When last Monday dawned, 128 women were in the main draw of the 2012 US Open. A week has passed and now, eight women remain.
The US Open has progressed to the quarterfinal stage on the women's side, with two quarterfinals scheduled for Tuesday and the other two scheduled for Wednesday. Rain is in the forecast, so that schedule is subject to change.
Here's a look at the four quarterfinals, and who I think will win.
On the surface, this looks like the most appealing of the four women's quarterfinals --- the current world No. 1 versus the reigning US Open champion. But look a little deeper, and you'll see that this is Victoria Azarenka's match to lose.
Let's start with the head-to-head matchup, where Azarenka dominates Stosur. The two have played six times, with Azarenka taking all six matches, including two in the last 12 months (6-2 6-2 in the WTA Championship round-robin and 6-2 6-1 in the Doha final).
Also, Azarenka has had a far more consistent 2012 than Stosur. Azarenka started her season with a bang, winning in Sydney before capturing her first major title at the Australian Open with a 6-3 6-0 defeat of Maria Sharapova. Azarenka would extend her winning streak to 26 before losing to Marion Bartoli 6-3 6-3 in Miami.
After an up-and-down clay season, Azarenka returned to form during the grass season, making the Wimbledon semifinals and capturing the bronze medal at the London Olympics. Her recent surge has propelled her back to the No. 1 ranking, supplanting Sharapova, who took the top ranking after winning the French Open.
Stosur, meanwhile, has had a largely inconsistent 2012. She crashed out in the first round of the Australian Open, losing to Sorana Cirstea, and made only one final before the clay-court season (the aforementioned loss to Azarenka in Doha). She made the semifinals of the French Open, but stumbled at Wimbledon, losing in the second round to Aranxta Rus. She backed up that result with an even worse finish at the Olympics—a first-round loss to Carla Suarez Navarro.
At the US Open, Azarenka has breezed through four rounds, dropping a total of 10 games, and never more than two in a set, with two bagels and two breadsticks thrown in. Stosur has also yet to drop a set, but has had to work harder for her victories, especially her third- and fourth-round wins over Varvara Lepchenko and British teenager Laura Robson, respectively.
Given Azarenka's dominance of Stosur, her form so far at the US Open, and her 2012 form in general, I look for Azarenka to defeat Stosur in straight sets and book a spot in her first US Open semifinal.
On Sunday night, 19th-seeded Nadia Petrova held two points to consolidate a break in the third set against third-seeded Maria Sharapova. With a 2-0, 40-15 lead, she simply needed one of the next two points to hold serve and put all of the pressure back on Sharapova to get back into the match.
But Sharapova battled her way back, taking the next four points to break Petrova, and she never looked back, taking the third set 6-4 to advance to her first US Open quarterfinals since 2006, when she won it all.
Speaking of battling, at about the same time that Sharapova's match with Petrova in Arthur Ashe Stadium was reaching the critical stages, a big turnaround was happening over at the Grandstand. 11th-seeded Marion Bartoli had dropped the first set of her match to fifth-seeded Petra Kvitova, 6-1, and given Bartoli's inconsistent play of late as well as Kvitova's excellent hard-court play in August (wins in Montreal and New Haven, reaching the semifinals in Cincinnati), it looked like Bartoli wasn't long for the tournament.
But a funny thing happened on the way to Kvitova's cruise to victory. Bartoli turned up the power and started to crush winners from all angles and to all parts of the court, pumping her fist and screaming "Allez!" after seemingly every point. She took the second set 6-2 from a stunned Kvitova, as Petra's play began to drop and her body language looked resigned to defeat. On an absolute tear, Bartoli bageled Kvitova in the third set, setting up a quarterfinal date with career Grand Slam winner Sharapova.
Much like the head-to-head of the first quarterfinal previewed here, Sharapova has yet to a drop a match and set to Bartoli, with their last meeting being in the 2010 Cincinnati quarterfinals. And like Azarenka, who has both the upper hand in her head-to-head and the benefit of stronger form in 2012, Sharapova looks poised to advance to her third major semifinal of 2012.
Indeed, Bartoli has tailed off after a strong beginning to 2012. After handing Azarenka her first loss of the season in Miami, Bartoli won two matches over the next two months, and lost in the second round of both the French Open and Wimbledon.
Although Bartoli has played strong tennis in getting to this point, in this, her first US Open quarterfinal, Sharapova's strong 2012 and head-to-head dominance of Bartoli will continue, as Sharapova will advance to the semifinals and a meeting with Victoria Azarenka with a straight-sets victory.
Just a little over three months ago, Serena Williams' career was at a crossroads. After being shocked by Virginie Razzano in the first round of the French Open, 4-6 7-6 (5) 6-3, Williams had suffered a first-round loss at a major for the first time in her career.
Given how strong a favorite she was to capture her first title at Roland Garros since 2002, people wondered, "If she couldn't win this major, when will she ever do it again?"
