Serena Williams: 6 Challengers for the 2011 U.S. Open
Let's be honest. If Serena Williams is at her best in Flushing Meadows, no one can touch her. But the best still have mental lapses and physical slumps, and Serena has had to grind out a few tough wins during her 2011 hard court streak, sometimes against lesser names on the tour.
While the biggest threat to Serena might be simple exhaustion from winning too much, even if that's a non-issue then there are still players who can give her a true challenge. Let's look at the six who have the best chance of pushing her to the limit and maybe even claiming victory.
No. 1: Marion Bartoli
If Serena goes down, it will likely be to a fearless tour veteran with a strong all-around game and a good head on her shoulders.
Normally I'd be putting a Sharapova, Clijsters or Li in my number one spot, but each has developed some glaring problems. Bartoli is one of only a handful of players in the top 20 who are able to execute a match strategy, but still shift to a plan B or C when that doesn't work.
Marion has earned her ranking not through outright power or by being a defensive backboard, but by being a tactician. It's a good match-up against Williams, and her victory at Wimbledon and first set at Stanford should boost her confidence.
No. 2: Petra Kvitova
Her Wimbledon win may have lessened her competitive hunger, and an adductor injury and a bad loss to Petkovic in Toronto didn't help her chances.
Still, it's tough to write-off Kvitova. She's proven that she can win a grand slam and seems able to thrive on the big stage. When her game is on, she's one of only two players among the younger generation who have the power and variety to match Williams, in both serve and groundstrokes (the other is my No. 3 pick).
What might really help Petra is that her only Plan B is to be even more aggressive. It's a risky approach when you have such flat groundstrokes, but you'll almost never beat Serena without offense. A Kvitova/Serena match-up seems inevitable in the near future, and hopefully both arrive with their "A" game.
No. 3: Sabine Lisicki
Lisicki has a couple obvious strengths similar to Kvitova's: a powerful serve and penetrating groundstrokes.
Unfortunately, her back-up tactic is not more aggression but rather more variety. Drop shots, lobs and crafty slices don't work when they're thrown in by the truckload. Plus, Williams is one of the best front-to-back movers in the game.
Lisicki has all of the tools to be a grand slam winner. She's a passionate player, and her fitness issues and injury hangover seem to be behind her. Now the best of the new German trio needs to learn how to use her abilities more efficiently. She's played Williams once (in a rather poor Stanford showing), so the nerves should be a little more settled in any subsequent meetings.
No. 4: Maria Sharapova
Oh, that serve. You can have pinpoint groundstrokes, faultless mental toughness and a great return. But when your serve is still under construction (and that's a gentle assessment) you're not going to win the tough matches.
Sharapova still seems concerned with having a serve that's a weapon. For a woman that gives 200 percent on every shot that's understandable. But what Maria needs to aim for before arriving in NYC is finding a consistent serve that's not a liability.
If Maria can work in enough variety and cut down on the double faults by taking a little off the second serve, she should be much more competitive against Serena than she was at Stanford. She'll also avoid embarrassing losses to the Voskoboevas of the world.
No. 5: Svetlana Kuznetsova
Putting Sveta in the number five spot might seem generous, but she's won the title before (in 2004, making her one of only five former champs in the field) and has had a decent year. Kuznetsova seems to save her best for the slams. She's due for a deep run and some big wins at the U.S. Open to make 2011 a good year.
Her incredible endurance, all-around game and good history against Serena mean that she won't be intimidated or fade in a potential match-up. If her groin issues from July are truly behind her and she gets some good wins in Cincinnati and in the early rounds in New York, consider her a tough customer.
No. 6: Li Na
After an Aussie Open final and French Open title, Li squandered her momentum in 2011 with an early round exit at Wimbledon and a six week tour break. If she can have a good tournament in Cincinnati—which could mean having to beat Williams in the round after next—then she should have a good U.S. Open.
Li has gained some tactical skills this year but is still very much a human backboard, in the vein of Wozniacki, Zvonareva and Azarenka. This year she happens to be the best of the backboard club, at least in the slams, but absorbing and redirecting Williams' power won't be enough. She'll need to hope for some bad patches from Serena.