The Serena Effect

On the Baseline Tennis News

FLUSHING MEADOWS, New York—With the middle weekend of the U.S. Open upon us (Labor Day weekend in the U.S.), I was wondering: Why are most of the top women’s seeds still in the U.S. Open? Are all of the ups and downs in the women’s game suddenly over as the WTA Tour’s top stars  have seemingly gained courage out of nowhere?

The reasons seem clear when you look at individual players, yet somehow seem complicated when you look at it from the perspective of Serena not being in the mix. I like to call it “The Serena Effect.” As you’ve probably heard, Serena Williams, the would-have-been No. 1 seed at the U.S. Open, injured her right foot on July 7, which required surgery to repair a lacerated tendon. This injury has kept her out of competition since Wimbledon and out of this year’s U.S. Open.

 Serena’s inability to compete in the U.S. Open has somehow leveled the playing field, opened up the draw, and revealed the depth of the women’s game–which has been overshadowed by Serena’s dominance at Grand Slams over the past few years. With Serena out of the U.S. Open, there is no clear-cut favorite to win, no rivalry, and no potential for an all-Williams final. In fact, Venus Williams could have suffered the same injury as her sister Serena, yet the effect on the U.S. Open’s field of players would not have been the same.

Here’s something to ponder: Has the proverbial bar been lowered at the U.S. Open without Serena playing? Is there less pressure on players because Serena Williams isn’t standing on the other side of the net, ready to serve her 97th ace? Subjective questions for sure, and the answers can vary greatly depending on who you ask. But however you look at it, the U.S. Open is a different tournament without Serena Williams.

So who is the most impacted by Serena’s absence? There are four past women’s champions left in the U.S. Open women’s draw: Kim Clijsters, Venus Williams, Maria Sharapova, and Svetlana Kuznetsova. Kim Clijsters, the defending champion, and arguably the best hard court player on the WTA Tour, has the ability to defeat Serena Williams (or anyone for that matter) on any given day, so this year’s U.S. Open isn’t all that different for her. Maria Sharapova seems to be holding her own, regardless of who her opponent is. Svetlana Kuznetsova, who is on a comeback of sorts, would likely fair better in a Grand Slam without Serena. Venus Williams, on the other hand, has lost her doubles partner, as well as someone who knows how to push her own game to greater heights. In some respects, the pressure could be greater for Venus.

Caroline Wozniacki, who replaced Serena as the No. 1 seed at the U.S. Open, clearly has the most to gain from Serena’s absence. You can argue that Wozniacki didn’t earn the No. 1 seed position, but the opportunity has given her the best shot at winning her maiden Grand Slam, and taking over the No. 1 ranking for the first time in her career. That is, if she can get past Clijsters, who beat her in the U.S. Open final last year.

Vera Zvonareva, who lost to Serena in this year’s Wimbledon final, also has a window of opportunity to claim her first Grand Slam title with Serena being sidelined.

The fact that the top seeds are still in the U.S. Open doesn’t offer any guarantees for a predictable winner. Perhaps this is the downside of a wide-open draw, but in some ways, that is what makes this Grand Slam so exciting to watch.

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