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U.S. Open 2003 Lands in Flushing

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The 2003 US Open Tennis Championships are the dazzling, demonstratively defining final act of the professional tennis summer tour. Year after year, the US Open remains the benchmark two-week knockout tournament of will for the athletes who walk through the gates of the USTA National Tennis Center in pursuit of a moment in the sun.

The highest level of tennis competition on the planet will peak over two weeks, from the beginning of first-round play on Monday, Aug. 25, to the women’s prime-time final on Saturday, Sept. 6.

Who are the fittest and finest women in the world leading into the US Open? Well, all championship conversations usually begin and end with Serena Williams, but this year, there will be a new champion crowned.

Williams, the defending 2002 US Open women’s champion and winner of two Grand Slams this year, recently had knee surgery, leaving her out of action for six to eight weeks.

After conquering Melbourne at the Australian Open, defeating Kim Clijsters, and capturing Wimbledon, successfully defending her 2002 title against Venus Williams, Serena will be like the rest of us, sitting in the stands.

A variety of homegrown Americans and an oozing talent bed of foreign candidates have equal footing in a women’s draw that is sure to be wide open.

Clijsters has her eyes focused on losing the unpopular distinction of “best player without a major championship.”

The 2003 French Open champion, Justine Henin-Hardenne, has remarkable toughness that is as strong as her will to win.

And then there’s Venus Williams, who has not won a major title since she defeated her younger sister in the final of the 2001 US Open. Venus, hobbled by injuries, must prove to the rest of the draw — and herself — that she can overcome physical obstacles.

Without further pause, USOpen.org sizes up the title chances of the main contenders at the toughest two weeks of tennis in the world, the 2003 US Open Tennis Championships.

The Frontrunners

Justine Henin-Hardenne — A year after she last played at the US Open, the No. 3 player in the world has added two new credentials: a change in name, from Henin to the newly married Henin-Hardenne, and the title of Grand Slam champion.

Clearly evident after her straight-sets semifinal loss to Serena Williams at Wimbledon, Henin-Hardenne was confounded by the change of surface and pace.

At first struggling to keep up with the rugged game of the power players on tour, particularly that of the Williams sisters, Henin-Hardenne has made major statements on the hard-court circuit, including a title win over Clijsters in California earlier this month.

Still, it’s not clear how the Belgian will fare on the quickest Grand Slam surface, the DecoTurf 2 at the USTA National Tennis Center.

For all the success Henin-Hardenne has garnered as a master of all surfaces, she has never advanced past the fourth round of the US Open, losing in the fourth round to Daniela Hantuchova in 2002.

But the bigger question surrounding the French Open champion will be what kind of reception she receives from the crowd in New York after her controversial match against Serena in Paris.

Before a critical point in the third set of their semifinal, with Serena about to serve, Henin-Hardenne raised a hand to call for time. Combined with the raucous crowd, Serena missed the serve and was penalized without being granted a do-over. Serena never recovered, and the win boosted Henin-Hardenne to her first major title.

Venus Williams — The first question on the tip of everyone’s tongue will be: What is the status of Venus’ recurring abdominal injury, a setback that sapped speed off her serve and strokes and, with it, her best chance at dethroning Serena in quite some time in the final of Wimbledon in July.

Venus has taken off a considerable amount of time since aggravating the abdominal muscle in the Wimbledon semifinals, an injury that first plagued her in the Warsaw final against Amelie Mauresmo the first week of May.

The absence of Serena should work toward Venus’ advantage. A finalist at the US Open in 2002, it is Serena who has lulled Venus into a championship drought.

As a two-time US Open finalist (1997, 2002), a two-time US Open champion (2000, defeating Lindsay Davenport, and 2001, defeating Serena) and with a sparkling 35-4 career singles record (.900 winning percentage) at the US Open, Venus is impossible to discount.

Playing with the abdominal pain, Venus’ first serve is ineffective, a weakness rather than a weapon. But if her health climbs back to 100 percent, Venus can utterly dominate her service games. Complemented with a fierce return game, a savvy veteran court presence and hard, accurate forehands and backhands, Venus is the No. 2 women’s contender at the 2003 US Open.

Kim Clijsters — A model of proper sportsmanship and consistency, fans of Clijsters are growing impatient for her to take the final step in her progression as a player by winning her first Grand Slam title.

With the recent ascension of Henin-Hardenne and the championship stranglehold by the Williams sisters, Clijsters holds the mantle of being the best player on tour never to have won a major.

Clijsters, the champion at the 2002 WTA Tour season-ending Championships, has superb results three legs into the 2003 Grand Slam tour: a semifinal loss to Serena at the Australian Open, a finals loss to Henin-Hardenne at the French Open, and a semifinal loss to Venus at Wimbledon.

