This is not going to be a quarter by quarter breakdown of the women’s event. I am going to break the possible challengers to Serena into 6 categories and then see where they might face Serena in her quest for history.
Category 1 – Retrievers
Tireless players who will make Serena hit a lot of balls have a chance at victory if Serena is having a day filled with unforced errors. Here are the best retrievers in the draw who could perhaps spring the upset of the year.
- Simona Halep – Halep has proven she can hang in there with Serena. Her first and second serve are liabilities, but if Simona can recover from early pressure she can take points from Serena through her defensive skills. Darren Cahill has helped Halep recover from a poorer than expected clay court season in 2015. Halep and Serena cannot meet unless it is in the US Open final.
- Agnieszka Radwanska – Aga revived her year at Wimbledon and played some inspired tennis this summer. She pushed Serena hard at the 2012 Wimbledon final. If Serena has an off day, Aga could bother her. Aga will play Serena in the round of 16 if the seeding holds.
- Caroline Wozniacki – Caro was last year’s runner-up and pushed Serena in multiple 2014 matches. It is not 2014. Wozniacki cannot meet Serena until the US Open final. Serena cannot play both Halep and Wozniacki in 2015.
Category 2 – Defense to Offense Players
These players can absorb difficult shots during rallies and turn the tables mid-point. Serena is the best of these players on tour, but she can’t face herself.
- Victroria Azarenka – Vika has shown a willingness to challenge Serena. Vika does a lot of the things Serena does in terms of being able to retrieve well when put on the defensive, but Vika can also dominate rallies. Vika’s problem is her technique is not as smooth and reliable as Serena’s. Serena tends to break Vika’s game down over 3 sets. Vika cannot meet Serena before the US Open final.
- Sloane Stephens – Sloane like Vika can absorb some of Serena’s biggest shots and turn a point around. Serena is slated to face Sloane in the round of 32.
Category 3 – Players Taller than Serena who Don’t Move as Well as Serena
These players tend to have solid first strike capabilities when serving or returning, but these players also tend to not move incredibly well and lose longer points.
- Ana Ivanovic – I put Ana at #1 on this list because she pushed Serena hard at Cincinnati by attacking her serve. Also, Ana beat Serena at the 2014 Australian Open. I don’t expect a repeat of either Cincy 2015 or Melbourne 2014 if they do meet in NY though. Ana Ivanovic would have to outperform her seed to meet Serena in the US Open semifinal round.
- Garbine Muguruza – The young Spaniard did not immediately build upon her strong Wimbledon showing. Still, I think her game is one of the few that could bother Serena in NY. She serves well and can take control of points with her return of serve. Muguruza is a better mover than Sharapova, but has similar first strike capabilities. Plus her Australian Open and Wimbledon clashes with Serena in 2015 have been competitive. Muguruza cannot play Serena before the championship match.
- Maria Sharapova – Maria is ranked higher than Muguruza or Ivanovic, but her head-to-head results with Serena have been bad for 11 years. Sharapova would need a herculean effort and Serena playing poorly to pull this upset. Maria is seeded to face Serena in the US Open semifinal round.
- Venus Williams – Venus has some great matches left in her, but she has a hard time stringing them together. Serena and Venus could face-off in the quarterfinal round.
- Madison Keys – Keys is a player who keeps improving and has a great coach. If Keys got on a roll, she could make Serena work for a win. Madison could face Serena in the round of 16.
Category 4 – Lefties
Left-handed players make everything more difficult as the ball is coming from different spots and patterns during points are not as instinctive.
- Petra Kvitova – Petra, if she is on, is one of the few players who could beat Serena even if Serena is not having an off day. Petra does this by making Serena play almost exclusively defensive tennis. Petra may be the most dangerous player in the draw versus Serena because she can take some of the fate of the match out of Serena’s hands. Petra cannot play Serena before the championship match. Petra’s sometime’s dodgy health makes winning 6 matches in a tough draw of her own a bit unlikely.
- Angelique Kerber – Kerber has won many mid-level events in 2015. She hustles and is quite athletic. If Kerber had a better serve, she’d be a bigger threat to Serena. Kerber cannot play Serena prior to the championship match.
- Lucie Safarova – The other Czech lefty had a great run in Paris and just reached the final in Connecticut. Safarova cannot play Serena prior to the championship match.
Category 5 – Young Players with No Fear
Sometimes talented young players have no idea how big the occasion is and therefore perform better under pressure than most. I’ve already listed Madison Keys and Garbine Muguruza in other categories so they won’t be mentioned twice, but each certainly fits here as well.
- Belinda Bencic – The Swiss Miss won Toronto beating Serena along the way. Could Belinda simply ride her confidence vs. Serena to another unexpected upset of the world #1? Belinda could play Serena in the quarterfinal round.
- Elina Svitolina – Elina is quite a talent. Svitolina could play Serena in the semifinal round.
Category 6 – Fearless Veterans
We saw Alize Cornet beat Serena at Wimbledon 2014. Could a veteran with nothing to lose derail history? Fear can cost a player a few games versus Serena. A fearless player might make waves. I will take each of these players in terms of proximity to Serena in the draw as a fearless veteran may have a hard time reaching later rounds.
- Mirjana Lucic-Baroni – Her unlikely comeback is one of the best stories in tennis. She has a solid game and nothing to lose. Mirjana is likely to play Serena in the second round.
- Jelena Jankovic – The former world #1 is one of my least favorite players, but she is a plucky veteran who would love nothing more than to reclaim the spotlight. JJ could play Serena in the semifinal round.
- Alize Cornet and Sabine Lisicki – Each can point to wins in majors over Serena. Alize and Sabine would need to reach the final to face Serena.
Serena is riding a 28 match winning streak in Grand Slam play. In recent years, the US Open has been the slam she has won most easily. Serena also receives a lot of fan support in NY. I think Serena has a pretty rough draw. Serena could play dangerous players from round 2 through the title match. Still, Serena is the favorite due to having the best serve and the best nerve in tennis. Serena can likely figure things out before losing two sets if she is struggling, and Serena can blow people off of the court to prevent a match from becoming close in the first place.
Post Script – Crazy Players
A crazy player such as Bethanie Mattek-Sands or Ekaterina Makarova could also trouble Serena precisely due to being unpredictable.