biggest title yet a few weeks ago in Canada. The only thing missing is a deep run at a Grand Slam. She has done a lot of winning this year and it feels like she is primed for it.
Semifinal prediction: Svitolina d. Plíšková
Bottom Half: The winner of Sharapova/Halep is almost certain to make a deep run. They too are surrounded by struggling seeds and not as many dangerous floaters.
Wimbledon and Cincinnati champion Garbiñe Muguruza is a popular pick to win the title. For me though, six weeks of brilliance is not enough to erase a career of erratic play. Danish human backboard Caroline Wozniacki is surprisingly under the radar. The veteran came in to this event last year ranked outside the top 70 and reached the semifinals.
This year, she comes in leading the tour match wins, despite losing all six finals she has played. Always the bridesmaid never the bride could be Wonzniacki’s career slogan. If she is ever going to breakthrough at a major, it is now or never. Both of her Grand Slam finals came at this venue and she has had a handful of other deep runs. She has so much more experience than many of the other top contenders. It has to pay off at some point.
It would be foolish to completely discount ninth seed Venus Williams. 18th seed Caroline Garcia is a young player who has been living off the unlimited potential label for a while. She is well-positioned to put it all together here.
Semifinal prediction: Wozniacki d. Sharapova
Championship: Wozniacki d. Svitolina
The U.S. Open begins Monday at 11 AM ET on Tennis Channel with ESPN taking over coverage two hours later. I will tweet out my full brackets for each singles draw before the start of play. You can follow me on Twitter below.