The U.S. Open of 2011 began with a hurricane—well, almost—and was due to end on the 10th anniversary of 9/11; dramatic bookends at either end of the biggest annual sports event in the world.
Not content with an earthquake in New York during qualifying week, Flushing Meadows had to batten down the hatches on its opening weekend as Hurricane Irene blew her way across Queens. First casualty: the huge opening jamboree, Arthur Ashe Kids Day.
By the end of the first week, the tournament had released another press release to announce a new Grand Slam Open era record for the greatest number of players lost to illness or injury. Amongst the 11 men, five women and five doubles teams who had dropped out was former U.S. champion Venus Williams, who revealed she was suffering from the autoimmune disease, Sjogren’s Syndrome.
The women’s draw, however, had the potential for upsets right from the start. With defending champion Kim Clijsters unable to compete this year, the talk was about who could challenge the mighty Serena.
The question hung in the air, unanswered, as she rose to the tour's surface during the three short months since her return to competition like bubbles in a champagne glass. She lost just two matches out of 18, took back-to-back titles in the U.S. Open Series at Stanford and Toronto, and the Olympus Open Series.
Apart from Williams, however, the U.S. Open draw included seven other Grand Slam winners, though it soon became clear that the title would not go to any of this year's titlists. Along with Clijsters, they were Na Li in Paris and Petra Kvitova in Wimbledon—both lost in the first round.
Two other major winners did rather better, though they were both champions on the clay of Paris.
Ana Ivanovic won the French title in 2008 as a teenager, but she fell in the fourth round, a victim of Serena’s disproportionately low seeding of 28.
Francesca Schiavone, winner in Paris in 2010, was also a quarter-finalist here last year, but she too lost in the fourth round.
So what about the remaining former U.S. champions in the draw?
Maria Sharapova won in New York in 2006, but come her third-round match against Flavia Pennetta, she hit 12 double faults in a total of 60 unforced errors. The favorite to reach the final against Williams was gone.
Svetlana Kuznetsova came to Flushing as an 18-year-old in 2004 to take the tournament by storm and won the French Open as recently as 2009. In the fourth round, she met—and seemed to have beaten—top seed Caroline Wozniacki, winning the first-set tiebreak and rushing to a 4-1 lead in the second set.
But the Dane fought back to a three-hour win.
By the middle of the second week, then, Williams was the only remaining Grand Slam winner and an even hotter favorite than when she swept her way through her two opening matches for the loss of just three games.
Cue Tropical Storm Lee, which brought Flushing Meadows to a standstill.
A waterlogged Louis Armstrong court was taken out of commission, as blisters and cracks broke up the surface, forcing Wozniacki and Andrea Petkovic to play their quarterfinal in the outer reaches of Court 13.
The No.1’s reward was a pasting by Williams in the semis.
There were more raised eyebrows when one of the women’s semifinals was scheduled on Grandstand while the other, along with the men’s semifinals, all featured on Arthur Ashe.
The contenders in the relegated semifinal comprised one of the biggest outsiders of the tournament, the 92nd-ranked German Angelique Kerber, and the woman who was looking more impressive with every day.
Sam Stosur had beaten Nadia Petrova, Maria Kirilenko and then-No. 2 seed Vera Zvonareva in the quarters.
Stosur had also set two records along the way: the longest U.S. Open women’s match and the longest tiebreak in a major. This was her sixth match without a sniff of the biggest stage in tennis, and yet she would soon become the new champion.
By claiming the biggest scalp, along with her biggest title, Stosur rightly takes the Power Ranking trophy, too.
First though, a look at who else made hay while the sun tried to shine in New York.
The "Power Rankings" is a season-long series written by JA Allen, Ronger Fengerer and Marianne Bevis, and aims to reflect the current form of the players.
For a detailed explanation of how the rankings work, see The Power Ranking System.
Last Power Ranking: NR; WTA Ranking: 8
Last Four Tournaments: U.S. Open (R16), New Haven (Semifinalist), Cincinnati (R16), Toronto (R16)
Power Ranking Points: 403
Francesca Schiavone has a knack for taking the hard road through every tournament.
Who can forget her 4.75-hour battle in the longest Grand Slam women’s match ever played against Kuznetsova in Australia this year?
She went on to have Wozniacki at a set down in the quarters, but lost it in three.
Schiavone lost in three-setters in Dubai, Kuala Lumpur, Cincinnati and Wimbledon—and in the last of them, it was 11-9 in the third.
The U.S. Open proved to be more of the same. In the third round, she lost the first set, won the second in a tiebreak and finally won in three hours.
