Six women seeking first Slam singles title
It's not easy breaking through to win your first major title. Just ask Kim Clijsters, who was 0-4 in Grand Slam singles finals before she beat Mary Pierce to claim the 2005 U.S. Open. This season, however, we've already seen two women join the "major champion" club. After losing to Clijsters in the Australian Open final, Li Na scored her first Grand Slam title -- the first by a Chinese player -- at the French Open. A month later, the Czech Republic's Petra Kvitova became the newest new kid on the championship block. Playing in her first major final, the inexperienced but unfazed Kvitova defeated Maria Sharapova in straight sets to win Wimbledon.
Is it possible that the U.S. Open -- the fourth and final major of the year -- will produce another first-time champion? The chances of the would-be winners certainly improved when Clijsters, the two-time defending champion, was forced out of the tournament with an injury. Here's a look at six women with a shot at winning their first major. A first-timer would join these Open Era champions who claimed their first Slam singles title (and, in the case of Sabatini, her only Slam singles title) at the U.S. Open: Clijsters (2005), Svetlana Kuznetsova (2004), Serena Williams (1999), Lindsay Davenport (1998), Gabriela Sabatini (1990), Tracy Austin (1979) and Virginia Wade (1968).
Note: Players are listed by seed, not world ranking.
No. 1 Caroline Wozniacki (Denmark)
Wozniacki is close to celebrating the first anniversary (Oct. 11) of when she achieved the world No. 1 ranking for the first time. But that ranking comes with an asterisk, because Wozniacki has yet to win a Grand Slam title. She's made only one major final, losing to Clijsters at the 2009 U.S. Open. On Saturday, Wozniacki redeemed her unimpressive summer by winning the New Haven title for the fourth straight year. She's apparently having plenty of luck in the romance department, however. She's dating reigning U.S. Open golf champ Rory McIlroy, and to the delight of fans the couple has been sharing a running dialogue on Twitter.
ESPN analyst Pam Shriver on Wozniacki: She seems to have an inability at majors to be bold enough, to be brave, and until she does it I really have a hard time seeing her winning one. And whatever is going on with Rory McIlroy, two attractive young superstars in their sport that are attracted to each other, it's only another distraction.
ESPN commentator Mary Joe Fernandez on Wozniacki: I think she will win a major, but I don't think it will be this U.S. Open. I think she's trying to develop her game, get more weapons, and until she gets the right balance I'm not sure she can go all the way. However, maybe with the pressure off and no one expecting her to win, it can help her.
No. 2 Vera Zvonareva (Russia)
If you see a player wildly banging a racket against her thigh after missing a shot, it's likely to be the notoriously temperamental Zvonareva. The Russian possesses the kind of game worthy of a Grand Slam champion, but an inability to check her emotions has sunk Zvonareva on numerous occasions. She comes into the Open with solid summer results, having reached the Carlsbad, Calif., final and Cincinnati semifinals. The question with Vera is whether she will give herself another opportunity to win a Grand Slam. Last year, she made back-to-back major finals at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. But once she was in those finals, she looked out of sorts, falling to Serena Williams at Wimbledon and Clijsters at the U.S. Open.
Pam Shriver on Zvonareva: I think she's going to be a contender. It's hard to pick her as a favorite because of her performances in the two [Grand Slam] finals last year. Her emotional state and temperament have definitely matured. She's learning to channel that emotion in a way that helps you play.
Mary Joe Fernandez on Zvonareva: Zvonareva is a contender, for sure. She has a complete game. I think her run last year will help her this year with the confidence and belief. I don't think it's always bad when she gets upset.
No. 4 Victoria Azarenka (Belarus)
From almost the minute she arrived on tour, tongues have been wagging about the talented Azarenka being a future Grand Slam champion. The complexity of her game delivered her to her first Grand Slam semifinal at Wimbledon this year. There are a couple of major stumbling blocks between Azarenka and a 2011 U.S. Open title, however: a recent right hand injury and, even more important, a likely third-round meeting with 13-time Grand Slam singles champ Serena Williams. Azarenka has lost to Williams in five of their six meetings, including in Toronto this summer. Azarenka isn't prone to bad losses at majors. She fell to the eventual finalist or champion at all three majors this year: Li Na at the Australian Open and the French Open and Petra Kvitova at Wimbledon. But beating Serena in the third round is a tall order.
Pam Shriver on Azarenka: She has the power, she seems to have the dedication and she seems to be closer to the mentality that it takes to win a major. There are still question marks, to me, over the long haul of two weeks, under the strain of the attention. She needs to prove she's an alert, aware champion athlete who is ready to go with the best of them.
Mary Joe Fernandez on Azarenka: I think you can put her in the top four or five contenders. She's starting to play smarter and with more controlled aggression. I think she believes more that she has the game to beat everyone. I think she'll go deep into the Open. [Note: We spoke to Fernandez before the draw.]
No. 8 Marion Bartoli (France)
She's feisty and determined, and she drives opponents crazy with her shadow-dancing practice strokes between points. That's Frenchwoman Bartoli, who showed some fine form at the last two Grand Slams, reaching the French Open semifinals and the Wimbledon quarterfinals. But Bartoli, a 2007 Wimbledon finalist with a two-handed forehand and backhand, could see her movement limited by the fast U.S. Open surface.
Pam Shriver on Bartoli: The U.S. Open is tough for her, as the balls get by pretty quickly, and she'd prefer a slower hard court where she could belt away. But if she plays at the top of her game and maintains it, she can have some of the best 1-2 punches off of both wings that there are in women's tennis.
Mary Joe Fernandez on Bartoli: Marion has had a really good season, and she's very deceptive. She's is a little faster than people think and she's a great ball striker. I put her in the category that she could get to the semifinals.
No. 11 Jelena Jankovic (Serbia)
A former world No. 1, the outgoing Jelena Jankovic considers herself a citizen of the world and loves the travel that comes with tennis tour life. She heads to New York knowing what it takes to win the U.S. Open as she reached the final in 2008 (losing to Serena Williams). Jankovic last made it to the final weekend of a Grand Slam when she reached the semis of the 2010 French Open, her fifth major semi. A defensive maven, Jankovic is like the Energizer bunny on the court, running down balls to the perpetual frustration of opponents.
Pam Shriver on Jankovic: I can't see her being a serious contender. I like some of her decision-making -- when to be the counterpuncher, when to be the aggressor. However, at a time in women's tennis when draws can open up and things can happen, can she be a player that can be opportunistic? Absolutely.
Mary Joe Fernandez on Jankovic: I think she can upset people, but I don't think she could win the whole thing. She went through a period when she was No. 1 in the world and she was like Wozniacki in that she never missed a ball, she ran everything down, and is a great defensive player.
No. 22 Sabine Lisicki (Germany)
Part of a trio of German women to make a splash this season -- Andrea Petkovic and Julia Goerges are the other two -- Lisicki finally seems to be in good health and poised to fulfill her potential. She showed amazing form in reaching her first career Grand Slam semifinal at Wimbledon last month. She stayed true to form through the summer, winning the Texas Open title, as well as reaching the Stanford semifinals and the Carlsbad quarterfinals. Lisicki has a big-time serve and can back that weapon up with some seriously potent groundstrokes.
Pam Shriver on Lisicki: I think she could go deep twice in a row and I think the U.S. Open surface favors her and the conditions will reward her serve.
Mary Joe Fernandez on Lisicki: Lisicki is dangerous. We've all seen the power she possesses with her serve and groundstrokes. She has a big backswing at times, so that could cause her little bit of difficulty. But she can definitely upset people.