Serena Williams Serena Williams celebrates match point to win the tournament against Samantha Stosur of Australia on Day 7 of the Rogers Cup presented by National Bank at the Rexall Centre on August 14, 2011 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.

Serena:  Undefeated on hard courts since early 2010, the younger Williams restored order to the chaotic WTA with consecutive titles at Stanford and the Rogers Cup.  At those tournaments, she displayed renewed appetite for competition while conquering not only veterans like Sharapova, Bartoli, and Stosur but rising stars like Lisicki and Azarenka.  Don’t expect a Cincinnati “injury” to trouble the US Open favorite in New York, where she will arrive eager to erase the memories of her controversial 2009 exit.  If Serena finds Toronto worthy of her attentions, she should bring her fiercest form to the US Open.  Often playing to the level of her competition, the American has dominated all of her leading rivals for this title and merely should accelerate in momentum as she reaches the second week.  And not since 2004 has Serena let a Slam final escape her against someone other than her sister.

Sharapova:  For once, the US Open Series made sense as the two leading Open contenders split the two most important preparatory tournaments.  Adding Cincinnati to Rome in her 2011 titles, Sharapova lost little time in rebounding from a one-sided loss to Serena at Stanford and an early defeat in Toronto.  Plowing past four top-15 opponents last week, she compensated for her chronically wayward serve with a return game perhaps unparalleled in its ferocity.  The 2006 champion has not reached a quarterfinal in her three appearances since then, but Sharapova stands tied for the WTA lead in Slam matches this year after overcoming her apparent nerves at majors with a Roland Garros semifinal and Wimbledon final.  She almost certainly will continue to fall (very) short against Serena, though.

Azarenka:  Finally reaching her first Slam semifinal at Wimbledon, the brash Belarussian competed well there before injuries and erratic form hindered her summer hard-court campaign.  After a disappointing 2010, she has enjoyed the best season of her career in 2011 by winning Miami and consistently charging deep into top tournaments.  If she can avoid her notoriously frequent injuries, Azarenka should improve significantly upon her concussion-induced departure last year.  A more mature Vika also has allowed her temper to overheat less often lately when the pressure rises.  Like Sharapova, Azarenka has few answers to a healthy, focused Serena; she played excellent tennis for most of their Canadian semifinal—and still won only six games.

Li / Kvitova:  Largely dormant since their Slam breakthroughs, the Roland Garros and Wimbledon champions look content to bask in their glow of their accomplishments.  In theory, both could threaten on the hard courts, especially the volatile serve-forehand combinations of Kvitova.  While Li lost to the mildly intimidating Stosur in Toronto and Cincinnati, Kvitova suffered consecutive, resounding losses to Petkovic.  Of the two, the Chinese star showed more inclination to escape her hangover by entering the New Haven tournament Neither champion expressed much disappointment after those underwhelming results, perhaps still disoriented by their dramatically elevated stature.

Wozniacki:  Without a Slam and without a coach, the world #1 resembles a genuine contender less than an inviting target for an upstart.  Unless she receives another comfortable Slam draw (and perhaps even if she does), Wozniacki should head straight for another deflating defeat.  Increasingly confused on the court, she needs to decide whether to commit to aggression or return to counterpunching before she can collect that maiden major.

Zvonareva:  As one might expect from a player so fraught with nerves, her Wimbledon final defense ended in the third round.  On a surface more congruent with her strengths, the US Open final defense should extend longer, for Zvonareva enjoyed an unexpectedly solid sequence of summer hard-court results.  A champion in Baku, a finalist in San Diego, and a semifinalist in Cincinnati, she looked more consistent and composed than she had since February.  Her lack of evident weakness accompanies her lack of an overpowering weapon, though, without which few champions have won in New York.

Venus:  Since the last US Open, the elder Williams has played just 10 matches.  Not since 2001 has she won a North American hard-court tournament, moreover, while desultory grass-season performances suggested an unruly game increasingly out of rhythm and focus.  Of equal note, the gap separating her from her sister in competitive determination has widened as they have aged.  Nevertheless, the 31-year-old came within a tiebreak of last year’s final before untimely errors derailed her, and her formidable serve should continue to stifle at least a few opponents.

Bartoli:  Steadfastly unflustered by Serena or anyone else, the Frenchwoman withstood immense pressure by reaching the semifinals of her home major and then taking a Wimbledon tiebreak from the 13-time Slam champion.  In the Stanford final, Bartoli showed signs of repeating the feat before fading.  Adding additional sting to her serve this year, she creates unexpected angles with her double-fisted strokes while moving more efficiently than one would think at first glance.

Schiavone:  A surprise quarterfinalist at last year’s US Open, the Italian brings a decidedly European panache to the domain of more straightforward power hitters.  Having defeated Azarenka here before, Schiavone relies on her veteran wiles to overcome the WTA’s rising stars.  Demonstrated in Australia, her fitness and mental tenacity spring from a contagious enthusiasm for the sport.  Her serve remains a liability, though, and Schiavone has made little impression on hard courts in 2011.

Petkovic:  Currently the most consistent of the three rising Germans, Petkovic reached two semifinals and a quarterfinal in three US Open Series tournaments.  Her breakthrough (and the Petko-dance’s birth) occurred during a lively run to the second week of last year’s Open, which suits her charismatic personality. Hovering just outside the top 10, Petkovic recorded two Slam quarterfinals this year together with victories over Sharapova, Kvitova, Wozniacki, and other contenders.

The rest:  Reaching the quarterfinals unexpectedly last year, Stosur resurfaced from a season-long slump with a final in Canada.  Similarly disappointing for much of 2011, Radwanska recalled more successful moments with a San Diego title and two wins apiece over Zvonareva and Petkovic.  Fresh from a Wimbledon semifinal, Lisicki continued to impress at Stanford and can dominate behind her serve if its percentage stays high.  Nor should one entirely forget the two Serbs, Jankovic a Cincinnati finalist and Ivanovic a San Diego semifinalist who competed courageously against Zvonareva.  Neither a title threat, they have combined for three first-round Slam exits and one second-week appearance this year, but each former #1 might craft one modest memory of note before heading to Asia.

Ana Ivanovic - Western & Southern Open - Day 1

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