Will Serena Williams win her first title as a mom? Eight burning questions entering the North American hard-court season

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History beckons: For Serena Williams.

A stellar line-up will descend on San Jose next week for the women’s kick-off of the US Open Series with Serena and Venus Williams, Garbine Muguruza, defending champion Madison Keys, and Victoria Azarenka all confirmed for the Mubadala Silicon Valley Classic (July 30 – August 5).

The Series will then continue with stops in Montreal, Cincinnati and New Haven before all players head to the final Grand Slam of the season in New York.

As the ladies shift their focus to North America, here are some burning questions we’d like answered this US (and Canada) summer stretch.

CAN SLOANE DELIVER ANOTHER SUPER SUMMER?

Last year, Sloane Stephens caught fire on the North American hard courts. The Florida-native was returning from an 11-month injury hiatus and pulled off one of the most impressive comebacks in sports history, making the semis in Toronto and Cincinnati before winning her first Grand Slam at the US Open.

Her results at the majors have oscillated ever since, with a runner-up showing at Roland Garros sandwiched between first-round exits in Melbourne and Wimbledon. On the WTA tour, a title run in Miami felt like it came out of nowhere and she now enters the North America hard-court stretch ranked No. 3 in the world. With 2,700 points to defend over the next six weeks, Stephens will be facing a new kind of pressure when she returns to where it all began for her last season.

She’s scheduled to play Washington, Montreal and Cincinnati before her title defence at Flushing Meadows. With Serena Williams back in the mix, Madison Keys hoping to improve on her runner-up showing at the Open from last year and Venus Williams out of the top-10, looking to climb back in, America will have a host of home favourites to support this upcoming stretch, and perhaps Stephens can benefit from the shared attention.

Last year's stunning Summer of Sloane.

WILL SERENA GRAB HER FIRST TITLE AS A MOM?

As Serena said in Wimbledon after losing the final to Angelique Kerber, she’s “literally just getting started”. Targeting an all-time record 24th Grand Slam in New York, the 36-year-old is just four tournaments into her return from maternity leave and is already up to 27 in the rankings. Serena is down to play San Jose, Montreal and Cincinnati before the Open, which is her heaviest pre-New York schedule since 2014.

Whether she’ll play all three is another matter but considering her run to the Wimbledon final earlier this month and how motivated she sounded there, Serena can expect to make a splash on home soil this summer.

Tatjana Maria became the first mother to win a WTA title in 2018 when she triumphed in Mallorca in June. New mom Mandy Minella came close but was runner-up in Gstaad earlier this month. Can Serena claim her first trophy as a mother in the next few weeks? It won’t be a surprise if she does.

WILL THE US OPEN CONSIDER SEEDING AZARENKA?

Wimbledon is typically the only major that changes the seedings at the tournament’s own discretion and they gave Serena a No. 25 seed spot last month, despite her being ranked 181 at the time. Two-time Grand Slam champion Victoria Azarenka was not given the same privilege when she returned from her maternity leave and the Belarusian is still building her ranking up. Since her comeback 13 months ago, Azarenka has had to spend some time away from the tour due to a custody dispute with the father of her son. As a two-time finalist at the US Open, will the tournament consider giving the 110th-ranked Azarenka a seeding position? First, she’ll need a wildcard to play the main draw.

CAN SHARAPOVA BECOME A MAJOR THREAT ONCE MORE?

World No. 22 Maria Sharapova had a strong clay season, making the quarters in Madrid, semis in Rome and quarters at Roland Garros but she suffered a shock first-round exit at Wimbledon, falling to world No. 132 Vitalia Diatchenko despite leading her fellow Russian in both the second and third sets.

Sharapova has withdrawn from San Jose – the ninth tournament she has pulled out of since her return from her doping ban in April last year – and is expected to play Montreal and Cincinnati before the Open, where she reached the fourth round in 2017. She is 8-4 at the majors since she came back to the tour and is still searching for a big title to reestablish herself among the world’s best.