But she then faced the fast-improving young Russian, Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova; the oldest vs. the youngest left in New York.
Again, the bustling, never-say-die firecracker from Italy won the first set only to lose the next two.
This was Schiavone’s 12th U.S. Open and her 45th consecutive Grand Slam appearance—the longest active female streak in the Open era. After winning her first Slam in Paris last year, she completed a set of Slam quarterfinals in Australia this year.
Schiavone may be 31, but she still believes that hard work will take her further, and her huge fanbase will stay on the edge of their seats, fearing the worst, but always hoping for the comeback.
If she comes back often enough, Schiavone may even make the WTA Championships at the end of the season. See her in Istanbul.
Last Power Ranking: 1; WTA Ranking: 2
Last Four Tournaments: U.S. Open (R32), Cincinnati (Winner), Toronto (R16), Stanford (Quarter-finalist)
Power Ranking Points: 427
Maria Sharapova, U.S. champion in 2006 and No.3 seed, was widely tipped to be the major challenger to Williams in the final.
And once the toughest prospect in her quarter, Kvitova—who beat Sharapova for the Wimbledon title—went out in the first round, the Cincinnati champion looked set fair.
Yet, as her performance in Cincinnati showed, Sharapova's form can fluctuate from brilliant to shocking. The famous Sharapova desire-to-win was needed in spades when she lost the opening set in both the semifinal and the final.
She opened her account on Arthur Ashe against the up-and-coming British teenager, Heather Watson—and lost the first set. It took a 7-5 second set to turn the match,—replete with 58 unforced errors—and she advanced to an easy second-round win.
But come her third-round match against Pennetta, Sharapova's erratic play was back; she hit 12 double faults in a total of 60 unforced errors. The favorite to reach the final was gone, and her next Grand Slam—her last was in Australia in 2008—remains elusive.
Nevertheless, she is back to No. 2 in the world with just 15 tournaments to her name—only Clijsters amongst the top 10 has played as few. Now, though, a clutch of women—Stosur, Williams, Petkovic and Pavlyuchenkova are examples—is now appearing over the horizon.
Will Sharapova ever regain the consistency to win another major? The jury, for the moment, is out.
Last Power Ranking: NR; WTA Ranking: 23
Last Four Tournaments: U.S. Open (Quarter-finalist), New Haven (R32), Cincinnati (R32), Toronto (R32)
Power Ranking Points: 532
The 29-year-old Flavia Pennetta has joined Schiavone in spearheading a surge of success for Italian women—both honing their skills in doubles and maturing into singles with ever more confidence. In 2010, they became the first pair of Italians to break into the top 10.
Hard work seems to go with the territory: Pennetta played 137 singles and doubles matches in 2010—more than any other player—and won seven doubles titles with Gisela Dulko. Pennetta won her first Grand Slam doubles title in Australia this year and also made the fourth round in the singles.
Pennetta’s two previous quarterfinal appearances in New York, in 2008 and 2009, were her best Grand Slam singles results, and she almost took a step further this year against Kerber.
But it was not to be.
Italy also went out of the Fed Cup in the semifinals this year, but the 2009 and 2010 champions remain the top-ranked team by a distance.
The sum of the Italians is always greater than their parts, so while it seems a big ask of Pennetta and Schiavone to counter the tall, young, super-fit breed of tennis players they increasingly face through the full seven rounds of a Grand Slam tournament, they both seem more than happy to try.
Last Power Ranking: NR; WTA Ranking: 16
Last Four Tournaments: U.S. Open (Quarter-finalist), New Haven (Quarter-finalist), Cincinnati (R64), Toronto (R64)
Power Ranking Points: 540
Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova is one of the fastest-improving women on the tour with a C.V. that speaks quality.
This young woman—she is barely 20—was playing her 16th singles Grand Slam. She broke into the top-20 after reaching the fourth round here last year and was the youngest player in the top 50 at the end of 2010.
Pavlyuchenkova reached her first major quarterfinal in Paris this year, beating No. 3 seed Zvonareva in the fourth round. On that occasion, she went on to lead Schiavone 6-1, 4-1 before losing the second and third sets, 7-5.
In New York, however, Pavlyuchenkova turned the tables on the Italian in a 2.75-hour win with a powerful and mature baseline game that showed she has the makings of an attacking shot-maker.
She came unstuck against Williams in the quarterfinals after taking the former champion to a 7-5 opening set, but her wins over top-10 players are increasing with every tournament. Pavlyuchenkova is also part of the Russian Fed Cup squad that will play the final against the Czech Republic in November.