The No. 7 seed at the 2002 US Open, Clijsters lost in three sets to No. 10 Amelie Mauresmo of France in the fourth round. Her best result is a quarterfinal appearance in 2001.

This year, Clijsters’ seed at the US Open will be much higher, possibly a career-first No. 1 major championship seed.

Clijsters has shown she can beat the best players in the world. She has defeated Henin-Hardenne and Lindsay Davenport three times each and Capriati once.

Against Serena and Venus, Clijsters is a combined 0-4 in 2003, but only Venus stands in her way this opportune time around.

The Contenders

Jennifer Capriati — Coinciding with the meteoric rise of the Williams sisters and the mighty Belgians, Capriati’s ranking has gradually slipped.

A proven winner and always dangerous, Capriati is situated in the second tier of Grand Slam contenders because of her inability to close out three-set matches. No player on tour has been stifled by three-set marathons more than the three-time Grand Slam champion.

Capriati is the only player ranked in the women’s top 10 not to have won a tournament in 2003. The last tournament that Capriati won was in glorious fashion, a Grand Slam triumph at the 2002 Australian Open, where she was the No. 1 seed and didn’t have to play either Williams sister.

A real fan favorite in New York, Capriati has enjoyed the US Open as a home away from home. Every match she plays is jam-packed to capacity.

Currently ranked No. 7 in the world, Capriati figures to get a competitive draw when it’s released the week before the US Open.

Lindsay Davenport — The 1998 US Open champion has reached at least the quarterfinals at Flushing every year since 1996, so she is impossible to ignore when discussing championship contenders.

In 2002, Davenport, who had missed a large chunk of the season with injuries, advanced to the semifinals at the US Open where she was outlasted by eventual women’s champion Serena Williams, 6-3, 7-5.

Plagued in her hall-of-fame career by injuries to her wrist, back, knees and, now, a pinched nerve in her toe, Davenport has said that it will require an operation to remove the nerve at some point later this year.

Playing a fairly limited schedule leading up to the US Open will do Davenport a world of good, preparing herself for the grueling two-week test in Flushing.

Amelie Mauresmo — The weight of trying to win a championship for a Grand Slam-starved nation like France can take its toll on a player, just ask Mauresmo. The star Frenchwoman lost to Serena Williams at the 2002 French Open, 6-1, 6-2, a match that was billed as one of the greatest match-ups in the history of Roland Garros.

After the crushing letdown in front of her home country, Mauresmo tore a rib muscle at the Ordina Open in the Netherlands just before the start of Wimbledon, forcing her to submit a late withdrawal.

To date, she is the only player in 2003 to have defeated both Serena and Venus Williams. In May, Mauresmo clipped Serena in the semifinals in Rome, 1-6, 7-5, 6-3. A month earlier in Warsaw, she was named tournament victor after Venus came down with her now-famous abdominal injury in the final.

Mauresmo also holds the distinction of being Capriati’s worst nightmare — the Frenchwoman has beaten the American four straight times, including in the quarterfinals of the 2002 US Open, 4-6, 7-6(5), 6-3.

Chanda Rubin — Many people thought that Wimbledon would be the breakthrough Grand Slam for Rubin, who was coming off an impressive win in Eastbourne on grass. One of the classiest players on the women’s tour, Rubin has dealt with countless injuries that took away from her success as a younger player.

Now a cagey veteran who excels in both singles and doubles, Rubin is a worthy adversary capable of beating any top-25 player. Rubin’s serve is world class, her strokes strong, deep and accurate, and her tennis IQ unparalleled.

The Russians

Memorize this list of extremely talented Russians, all ranked in the WTA Top 100 — you’ll need to know their names by the time the second week of the US Open rolls around: No. 10 Anastasia Myskina, No. 15 Vera Zvonareva, No. 17 Elena Dementieva, No. 21 Elena Bovina, No. 25 Nadia Petrova, No. 28 Svetlana Kuznetsova, No. 41 Lina Krasnoroutskaya, No. 43 Tatiana Panova, No. 53 Elena Likhovtseva, No. 56 Maria Sharapova and No. 64 Dinara Safina.

Zvonareva and Petrova both had their coming-out parties at the French Open, including an upset of Venus Williams by Zvonareva. After knocking out French Open darling Ashley Harkleroad with relative ease in the first round, Sharapova, the shrieking, stunning Russian sensation, took Wimbledon by storm, defeating Jelena Dokic in the third round before losing to Kuznetsova in the fourth — the 16-year-old’s best Grand Slam result to date.

Note: The opinions expressed by the writer in this piece do not necessarily represent the opinions of the USTA Organization.

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