Here’s hoping that vacation in Positano refreshes her for this summer hard-court swing.

HOW WILL HALEP REBOUND FROM WIMBLEDON DISAPPOINTMENT?

After her third-round loss to Hsieh Su-Wei at Wimbledon, world No. 1 Simona Halep told reporters that she played an “unprofessional” match and was disappointed by her performance. Now that she’s had enough time to digest her French Open title success, it’ll be interesting to see how Halep reacts to that breakthrough, followed by that shock in Wimbledon. With nearly 1,000 points to defend, and many players gunning for her No. 1 spot, the pressure will once again fall on the Romanian’s shoulders.

WILL THE NO. 1 RANKING SWAP HANDS AGAIN?

Only 2,551 points separate the top five players in the WTA rankings, with a strong chasing pack of Caroline Wozniacki, Stephens, Kerber and Elina Svitolina all breathing down Halep’s neck. The fact that Halep lost in the first round at the US Open last year will help her though in her quest to stay on top.

WILL ANGIE HANDLE THINGS BETTER?

We’ve all seen how Kerber rose to the top in 2016 in stunning fashion, and how she struggled the following season. Now with a third major under her belt thanks to an impressive Wimbledon run, will the German be able to handle the attention that comes with great success better than last year? She certainly sounded more confident and comfortable under the spotlight when discussing her maiden title triumph at SW19. We’ll see how she performs this upcoming period.

WILL THE 21-AND-UNDERS PLEASE STAND UP?

Quarters on the Parisian clay and the lawns of SW19, Daria Kasatkina will be looking to complete a hat-trick of last-eight appearances at the majors but this time on the hard-courts of New York. The 21-year-old Russian has been showcasing her versatility across all surfaces and has contested the second-most number of tour-level matches this season, winning 31 out of 48 clashes. Ranked 13 in the world, Kasatkina is on the cusp of the top-10 and has already proven her hard-court mettle this year, making finals in Dubai and Indian Wells.

Fellow 21-year-old Jelena Ostapenko blasted her way to the semi-finals of Wimbledon earlier this month and seems back on track after seeing her French Open title defence end at the very first hurdle in May. The US Open is Ostapenko’s worst major (she has a 50 per cent winning record there) but this will be just her fourth appearance.

Japanese 20-year-old Naomi Osaka returns to the United States after stealing the limelight in March, winning Indian Wells then upsetting Serena in Miami. She’s made the third round on her only two previous showings at the Open and is already rising in popularity, with GQ recently describing her as the “coolest thing in tennis”. Watch out for the world No. 17 these next few weeks.

Other 21-and-under players to watch include Switzerland’s Belinda Bencic and 19-year-old American Sofia Kenin, who just won a $60k title in Berkeley to rise to hit a career-high ranking of 64.

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Novak Djokovic's momentum, Andy Murray's return and other storylines to follow this US Open Series

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US summer beckons: For Novak Djokovic.

The US Open Series is upon us with men’s action already underway in Atlanta this week, and the women kicking off proceedings in San Jose on Monday.

Comprised of seven tournaments taking place in North America in the build-up to the US Open, the series is in its 15th season.

In the past, players who performed well in these events and accumulated the most points on the series leaderboard were entitled to bonus prize money if they won the US Open.

That initiative was scrapped by the USTA last year though and the series is now more of a branding exercise than anything else, and is used to offer centralised TV coverage within the United States on ESPN platforms.

Here are the main storylines to follow on the men’s circuit this US Open Series…

OPPORTUNITY FOR DJOKOVIC

With momentum on his side thanks to his title run at Wimbledon, Novak Djokovic will be looking to keep things going on the North American hard courts. The Serb broke back into the top-10 after capturing a 13th major crown at the All England Club and has zero points to defend until the end of the year, having missed the last six months of last season with an elbow injury.