Maybe the loss to Razzano was just the wake-up call that Serena needed, for she would soon embark on a stretch of dominance that some were calling the best in her career. It began at Wimbledon, where she captured her fifth title there with a three-set victory over Agnieszka Radwanska.
Then came the London Olympics, where she absolutely destroyed the field. And she wasn't given an easy path to the gold, for she had to face five current or former world No. 1s or No. 2s. But she blasted her way to her first gold medal in singles (completing the career Golden Slam), crushing Maria Sharapova in the gold-medal match 6-0 6-1.
In just two months' time, Williams had gone from the crossroads of her career to the unquestionable woman to beat in tennis, her No. 4 ranking be damned. And even after a loss to Angelique Kerber in Cincinnati, Serena entered the US Open as the prohibitive favorite to take home her fourth title in Flushing Meadows.
Through four rounds of the Open, there's no reason to think her status as favorite as changed. Her latest victim was Andrea Hlavackova, who was on the receiving end of a 6-0 6-0 demolition on Labor Day. Williams has yet to lose a set at the Open this year.
Speaking of players who have surged lately, Ana Ivanovic definitely falls into that category, although her surge has, in earnest, happened only in the last week. The former world No. 1 cruised through her first two matches before outlasting upcoming 19-year-old American Sloane Stephens in the third round, posting a 6-7 (4) 6-4 6-2 victory. She then advanced to the quarterfinals — her first at the US Open and first quarterfinals at a major since the 2008 French Open, which she won for her only career major — with a 6-0 6-4 victory over Tsvetana Pironkova.
On the head-to-head level, Serena is favored — she's only faced Ivanovic three times, but has yet to drop a match and set to her. They've faced each other twice at the US Open, including last season, when Williams topped Ivanovic 6-3 6-4 en route to the finals.
Given Serena's indomitable form of late, as well as her history with Ivanovic, I can't see her being threatened in this match. Ivanovic will hang with Williams for a while, but in the end, it will be Serena who ends up in the semifinals after posting a straight-set victory over Ivanovic.
If Serena Williams is the WTA Comeback Player of the Year, Sara Errani is almost certainly the Most Improved Player of the Year (although a case can be made for Angelique Kerber, she made her big run at last year's US Open and just lost to Errani, so it's weakening).
Errani's strong 2012 began at the Australian Open, where she advanced to the quarterfinals and gave Petra Kvitova everything she could handle in a 6-4 6-4 loss.
Now ranked inside the top 40, Errani surged on the clay, taking the title in Acapulco (and beating compatriots Flavia Pennetta and Roberta Vinci en route to the victory). In Barcelona, Errani took out two higher-ranked players (Julia Goerges and Dominika Cibulkova) on the way to her second title of the season, and then cracked the top 25 after winning in Budapest.
Then came the French Open. Seeded 21st, Errani made an improbable run to the final, claiming four high-profile players along the way: 2008 champion Ana Ivanovic, 2009 champion Svetlana Kuznetsova, Angelique Kerber, and defending US Open champion and 2010 finalist Samantha Stosur. In the final, she fell to Maria Sharapova 6-3 6-2, but on the heels of her performance, cracked the top 10 in the world. Not bad for a player who started the year at No. 45 and briefly sunk to No. 48.
Errani would win one more clay title, in Palermo, before her form began to weaken a bit on grass. She bowed out in the third round of Wimbledon, and was on the receiving end of a Golden Set from Yaroslava Shvedova. She then lost in the first round of the Olympics to a resurgent Venus Williams.
Seeded 10th at the US Open, Errani has encountered very little resistance on her path to the quarterfinals, as after needing three sets to dispatch Garbine Muguruza Blanco in the first round, she breezed past Vera Dushevina and Olga Puchkova. In the fourth round, against Kerber, she scored a straight-set victory. For a player who many thought to be a clay specialist, that's not a bad result.
Errani will take on her countrywoman and doubles partner, Roberta Vinci, in the quarterfinals. The two have played five times, all after the 2009 season. Errani holds a 3-2 lead, with the last match coming in Acapulco this season, when Errani cruised past Vinci 6-4 6-1.
Given her form over the course of this season, Vinci's run to the US Open quarterfinals is somewhat unexpected. However, since August dawned, Vinci has raised her level on the hard-court circuit.
Before August, Vinci's best results of the season were semifinals appearances in Acapulco and Estoril as well as a fourth-round appearance at Wimbledon. Since then, she made the quarterfinals in Montreal and defeated Jelena Jankovic to win Dallas.
I don't think it's a stretch to say that this will be the most tightly contested of the four women's quarterfinals, given their head-to-head record and recent form. While Vinci has scored two victories over higher-ranked players in Cibulkova and Agnieszka Radwanska, I think that Errani will come through in the end. Give me the French Open finalist in three tough sets, who will burnish her credentials for Most Improved Player.