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

Reem Abulleil takes a closer look at the burning questions on the women's tour entering the North American hard-court swing.

Reem Abulleil 2018/07/28

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.

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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Angelique Kerber Madison Keys Serena Wil­liams Simona Halep Sloane Stephens Venus Williams