The 31-year-old is currently ranked No. 10 with 3,355 points. He is scheduled to play the Rogers Cup in Toronto, the Western and Southern Open in Cincinnati and the US Open in New York. While he is nearly 6,000 points behind world No. 1 Rafael Nadal in the rankings, only 2,310 points separate Djokovic from third-ranked Alexander Zverev. We can expect another surge up the standings for the Serb over the next seven weeks.

MURRAY’S RETURN

After briefly returning to action during the grass-court season, contesting three matches across Queens and Eastbourne, Andy Murray opted out of playing Wimbledon and is now getting ready to make a proper comeback on hard courts. His first event will be the Citi Open in Washington DC, and has also accepted a wildcard into the Rogers Cup in Toronto.

Murray, who joked about his current position of No. 838 in the world by posting a screenshot of the rankings on his Instagram on Wednesday, along with the hash-tag ‘proud’, will be keen to put behind him the hip injury that kept him out of the game for nearly a year and required surgery last January.

Judging from the beach workouts he has been sharing on social media, the Brit appears to be moving well and can fancy his chances in making major moves up the rankings, with no points to defend for the next 11 months.


FEDERER’S LIGHT LOAD

Roger Federer announced on Tuesday that he will be skipping Toronto as he continues to get more and more meticulous with his schedule. After returning to the top ranking for the first time in six years last February, Federer has slipped to No. 2 and the gap between him and Nadal has widened to 2,230 points. The Swiss, who turns 37 in two weeks, skipped the clay season this year, and has played just seven tournaments so far in 2018.

He’ll be gunning for a record-extending 21st Grand Slam at the US Open next month, but won’t have much play under his belt in the build-up, with Cincinnati likely to be the only event he contests prior to New York.

Federer is 29-4 this season, with his most recent outing being a five-set defeat (after leading by two-sets-to-love) to Kevin Anderson in the Wimbledon quarter-finals earlier this month. He also fell to Borna Coric in three sets in the Halle final.

RAFA BACK ON HARD COURTS

Nadal, the reigning US Open champion, began his preparations for the America summer by hitting the practice courts in Mallorca on Tuesday after a well-deserved break in the Balearic Islands. Toronto will be the Spaniard’s first hard-court event since the Australian Open last January, where he retired with a psoas injury during his quarter-final against Marin Cilic. Nadal has lost just three matches all season – including a tight five-setter against Djokovic in the Wimbledon semi-finals – and will be a force to be reckoned with this hard-court swing.

PRESSURE ON DIMITROV

Down to No. 6 in the rankings after starting the year at No. 3, Grigor Dimitrov is having a mediocre 2018 and has a title to defend in Cincinnati in August. The Bulgarian is an indifferent 19-13 win-loss this season and is currently No. 15 in the Race to London. He will lose 1,500 points if he doesn’t manage to make the top-eight and qualify for the season finale in London. If he plans on picking up the pace, now will be the perfect time to do so.

EYES ON SASCHA

Alexander Zverev has won a tour-leading 36 matches this season so far and added a third Masters 1000 crown to his resume with victory in Madrid in May. He reached his first-ever Grand Slam quarter-final at the French Open shortly after but had a forgettable grass-court stretch, with an opening-round loss to Borna Coric in Halle and a third-round Wimbledon exit to Ernests Gulbis, while suffering from a stomach virus. The 21-year-old German is ranked No. 3 in the world and is the defending champion in Toronto. He had no issues handling his Rome title defence earlier this year, as he reached the final before losing to clay monster Nadal and will need more of the same in Canada next month. He’s still young, but with expectations high, Zverev will be searching for that first big Grand Slam result to go with his ATP tour achievements.

