Serena, Azarenka destined for final
FLUSHING MEADOWS, N.Y. -- After the suits at the USTA had completed placing the seeded players onto the proper lines in the US Open draw, defending champion Serena Williams was introduced. She sat down next to Andy Murray and was asked about her approach to the draw.
"I take every match really seriously," Williams said earnestly. "I don't look too far in the draw, I just look at the first match."
Luckily, we aren't working under the same constraints. If the top-seeded Williams did want to look ahead, she might see the possibility of facing fellow American and No. 15 seed Sloane Stephens in the fourth round, followed by unseeded sister Venus Williams in the quarterfinals.
Venus would defy expectations to get that far, however, having lost in the first round at three of her past four tournaments.
In the meantime, No. 2 Victoria Azarenka is on the opposite side of the draw. Azarenka beat Serena at the Western & Southern Open in Cincinnati final last weekend, but lost to her in the US Open final last year. The fact that they are on course to meet in the final is good news for tennis audiences, given that Azarenka and Williams can produce tense and well-played matches at their best.
With Maria Sharapova out of the tournament -- she withdrew Wednesday, citing a shoulder injury -- Agnieszka Radwanska was bumped to the No. 3 seed, and Sara Errani moved up to No. 4.
Serena, 31, has won eight of 13 tournaments this season, an impressive winning percentage, and she will face veteran tour player Francesca Schiavone in the first round. It may not be an easy match, but again, Serena has been dominant.
This quarter contains all three seeded Americans. Stephens and No. 23 Jamie Hampton would meet in the third round. The winner would face Serena in the fourth round. That's winnowing the field from three to one fairly quickly.
It's a tough draw for the up-and-comers, but particularly for Stephens. She and Serena have a relationship that at times has been contentious, and that's bound to come up again at her home major. If she had hoped to disentangle herself from the association based on a strong showing at the US Open, it's unlikely to happen, given the way the draw plays out.
As a note, catch Venus early. She has not played well recently and faces No. 12 Kirsten Flipkens in the first round. At 33, it's unclear how much longer Venus will play.
Prediction: It may be bumpy, but Serena is the obvious favorite.
Radwanska moved up a spot when Sharapova withdrew Wednesday. But there are a number of dangerous hard-court players waiting for her in this quarter, notably No. 5 Li Na, who reached two tournament semifinals in August, and No. 16 Sabine Lisicki, who reached the Wimbledon final. Radwanska has lost to both players this season.
Radwanska has never made it past the round of 16 in New York, not even in 2012, the most successful year in her career.
A few notable unseeded Americans are in this quarter as well. Madison Keys will play No. 9 Jelena Jankovic in a first-round match, but it's a smoother start for Bethanie Mattek-Sands, who wouldn't face a seed higher than 20 until the third round.
Sands reached the fourth round of the French Open, but her summer results have been mixed. She has dropped doubles to concentrate on her singles game, and with this setup could make a tidy run.
Prediction: Is this the year Radwanska makes a quarterfinal? Not with this draw. Look for Li to break out.
Last year Errani, 26, was a semifinalist at the US Open. If she wants to get back there, she likely would have to defeat former US Open winner and No. 21 seed Svetlana Kuznetsova in the third round. Kuznetsova has a 5-1 match advantage against Errani, although Errani won the most recent meeting, at the 2012 French Open.
No. 10 Roberta Vinci and No. 6 Caroline Wozniacki also are in this quarter, but neither has lived up to previous US Open hopes.
Prediction: This is the weakest section, with less of a clear favorite, but Errani had the best recent results here, so she gets the edge.
Just as Serena looks dominant on the other side of the draw, it's hard to imagine anyone giving Azarenka much difficulty early on this side.
Azarenka, 24, won the Australian Open this season and has had a strong year despite an early loss at Wimbledon.
The one player she should worry about is No. 11 Samantha Stosur, whom Azarenka lost to in the Carlsbad final in late July. Those two would meet in the quarterfinals.
Azarenka could face former top players such as No. 13 Ana Ivanovic or unseeded Daniela Hantuchova, but neither is as formidable as they have been in the past.
Prediction: Smooth sailing for Azarenka.
Semifinals: Serena over Li; Azarenka over Errani
Final: Serena over Azarenka