Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) - There can be only one favorite at the U.S. Open ... and that's got to be the incomparable Serena Williams.
Serena shook off a stunning third-round loss at Wimbledon in late June by winning two of her last three tournaments, with the most-recent victory coming in Cincinnati last week. She also ran the table in Stanford earlier this month and was a semifinalist in Montreal two weeks ago before losing to her big sister, Venus.
The mighty top-ranked star is a five-time U.S. Open champ and two-time runner-up in Flushing. She's captured the last two Opens by beating former world No. 1 Victoria Azarenka in a pair of dramatic finals.
The 17-time Grand Slam singles champion has reached at least the quarterfinals in 11 of her 14 trips to New York and appeared in three straight finals, including a stunning loss against Aussie Sam Stosur in 2011.
Since winning it all at last year's Open, Serena has struggled big time at the Slams, failing to reach even one quarterfinal at this year's first three majors. She lost in the fourth round at the Aussie, the second round at the French, and the third round at Wimbledon. Are these indicators of a possible fade?
I guess we'll find out.
Note: Only Chris Evert (6) has won more U.S. Open titles in the Open Era than Serena, who, along with Steffi Graf, owns five.
I believe Serena's biggest challenge in the Big Apple will come from reigning French Open champion and former U.S. Open winner Maria Sharapova.
The former No. 1 from Russia captured her lone U.S. Open title back in 2006 and hasn't been back to the final since. As a matter of fact, the five-time major titlist has reached only one Open quarterfinal since '06, when she appeared in the semis there two years ago. Three of her last five trips to New York have resulted in third-round setbacks and she skipped last year's edition because of a shoulder injury.
But the sixth-ranked Maria's healthy now and figures to make a deep run at the National Tennis Center in the next couple of weeks, this despite the fact that she's failed to reach the quarterfinals at two of this year's other three Slams.
The No. 2 seed in New York will be sweet-swingin' Romanian Simona Halep, who was June's French Open runner-up to Sharapova.
Halep is one of only two players to reach at least the quarterfinals at the year's first three majors. She was a quarterfinalist at the Aussie, a runner- up at the French and a semifinalist at Wimbledon. She had her best-ever showing at the U.S. Open last year by landing in the fourth round in Flushing.
Two-time Wimbledon champ Petra Kvitova will bring her formidable game to Gotham, where she's struggled in the past, as evidenced by zero trips into the quarterfinals in six tries at America's Slam.
The Wimbledon title in June aside, Kvitova has struggled at the majors of late, reaching only one quarterfinal in her seven previous Grand Slams prior to last month.
Agnieszka Radwanska is a former Wimbledon runner-up who titled at a big event in Montreal two weeks ago, but has never been a threat in Flushing. The crafty Pole has made eight trips to the U.S. Open, with nary a quarterfinal berth. As a matter of fact, the world No. 5 has exited in the second round no less than four times there.
Eugenie Bouchard is the only woman to reach three major semis in as many tries this season. She was last month's Wimbledon runner-up to the left-handed Kvitova and is a Grand Slam champ waiting to happen.
The 2014 U.S. Open will mark only her second trek into the main draw in Flushing, where she bowed out in the second round a year ago. Based on her '14 major results, expect that to change in two weeks, especially if "Genie's Army" has anything to do with it.
Another hopeful in New York could be resurgent Serb Ana Ivanovic, who's fresh off a runner-up finish versus Serena in Cincy. The former world No. 1 reached her first major quarterfinal in two years at this year's Aussie, but then came up a third-round loser at both the French and Wimbledon. Her best-ever showing at the U.S. Open came two years ago when she landed in her lone quarterfinal there. That's surprisingly only one QF in nine trips to New York for the 2008 French Open champ.
Some other women to keep an eye on will be former world No. 1 and 2009 U.S. Open runner-up Caroline Wozniacki and the two-time reigning runner-up Azarenka.
Wozniacki has re-located her "A-ish" game in recent months, including a recent title in Istanbul, and has reached at least the semifinals in three of her previous five trips to the Open.
Azarenka is a two-time Aussie Open champ and two-time U.S. Open runner-up, having lost to Serena in Flushing in the last two finals.
The Belarusian star is still on the mend after missing three months of action with a foot injury. The problem started after she reached a quarterfinal at the Aussie in January and she was forced to shut things down from March until June, and still hasn't found her top gear.
Here's the part where I have to mention Venus, even though the former No. 1 and seven-time Grand Slam champion hasn't been a factor at the Slams since 2010, or the last time she reached a major/U.S. Open semi. It's been slim pickings for Venus in the 2010s and her best Grand Slam result this year was a third-round loss at Wimbledon.
Venus is a two-time U.S. Open champ, but those wins came way back in 2000 and 2001. And she was a runner-up to her sister in 2002.
This year's Open will feature five former champs in Serena, Sharapova, Venus, Stosur and Svetlana Kuznetsova (2004).
Of course I'm gonna pick Serena to win again this time around.
The 2014 U.S. Open will commence Monday in New York.