AMERICANS TO WATCH

Top American John Isner is fresh off a semi-final showing at Wimbledon which has taken him back up to No. 9 in the world. In the build-up to last year’s US Open, Isner won the title in Atlanta, and made semis in Cincinnati, but suffered a third-round exit to Mischa Zverev at the Open. The 33-year-old has made the US Open quarter-finals just once in his career, in 2011, and will be looking to change that this time around. With a first Masters 1000 title triumph achieved in Miami earlier this year, Isner is improving with age and will be the main American to watch this upcoming stretch.

His compatriot, 20-year-old Frances Tiafoe became the youngest American ATP title winner since 2002 when he won in Delray Beach in February and the world No. 42 will also have the home crowd watching closely these next few weeks. Tiafoe’s last two US Open appearances were five-set opening-round defeats to Federer last year, and Isner in 2016. He’ll no doubt be hoping for a better draw this year.

THE DELPO SHOW

Back-to-back titles in Acapulco and Indian Wells, semis in Miami and Roland Garros, and quarter-finals in Wimbledon – Juan Martin del Potro’s 2018 is going smoothly and he enters this US summer ranked No. 4 and ready to roll. The Argentine has the third-highest winning percentage on tour this season (80%) behind just Nadal and Federer. The 2009 US Open champion has a residence in Miami and considers the United States his second home. Some of his best results were posted there and he’ll be one of the top contenders in New York if his body holds up.

THE UNDERRATED STARS

Marin Cilic and Kevin Anderson are two players with incredible credentials and huge games no one likes to face. Between them, they’ve made four finals in the last five majors and are expected to shine on the North American hard-courts this summer. Discount them at your own peril!

OTHER RETURNEES

Australian Open semi-finalist Chung Hyeon is back from a 10-week right ankle injury-forced hiatus in Atlanta while Stan Wawrinka will be looking to resume his comeback from knee woes that required two surgeries last August and kept him out of action for six months in 2017, and another three months this season.

TEENAGE DREAMS

19-year-olds Denis Shapovalov, Stefanos Tsitsipas and Alex de Minaur have all caught the attention of the masses over the past 12 months or so. Shapovalov will have some pressure on his shoulders when he returns to his home tournament in Canada, where he made a stunning run to the semis last year, taking out Del Potro and Nadal along the way. He made the fourth round at the US Open shortly after. Tsitsipas is fresh off of a fourth-round appearance at Wimbledon, while De Minaur lost to Nadal in the third round there, and has made noise during the Australian summer early this year.

Survived the first day of training 😂 #Grinding

A post shared by Denis Shapovalov (@denis.shapovalov) on


US Open Series schedule and defending champions:

Atlanta – July 23-29, 2018 – John Isner
San Jose – July 30–August 5, 2018 – Madison Keys
Toronto – August 6-12, 2018 – Alexander Zverev
Montreal – August 6-12, 2018 – Elina Svitolina
Cincinnati (ATP) – August 12-19, 2018 – Grigor Dimitrov
Cincinnati (WTA) – August 12-19, 2018 – Garbine Muguruza
New Haven – August 19-25, 2018 – Daria Gavrilova
Winston Salem – August 19-25, 2018 – Roberto Bautista Agut

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Novak Djokovic is back, Angelique Kerber is a big-match player and more things learned from Wimbledon 2018

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An eventful Championships has concluded at Wimbledon with Angelique Kerber claiming a maiden title at SW19, and third major overall, and Novak Djokovic winning a first Grand Slam in more than two years by lifting the Wimbledon trophy for a fourth time.

Here are things we learned from the action in south-west London these past two weeks.

NOVAK’S BACK

As Djokovic said during the trophy ceremony, there is no better place to announce that he’s finally “back” than on Wimbledon Centre Court, as a Grand Slam champion for a 13th time. His two-year major drought included many moments of doubt but just like Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Serena Williams and other stars, Djokovic proved that you should never discount the greats. He’s back in the top-10, has a tight win over Nadal under his belt, and has clinched his first title in 13 months.

