The US Open enters the business end of the tournament, as the top half of the women's draw features some exciting round of 16 matches on Sunday. Here's my preview for the four matches.
Serena Williams (1) vs. Sloane Stephens (15)
This was the match that everyone was looking forward to once the women's draw was finalized. Serena is one of the greatest - if not the greatest female tennis player of all time, and amongst the many American girls that she has inspired, is one Sloane Stephens. These two met during the quarterfinals at the Australian Open earlier in the year, and Stephens showed she was ready to join the big leagues by upsetting her idol. Serena was however carrying an injury at the time, and the match-up at Flushing Meadows is bound to be different.
Serena has played to her customary standards during the early rounds of a grand slam, demolishing her opponents ruthlessly. Stephens on the other hand, should really have lost her first round match against Mandy Minella. Escaping that encounter seems to have got rid of Stephens' nerves, as she ruthlessly dismissed her next two opponents, including her improving compatriot Jamie Hampton.
Serena has the bigger baseline game, and Stephens can't afford to be at any level other than her best to have a chance. Stephens does possess defensive skills that can neutralize Serena's aggression, but she will have to pick the right moments to be aggressive on her own end to win the big points. For Serena, the serve is key, and if it is in order, it will allow her to be aggressive and increase the pressure on Stephens' service games. The crowd might also be a factor, as they naturally gravitate towards the underdog when two Americans are playing. Stephens might well become a tennis star in her own right in the near future, but for this match, a combination of Serena's form and desire to win a fifth US Open will prevail against the rising talent of the upstart.
Carla Suarez Navarro (18) vs. Angelique Kerber (8)
Suarez Navarro probably possesses the best single-handed backhand in the women's game. The Spaniard generates tremendous topspin off her favourite shot, and has the rare ability to exchange big shots on her backhand side even when hitting against the powerful forehands that are so prevalent on tour. She is an extremely crafty opponent, and her guile was on display in her win over Venus Williams' conquerer Jie Zheng in the previous round.
After a breakout year in 2012, Kerber has had a poor year especially in the grand slams. However, there have been signs of her best tennis at the US Open far, especially in a tough second round match against rising star Eugenie Bouchard. Kerber's relentless running is her biggest strength, and playing a defensive game against Suarez Navarro might work to her advantage, as the Spaniard can tail off in long matches. Kerber also has possesses a bigger and better serve, but this match is simply too close to call. Expect a marathon in this contest between graft and craft.
Agnieszka Radwanksa (3) vs. Ekaterina Makarova (24)
Makarova put in the display of the women's third round in overcoming Wimbledon runner-up Sabine Lisicki. Like most doubles players, Makarova has great touch at net, and a decent left-handed serve to boot. The Russian plays a steady game from the baseline without possessing many big shots, and while that in itself can be enough to overcome an erratic opponent like Lisicki, it simply won't be enough against someone of Radwanska's quality.
Radwanska had a good summer heading into the US Open, and looked in supreme form during her first two rounds in New York. However, there was a bit of a stutter against her junior rival Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova in the third round. There isn't a player on tour who can match Radwanska for finesse, and as long as the world number three doesn't get flustered by Makarova's forays to the net, she should progress to the quarterfinals.
Jelena Jankovic (9) vs. Na Li (5)
This contest between two veterans of the tour has the potential to be the match of the first week. Jankovic has revitalized her career this year, while Li has played some exceptional tennis this summer. Jankovic's defensive abilities which were a trademark of her reign at the top of the rankings, are back to the fore, and she has dramatically reduced her unforced errors.
Li has been hitting the ball really well in New York, and her performance against Laura Robson in the last round featured some excellent aggression from the baseline. Li will need the same consistency from the baseline to overcome Jankovic and if she chooses the right moments to attack, her greater arsenal of winners should prove too much for the Serb. However, if Jankovic keeps the rallies long, she certainly has it in her to fluster Li and take advantage of any errors. It's a match that has three-setter written all over it, and the night session crowd at Arthur Ashe stadium will ensure a great atmosphere to compliment the thrills and spills provided by two fantastic competitors.