By Matt Zemek
The U.S. Open women’s tennis tournament, which begins on Aug. 30 in New York, has no shortage of storylines.
World No. 1 Ashleigh Barty comes to Flushing Meadows with a full head of steam after powering through Cincinnati and the Western & Southern Open without losing a set. Barty defeated French Open champion Barbora Krejcikova, two-time major champion Victoria Azarenka, and three-time major champion Angelique Kerber en route to another title following her Wimbledon championship. She has affirmed her status as the best women’s tennis player on the planet in 2021.
Naomi Osaka has slipped from World No. 2 to World No. 3, but she has won two of the last three U.S. Opens. She is the defending champion at the USTA National Tennis Center. She has won four of the last six hardcourt major tournaments and has established herself as the best hardcourt player in women’s tennis. She has gone through a tumultuous 2021 season in which she acknowledged she had suffered from clinical depression in recent years. She withdrew from Roland Garros in order to – in her words — look after her mental health. She did not play Wimbledon and resurfaced at the Tokyo Summer Olympics, where she lit the torch in the opening ceremonies. She lost early in Cincinnati to eventual finalist Jil Teichmann.
The woman who passed Osaka for World No. 2 is Aryna Sabalenka. The Belarusian star finally made her first major quarterfinal and semifinal this summer at Wimbledon, relieving herself of a persistent career burden. Though she didn’t do anything of note in either Montreal or Cincinnati, Sabalenka certainly has the game to win major titles. She defeated Barty in the Madrid final in May and is almost certain to finish the year in the WTA’s top three.
Karolina Pliskova’s career seemed to be at a dead end in May. Even though she made the Rome final, she had done so in previous years and had not built on that particular achievement. She entered Wimbledon largely removed from the radar screen, partly because she had never reached a Wimbledon semifinal, mostly because her career had seemingly stalled.
She has been a completely different player since she arrived at the All-England Club.
Pliskova – defending better than she has in years and playing with a level of relaxation which had not existed in the previous 18 months – made a strong run to the semifinals. She lost a very close first set to Sabalenka but shrugged off that setback to win in three sets. She reached her first Wimbledon final and had the chance to win her first major championship. She lost to Barty – the best player in the world – in that final, plagued by nerves and inconsistency, but she had completely changed the conversation surrounding her.
She made the final in Montreal and the semifinals in Cincinnati, establishing herself as a surprising but genuine top-tier contender at the U.S. Open. In late spring, no one in tennis predicted that Pliskova would be one of the top four or five choices to win in New York, but here we are.
Another player who has to be mentioned – and positioned in the forefront among U.S. Open contenders – is the aforementioned Kerber. If it wasn’t for Ash Barty – a World No. 1 player who is at the top of her game – Kerber might be holding both Wimbledon and Cincinnati trophies. Kerber lost to Barty in the semifinals of both Wimbledon and Cincy.
Kerber was a non-factor on tour at the end of clay season. She sprang to life on grass and recaptured a rhythm which had long eluded her. By showing in Cincinnati that she could go deep at a significant hardcourt tournament, she has proved that she is not just a grass-court resurrection story. She has to be viewed as a realistic contender in New York.
One way to view this U.S. Open is to separate Barty and Osaka – World No. 1 and the defending champion – from the rest of the field.
Another way to size up the Open is to wonder if Sabalenka will finally break through at a major. Those are perfectly good storylines and frameworks for this upcoming fortnight at the final major tournament of 2021.
However, the best and most comprehensive framing of this tournament is as follows: Lottery or leadership?
The lottery theme is based on the idea that results at women’s majors these days are random. Get this: Not one women’s tennis player has made more than one major semifinal this year. Barty did not make the semifinals at the Australian Open or French Open, just Wimbledon. Osaka? Just the Australian Open. Pliskova? Just Wimbledon. Kerber? Just Wimbledon. The French Open created a very unlikely final four: Barbora Krejcikova, Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, Tamara Zidansek, and Maria Sakkari. Even the four women’s Olympic semifinalists in Tokyo were unique, relative to the three majors.
Is this going to be another major tournament with another set of four unique semifinalists, or is this the major in 2021 in which a few players step up and make a second major semifinal? That’s the “leadership” theme at this tournament. Barty, Pliskova, Kerber, Sabalenka, Osaka, and Krejcikova are the most likely candidates to replicate a semifinal result. Will at least one of them go deep and display leadership on tour, or will they all fall early and give way to more chaos in the bracket?
The women’s U.S. Open promises unpredictability. Maybe the most unpredictable outcome is that stability – which is not often found in women’s tennis – might finally emerge in this coming fortnight.
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