KERBER’S A BIG MATCH PLAYER

In each of the four Grand Slam finals she has contested so far in her career, Kerber has managed to bring her A-game, even in the one she lost to Serena Williams at Wimbledon 2016. The German is a big-match player and her straight-sets rout of Williams in Saturday’s final was further testament to that.

“I really look forward to these matches, because these are the matches where I know I have to play my best tennis. These are the matches when I’m practicing and working hard, I always have these matches in my mind,” says Kerber.

Day Twelve: The Championships - Wimbledon 2018

NADAL FINDS HIS GRASS TOUCH

It had been seven years since Nadal last made it past the fourth round at Wimbledon and the Spaniard finally ended his tough run at the All England Club by making the semis this fortnight. His five-set win over Juan Martin del Potro in the quarters and his five-set defeat to Djokovic in the semis were arguably the best two men’s matches contested this season. Beyond the result of reaching the last-four, it’s the aggressive way he was playing on grass that must be the most encouraging for him.

“Normally I am very critical with myself. But I hit a great shots. I played aggressive. I missed balls, not too many, but I missed some ones. When you play with that intensity, with that level of risk, that level of passion, sometimes you go over, no? Nothing to complain. I think I played a great match. I have not much more inside me. I give it my best,” was his assessment of his loss to Djokovic.

SERENA’S JUST GETTING STARTED

Reaching the Wimbledon final in just her fourth tournament back is an incredible feat for Williams, who has already spent two decades raising the bar and defying all odds.

“I’m literally just getting started,” said the 36-year-old, who had her first child, Olympia, last September.

She was improving with every match throughout the fortnight, and came up short against an incredibly fit and in-form Kerber. Watch out for Williams at the US Open!

OLD IS GOLD

Both the men’s and women’s finals were contested by players aged 30 or older – a first for either draw in the Open Era. Just when you think the younger generation will start to make its move, the veterans reassert their position at the summit.

BIG FOUR DOMINATION AT SW19

The ‘Big Four’ stranglehold on the Wimbledon men’s singles title continues for a 16th consecutive year with Lleyton Hewitt being the last man outside that group to triumph here back in 2002.

KASATKINA RISING

Making back-to-back quarter-finals at Roland Garros and Wimbledon, 21-year-old Russian Daria Kasatkina is having a statement 2018, having also placed runner-up in Indian Wells and Dubai this season. With strong results on hard courts, clay and grass, she’s proving to be an all-court threat and gaining more confidence on the big stage by the minute.

GOOD FORTNIGHT FOR THE MOMS

Besides Williams’ run to the final, Wimbledon has been a triumphant tournament for several mothers in the draw. Tatjana Maria shocked fifth-seeded Elina Svitolina in the first round, Evgeniya Rodina made it all the way to the fourth round as a qualifier, and Victoria Azarenka reached the final in mixed doubles alongside first-time partner Jamie Murray.

WATCH OUT FOR TSITSIPAS AND DE MINAUR ON GRASS

Two 19-year-olds, Stefanos Tsitsipas of Greece and Alex de Minaur of Australia, showed some impressive grass-court credentials at Wimbledon as well as in the build-up. Tsitsipas, who had only ever won just one main draw match at a Grand Slam coming to the All England Club stormed into the fourth round before falling to John Isner. De Minaur, who won 13 of 16 matches this grass-court season including a Challenger title, fell to Nadal in the third round at Wimbledon.

“He’s going to be a guy that’s going to love playing on grass for his whole career. These type of balls, nightmare, so flat,” said Kyrgios of De Minaur.

PENKO REBOUNDS

After losing in the first round of her title defence at Roland Garros just a few weeks ago, 21-year-old Jelena Ostapenko bounced back in the best way possible, reaching the semi-finals at Wimbledon, where she won as a junior just four years ago. Within a span of 13 months, Ostapenko has won Roland Garros, reached the final in Miami and made semis at Wimbledon. She’s here to stay!

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