Most pundits will look at the summer of Serena Williams – two Olympic gold medals and a Wimbledon crown – and predict a US Open win for the 30-year-old American. But not so fast: Did you know that a different woman has won each of the last seven Grand Slams? Beginning with the 2011 Australian Open, the seven, in order, are: Kim Clijsters, Li Na, Petra Kvitova, Samantha Stosur, Victoria Azarenka, Maria Sharapova, Williams.
At this point, it’s hard to be sure of any outcome in the women’s game – but it doesn’t hurt to take an educated guess.
On the eve of the 2012 US Open, USOpen.org ranks some of the players in the women’s singles draw who have yet to win a Grand Slam singles title who could play their way well into the tournament’s second week.
1) Yaroslava Shvedova (KAZ) – Technically, Shvedova already is a Grand Slam champion—twice, in fact, as she and partner Vania King claimed the women’s doubles crowns at both Wimbledon and in Flushing Meadows in 2010. But at 24, and with a style based on relentless attacking, solid serving and big ground strokes, Shvedova notched several solid victories in singles as well in recent years and could be a dark horse for a Slam final in the near future.
Shvedova scored a big win in taking out 2011 French Open winner Li Na at Roland Garros this year. She was down a set before surging to win the final 10 games of the match to pull off a shocking 3-6, 6-2, 6-0 upset in the Round of 16. For an encore, Shvedova demolished this year’s French Open runner-up, Sara Errani, in Wimbledon’s third round, recording the only “Golden Set” in Grand Slam history, 24 unanswered points in a lightning-quick 15-minute first set en route to a 6-0, 6-4 victory. At both the French and Wimbledon, she was stopped by brand names Petra Kvitova and Serena Williams, respectively – yet both defeats were tightly-contested three-setters.
Shvedova’s biggest US Open moment – besides the doubles crown – took place inside Arthur Ashe Stadium in 2009 when she upset the No. 5 seed and former world No. 1 Jelena Jankovic in the second round 6–3, 6–7, 7–6, saving two match points to knock out the 2008 finalist. Injuries have been an issue for “Slava” – a damaged meniscus in her left knee in 2011 dropped her from No. 29 in the world to outside the Top 200 – but she rebounded to represent Kazakhstan in this summer’s Olympic competition.
2) Sabine Lisicki (GER) – The 22-year-old German, nicknamed “Boom Boom” for her 120-plus mph serve recently celebrated her 200th career WTA singles victory and seems primed for a big Open run after some high-profile victories in the past 18 months. At the past two Wimbledon Championships, she has knocked out the defending French Open champion -- shocking Li Na in the second round in 2011 as a wild card, and then avenging her 2011 semifinal loss to Sharapova in this year’s fourth round. Lisicki also beat former US Open winner Svetlana Kuznetsova on the hard courts of the Australian Open in January, rallying from a set down. Her best performance at Flushing Meadows was last year, when she advanced to the Round of 16 on the strength of several straight-set wins before losing to second-seeded Vera Zvonareva.
Ankle and abdominal injuries have played a role in halting some of the 5-foot-10 bomber’s momentum over the years – she’s never ranked higher than No. 12 in the world. However, Lisicki’s powerful frame and fearlessness of the big stage are two major factors that could point towards a long run in 2012.
3) Flavia Pennetta (ITA) – Three US Open quarterfinals in the past four years, including high-profile victories over future Flushing finalist Vera Zvonareva in 2009 and former champ Maria Sharapova in 2011, gets the 30-year-old Italian on this list. Pennetta favors the hard courts, showing off a strong backhand and mental toughness on every point. Last year, she lost a back-and-forth quarterfinal bout to Kerber 4-6, 6-4, 3-6 on the new Court 17, just missing a shot at eventual champion Stosur in the semifinals – significant in that Pennetta owns a perfect 4-0 career record versus the Aussie, all on hard courts.
Pennetta lost in the first round of a hard court Grand Slam for the first time since 2007 when she bowed out early in Melbourne in January, yet she had reached the Auckland final a few weeks earlier, before a back injury forced her to retire. After a tune-up at the Emirates Airline US Open Series event in New Haven later this month, she should be ready to take on New York.
(Update: Pennetta has pulled out of the 2012 US Open due to injury)
4) Heather Watson (GBR) – A rising Nick Bollettieri disciple out of Bradenton, Fla., by way of Guernsey in Great Britain, Watson also has a US Open title to her credit, winning the girls’ singles crown in 2009 as a 17-year-old. Three years later, Watson is starting to become a force as a professional, utilizing exceptional footwork and ground strokes to become the first British woman in a decade to reach Wimbledon’s third round.
Last year, Watson had the misfortune of drawing No. 3 seed Maria Sharapova in her first-ever US Open women’s singles main draw, yet she controlled the outset of the match, winning the first set 6-3 to put a scare into the former Open champ. The Arthur Ashe Stadium crowd cheered on the Brit as she then fought back from 4-1 down in the second set. At 5-5, 30-30, Watson stood just six points from victory before a costly double-fault turned the momentum to the Russian for good. After the match, Sharapova said of Watson: "There's no doubt that she's a great up-and-coming player." Playing on her favorite surface, the ultra-athletic Watson has the pedigree to go far in 2012.
5) Varvara Lepchenko (USA) – Nearly a year after officially becoming a U.S. citizen, Lepchenko has officially arrived on the scene as a threat in Grand Slam singles competition. She made headlines by knocking off two-time French Open finalist Francesca Schiavone at Roland Garros in June en route to the Round of 16, and then reached the third round of Wimbledon with a victory over seeded Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova. Lepchenko’s rise in the rankings (currently a career-best No. 39) earned her the opportunity to represent the U.S. at the 2012 London Olympic Games.
With a solid all-around game, Lepchenko is a real threat to perform on the hard courts the way she did on clay and grass this spring and summer. If she does, she’ll improve a career 1-3 record in US Open competition. Lephcenko’s opponents also may have to overcome a home-court advantage: The 26-year-old lefty now trains at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center.
Zheng Jie (CHN): Small in stature, the 5-foot-4 counterpuncher makes up for physical mismatches with speed and shot placement. She’s a two-time Grand Slam singles semifinalist (2010 Australian Open, 2008 Wimbledon) who won’t be beaten mentally.
Christina McHale (USA): McHale made an impressive first-week run last year, punctuated by a win over eighth-seeded Marion Bartoli, likely a sign of future success for the 20-year-old American.
Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova (RUS): Three junior Grand Slam singles titles (2006 & 2007 Australian Opens, 2006 US Open) to her name and barely 21 years of age, the long-named Russian with all-world talent has reached the Round of 16 the past two years in Queens, but is still a work in progress in terms of fitness and shot selection.
Follow USOpen.org's Nicholas J. Walz on Twitter: @ifwalzcouldtalk