Already a junior champion in Australia (twice) and the U.S., as well as the runner-up junior at Roland Garros, this young woman is beginning to hit her stride. Watch out for her in the top five by the end of next year.
Last Power Ranking: 5; WTA Ranking: 11
Last Four Tournaments: U.S. Open (Quarter-finalist), Cincinnati (Semifinalist), Toronto (Quarter-finalist), Carlsbad (Semifinalist)
Power Ranking Points: 677
The tall, athletic Andrea Petkovic is another woman enjoying the best year of her tennis career. The German turned 24 during the U.S. Open and celebrated by reaching her third Grand Slam quarterfinal of the year (and of her career).
Coming into New York, Petkovic was joint second with Zvonareva and Marion Bartoli for match wins this year—only Wozniacki had more. Petkovic broke into the top 10 for the first time in August with some excellent results on the U.S. hard courts, including semifinals in Cincinnati and Carlsbad, and wins over Kvitova and Petrova.
Petkovic did not face a seed at Flushing Meadows until her Court-13 encounter with Wozniacki and could have advanced to the semis if she had repeated her defeat of the top seed in Miami.
However, Petkovic came off the worse in a messy match where neither player seemed to settle into the closer confines of the outside court.
The U.S. Open, then, has consolidated a great year, and with more hard courts to come, the increasingly-confident Petkovic is surely a contender for a place in the WTA Championships in Istanbul at the end of October.
Last Power Ranking: 4; WTA Ranking: 4
Last Four Tournaments: U.S. Open (Quarter-finalist), Cincinnati (Semifinalist), Toronto (R16), Carlsbad (Finalist)
Power Ranking Points: 677
Vera Zvonareva was one of four Russians to reach the fourth round in New York—little wonder Russia is part of the Fed Cup Final in November.
As the No. 2 seed, she reached the U.S. Open quarterfinals with a fairly smooth run through the draw until she met the redoubtable Stosur, who allowed her just six games.
While the Russian has had another solid year, she has been unable to take her success from 2010—finalist at both Wimbledon and in New York—to the next level in a major. Yet she came into her U.S. quarterfinal with the best hard-court match-win record of the year.
So despite some good results in 2011—the Doha title, the final of Carlsbad, and the semis in Miami and Cincinnati—Zvonareva drops below Sharapova and Victoria Azarenka to No. 4 in the rankings. She will therefore want to find some good form for the rest of the season to match her final finish in Beijing last year.
Alongside her tennis challenges, however, Zvonareva is also studying for a second degree in international relations and economics—her first was in physical education. She is involved in a WTA/UNESCO gender equality scheme, and she supports a foundation for Rett Syndome (from which the daughter of a close friend suffers).
How she finds time to play tennis at all is a wonder.
Last Power Ranking: NR; WTA Ranking: 34
Last Four Tournaments: U.S. Open (Semifinalist), Dallas (Semifinalist), Bastad (R16), Wimbledon (R128)
Power Ranking Points: 943
The prize for the biggest rise in rankings for the week went to the little-known Angelique Kerber, who started the U.S. Open at No. 92 and now finds herself at her highest-ever ranking of 34.
Kerber’s best previous result in New York was a second-round finish in 2009, and her best Grand Slam result was the third round of Wimbledon last year.
But she embarked on brand-new territory at Flushing by running all the way to the semis.
Things panned out rather well for the 23-year-old German. Her first opponent was a Wild Card ranked 329th, and her second was Agnieszka Radwanska, perhaps guilty of overplaying in the run-up to New York—she won Carlsbad, reached the final of Toronto, then played two rounds in New Haven.
With the early exits of Kvitova, Yanina Wickmayer and Lucie Safarova, Kerber did not face another seed on her straight-sets progress to the quarterfinals.
That was almost the end of the story when she went 3-1 down in the final set to Pennetta, but she pulled it back. Kerber threw down the gauntlet against Stosur, too, breaking the Australian twice to take the second set and had several break points to pull back the third.
That was, however, the end of this particular fairytale.
The left-handed German now has the added incentive of three compatriots—Petkovic, Sabine Lisicki and Julia Goerges—already surging up the rankings ahead of her.
Who knows where this one will end?
Last Power Ranking: NR; WTA Ranking: 1
Last Four Tournaments: U.S. Open (Semifinalist), New Haven (Winner), Cincinnati (R32), Toronto (R32)
Power Ranking Points: 1,057
It’s a story that has dogged Caroline Wozniacki since she became world No. 1 in October 2010.
