The ladies of the Sony Ericsson WTA Tour will take part in the first of two major lead up tournaments heading into the US Open. Descending to the hot and hazy hard-courts of the Western & Southern Financial Group Women's Open in Cincinnati, Ohio, seven of the top 10 players in the world will compete for $350,000 in prize money, and 900 Tour points.
Top seed Jelena Jankovic will put her title defense and the recent scrutiny that she's been receiving from fellow players aside, while attempting to battle the heated field. Receiving the good grace of the draw gods this time around, Jankovic was granted five qualifiers in her quarter, and could face No. 14 seed Aravane Rezai in the third-round. Rezai has enjoyed mediocre results on hard-courts this year, while pulling in a majority of her success on the clay in Europe. Rezai does possess enough firepower to upset Jankovic early in the event, but she will have to sustain her off-the-rise ground game to do so.
The popcorn match of the tournament will take place when No. 9 seed Victoria Azarenka faces former French Open champ Ana Ivanovic.
Entering Cincinnati with a recent victory at the Bank of the West Classic in Stanford, Azarenka squashed her dismal mid-season slump.
We're all familiar with the recent demise of Ivanovic, but the fist-pumping Serb has vowed to get her game going in time for a respectable US Open campaign.
How about French Open winner Francesca Schiavone?
The limber one-handed Italian has won one Tour match since capturing her maiden Slam title, and a deep showing in Cincinnati would help maintain her contender status heading into New York. Schiavone could face Melanie Oudin in the second-round, but only if the young American can shake off her continued struggles. After bursting onto the scene last year at the US Open by reaching the quarterfinals, Oudin currently holds a 14-16 record on the season.
With that being said, Azarenka is the in-form player in this section, and shouldn't have a problem in keeping up her level of play.
The top half of the draw will also feature the following notable contenders: No. 4 Kim Clijsters, No. 6 seed Vera Zvonareva, No. 11 seed Flava Penneta, and No. 15 seed Nadia Petrova.
Clijsters, who remains the reigning US Open champ, will be looking to ignite her game as she draws closer to New York. Making her comeback to tennis last year in Cincinnati, Clijsters will be keen on advancing past her quarterfinal finish in 2009. Losing in the final eight to Dinara Safina last year, Clijsters will have chance at revenge with a potential second-round clash with the Russian.
Wimbledon finalist Zvonareva will be eager to blast her backhand down the line as much as possible. Known for her out spoken temperament on Tour, Zvonareva could face either Maria Kirilenko or Kateryna Bondarenko in second-round action.
Penneta will also be a player to watch in Mason, considering that she was the in-form player of last year's summer circuit. Possessing quick footwork and quiet confidence, Penneta's mettle will be tested right off the bat against Jie Zheng of China.
Hard-hitting Petrova also lurks as a potential quarterfinalist in this section, but two straight losses on the circuit will quickly have to be forgotten.
It was tough picking between Azarenka or Clijsters to come out of his half, but my final decision was based on the experience of Clijsters, and her ability to hold it together when the pressure has been high. To me, anyway, Clijsters has historically proven to be more efficient than Azarenka in that category.
The bottom half of the draw appears a tad less ominous for the top seeds throughout the early rounds. Apart from the Maria Sharapova vs. Svetlana Kuznetsova first-round battle, I like the chances of No. 2 seed Caroline Wozniacki, No. 3 seed Elena Dementieva, and No. 8 seed Na Li to advance.
Wozniacki has been troubled by a wrist injury as of late, but she seemed to rebound nicely in her home event in Denmark last week. The ultra consistent Dane will chase down every ball, while continuing to prove that her fitness level can rival anyone on the circuit. Wozniacki could struggle with Dominika Cibulkova in the third-round, but she would likely not face a serious opponent until a potential blockbuster clash against either Sharapova or Agnieszka Radwanska in the quarterfinals.
Dementieva comes in as potential question mark, but she continues to operate under her sturdy career philosophy: If you're willing to show up, then a fight to the finish will be put forth.
Na Li's in your face attitude should match up well with the heat in Cincinnati, and if she can brush aside the potential dangers of Shahar Peer and Yainna Wickmayer, then a surprise finals appearance maybe achieved.
I'm not ruling out the chance of a surprise finalist in this section, in which case I would pick Li, but playing the percentages during the 56-women draw, I'd say that the early hit excellence of Dementieva could prevail.
It won't be pretty; it never is when Dementieva is struggling to hold serve, but the veteran Russian has made a career out of battling through the seemingly impossible and finding a way to reach big finals.
That trend should continue in Cincinnati.