By Scott Riley, Tennis Editor
Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - When the U.S. Open gets underway next week most eyes will be on Serena Williams, the reigning champ who's seeking a fifth title in Flushing Meadows.
The world No. 1 star re-claimed the Open championship a year ago by outlasting a top-seeded Victoria Azarenka in one of the best-ever U.S. Open finals, and the first women's final in 17 years in New York to go three sets. The American great pulled out the final stanza, 7-5, at a packed Arthur Ashe Stadium.
Serena will also be seeking a third straight trip into the U.S. Open final, having finished as a stunning runner-up to Aussie strong woman Sam Stosur in 2011.
The 31-year-old Serena is a six-time finalist in Flushing, with her other titles coming in 1999, 2002 and 2008, and another runner-up finish coming back in 2001, when she lost to her big sister, Venus.
Serena is an eye-popping 65-9 lifetime in Queens, where she first titled as a spry 17-year-old 14 years ago.
She owns 16 Grand Slam singles titles overall, and in addition to the U.S. Open, she's also the reigning French Open champ. Serena needs another U.S. Open title to tie the legendary Steffi Graf with five in the Open Era, while the all-time leader in women's U.S. Open wins since 1968 is Chris Evert, who piled up six. The great Martina Navratilova, like Serena, owns four.
Serena, who has won three of the last five major titles on the women's tour, is trying to win two of the four Slams in one year for the sixth time in her brilliant career. She captured three of the four in 2002, and owned all four of the majors at one point when she won the 2003 Aussie.
Well, Serena Williams won't be the only woman playing in New York, as the other two members of the "Big Three," Azarenka and Maria Sharapova, will also be on hand trying to collect the coveted hardware.
Azarenka is fresh off her big title in Cincinnati, where she upset Serena in a blockbuster final showdown at the Western & Southern Open, coming from behind to do so in three sets for only her third victory in 15 tries against the formidable American.
Note: Serena and Azarenka have combined to win five of the last seven Grand Slams.
The former top-ranked and current world No. 2 Azarenka is the reigning Aussie Open champ and U.S. Open runner-up. As a matter of fact, the Belarusian star has captured the last two Aussie titles, as she clearly excels on the hardcourts.
Sharapova is another former No. 1, who is currently third in the women's rankings.
Maria, like Serena, owns a career Grand Slam, with her lone U.S. Open title coming back in 2006. Oddly enough, that's the only U.S. Open final the wealthy Russian has ever appeared in. Nary a U.S. Open finale in seven years.
Sharapova was this year's French Open runner-up to the mighty Serena before suffering a shocking second-round defeat against young Portuguese Michelle Larcher de Brito at Wimbledon.
Maria has played only one match since that Wimbledon debacle and lost to rising American Sloane Stephens in the second round in Cincinnati last week, prompting her to fire her newly appointed coach, the legendary Jimmy Connors, after just the one match.
Note: Sharapova has lost three out of her last four matches overall, including the loss against Serena in the French Open finale.
Does anyone outside the Big Three have a chance in the Big Apple? I guess the answer would have to be yes, considering one of the three greats was unable to produce last month at Wimbledon, where Marion Bartoli broke through for her first, and only, Grand Slam title by beating Sabine Lisicki in an unlikely final. Lisicki shocked Serena in the fourth round at the All England Club.
But Bartoli won't be around in NYC, as the quirky, but talented, Frenchwoman stunned the tennis world by announcing her retirement from professional tennis just last week in Cincy.
So, who else can we look to to beat out the Big Three?
Well, there's world No. 4 Agnieszka Radwanska, the 2012 Wimbledon runner-up to Serena who is arguably the best player on the women's tour without a major title.
There's also veteran Chinese slugger Li Na, the former French Open champion and two-time Aussie Open runner-up, including earlier this year.
How 'bout the other best woman without a Grand Slam title, former No. 1 Caroline Wozniacki. The likeable Dane and 2009 U.S. Open runner-up to Kim Clijsters has probably played her best tennis at this point ... but you never know.
Then there's the enigma who is Petra Kvitova. We all thought the big Czech would be a regular in major final fours after capturing Wimbledon by besting Sharapova in the final in jolly ol' England two years ago, but she hasn't returned to a Grand Slam final since and petered out before the quarterfinals in two of this year's first three majors.
After capturing that Wimbledon glory two years ago, Kvitova suffered a first-round loss at the next major event, the 2011 U.S. Open. She hasn't reached a Grand Slam semi since last year's French Open, or six majors ago, and was a fourth-round loser in New York last year.
That's simply not good enough for her.
Don't look now, but guess who's knockin' on the Top-10 door once again? You guessed it, former world No. 1 and 2008 U.S. Open runner-up to Serena, Jelena Jankovic. The Serbian star has enjoyed a fine 2013 season, and currently rests at No. 11, after opening the year at No. 22 in the world and seemingly destined for perhaps an even further droop in the rankings.
What about the aforementioned Stosur? She won it all in New York only two years ago and has also reached a French Open final in her career. But the hard-hitting Aussie has failed to get past the third round at all three of this year's Slams and appeared in only one quarterfinal in her last six majors.
The currently 13th-ranked Stosur followed up her 2011 U.S. Open title by falling in the quarters there last year. Having said that, the U.S. Open has been good to Sam, who has reached at least the round of eight the last three years in Gotham.
Another American hopeful could be the world No. 17 Stephens. The 20-year- old reached the Aussie semis back in January, the fourth round at the French in June, and the quarters at Wimbledon last month. Will her first-ever major final come in New York next month?
It, of course, is time for a pick to win the U.S. Open, and that pick has got to be Serena. Sorry, Vika (Azarenka).
08/20 14:37:19 ET