Would she, could she, win a Grand Slam to justify her top seeding?
The story took even deeper root after a shaky start to her U.S. Open series. Prior to winning in New Haven the week before Flushing Meadows, Wozniacki had won just one match since her fourth-found exit at Wimbledon.
And yet Wozniacki led the WTA field with six titles and 56 match wins, and remains more than 3,000 points clear in the rankings.
Wozniacki burst onto the Grand Slam stage in New York when she reached the finals there in 2009, and she was also a semifinalist in 2010.
This year, she advanced through the first three rounds for the loss of just 12 games and, as in 2009, she fought a sterling battle against Kuznetsova to win in three sets. With the defeat of Petkovic, she reached the semis again, but could not contain Williams.
Whether the coaching split with her father—which seemed to coincide with her post-Wimbledon slump—will help to lift the Wozniacki game that extra notch may be revealed in the next couple of months.
For the moment, however, her current assets—fitness, balance and the ability to play with accuracy and consistency from both wings—are simply not enough against the big shot-making of a Williams, a Sharapova, a Clijsters or, now, a Stosur.
Last Power Ranking: 2; WTA Ranking: 14
Last Four Tournaments: U.S. Open (Finalist), Cincinnati (R32), Toronto (Winner), Stanford (Winner)
Power Ranking Points: 1,665
What will be remembered of Serena Williams at the 2011 U.S. Open may have nothing to do with her tennis. Her outburst against the chair umpire in her final against Stosur—and the subsequent delays and distractions to her opponent’s game—have been recorded for posterity.
And that is a pity, for the story of injury and illness that took Williams out of tennis for a year is an extraordinary one.
Her return, looking as fit and strong as she had in winning her previous 13 Grand Slams—three of them in New York—was so startlingly good that many thought she should be seeded far higher than her ranking warranted.
With back-to-back wins in Stanford and Toronto, Williams immediately became the favorite for New York, but her lowly seeding of 28 made her route a difficult one.
Nevertheless, she progressed with ease, pausing for one tiebreak against No. 4 seed Azarenka before taking out No. 16 Ivanovic and No.17 Pavlyuchenkova—all without dropping a set.
Few expected Stosur to fare any better—few except Stosur, whose confident, powerful hitting prevented Williams from asserting her usual rhythm and dominance.
At the start of the second set, having lost the first, both women were beginning to find their best at the same time when Williams was called for distracting her opponent, and the rest, along with the subsequent derisory fine of $2,000, is history.
Williams will return, probably with even more determination—and certainly on her own terms—to win more titles, including Slams.
And there is one more title missing from her C.V. that will focus that steely will: 2012, and the hope of a singles Olympic gold.
Last Power Ranking: 6; WTA Ranking: 7
Last Four Tournaments: U.S. Open (Winner), Cincinnati (Quarter-finalist), Toronto (Finalist), Stanford (R32)
Power Ranking Points: 2,180
When Sam Stosur walked onto Arthur Ashe for the second Grand Slam final of her career, it was her first match of the tournament in this vast arena.
Williams, her opponent, had played every one of her matches there.
Yet when Stosur walked onto Ashe, she had the look of someone entirely confident in the job at hand and set about proving just how much work she had put into transforming herself from one of the best doubles players in the world, via serious illness, to becoming one of the best singles players in the world.
The first reward was a Grand Slam final in Paris last year, beating Williams in three sets in the process.
Her hard work continued and, after a slow start to 2011, Stosur reached the finals in Toronto—losing to Williams—and looked increasingly impressive through the U.S. Open draw, beating Petrova, Kirilenko and then-No. 2 seed Zvonareva in the quarters.
Along the way, she had broken the record for the longest women’s match in New York since tiebreaks were introduced in 1970.
And in her quarterfinal, she played the longest Open era tiebreak, losing it 15-17.
In the blink of an eye—31 minutes—she had out-served and outpaced Williams to a 6-2 set. Stosur then broke in the second, but things took a turn with the Williams outburst. The crowd’s roars broke the Stosur concentration, and she was broken back.
The new-model Stosur, however, is made of sterner stuff,—perhaps helped by her work with a sports psychologist over the last year—and she found her range and timing again, kept Williams pinned back and broke twice more.
It took Stosur just 73 minutes to win her first Grand Slam singles title, but it took a career of hard work to become one of the fittest women in tennis. She has now shown herself to be one of the strongest and smartest mentally, too.
Suffused with this new self-belief, it could be just the start for the slow-burning woman from down under.