When it comes to picking favorites to win the U.S. Open women's championship, the usual names pop to mind -- Serena Williams, Maria Sharapova, maybe top-ranked Victoria Azarenka.
The name Angelique Kerber might not readily make the top of the list, but for area tennis fans who have followed the 24-year-old German since her run to the semifinals at the Texas Tennis Open last year, Kerber is definitely one to watch.
Kerber took a few minutes last week to sit down in the lobby of the Hilton DFW Lakes Hotel to talk about her rise from a No. 106-ranked player battling through qualifying in Texas to U.S. Open semifinalist and No. 6-ranked player in the world.
"Everything started for me here last year [in Texas]," said Kerber, who was forced to pull out of last week's Texas Open to rest a nagging left shoulder that has been bothering her since Montreal.
With the U.S. Open starting Monday in Flushing, N.Y., Kerber waited until the last minute before making the difficult decision to withdraw from the Grapevine tournament, where she was the top seed coming off an appearance in the finals in Cincinnati.
"I came here last year and played in the [qualifiers], and I think nobody expected I would go to No. 6 in a year," said Kerber, who became only the seventh German woman to reach the top 10 on May 21, joining Sylvia Hanika, Bettina Bunge, Claudia Kohde-Kilsch, Steffi Graf, Anke Huber and Andrea Petkovic. "It's been amazing. I've reached the top 10 and a lot of things have changed in the last year, and it's a good feeling."
That change has come both on the court and off.
On the court, qualifying tournaments are a thing of the past, and her high seedings usually ensure that she will not face the top players until the later rounds. That's not always the case, such as next week in New York when she could face Venus Williams in the second round.
If Kerber can get past Williams and the shoulder doesn't flare up again, the hard-hitting lefty, who does everything else right-handed, has a reasonable chance to roll into the quarterfinals before running into No. 2 Agnieszka Radwanska.
From there, a victory would get her back to the U.S. Open semifinals and give her a chance to win her first major.
Regardless of what happens at the Open, it has been an amazing year for Kerber, who arrived in New York ranked closer to No. 100 than to No. 1. But her game was on the upswing, having been battle-tested under the Texas sun, and having reached the semifinals before falling to Aravane Rezai of France last year in Grapevine.
In New York, Kerber picked up where she left off, beating among others, Radwanska, who was ranked No. 13 at the time. Kerber's run ended with a three-set loss to Samantha Stosur, who went on to win her first U.S. Open championship.
"After New York, I think I saw that I can beat the top players -- not just play good matches, but I can also beat them," Kerber said. "After that I continued my wins in tournaments in the semis, quarters, and then I started to feel I could also be one of the top players."
Before Texas, Kerber had won just four main-draw WTA Tour matches in 14 tournaments. From Texas qualifying through the rest of the year, she won 17 of her next 23 matches.
"I prefer this year to last year," Kerber said with a laugh.
Who wouldn't? She has reached the semifinals or better in seven tournaments this year, including the semifinals at the French Open. She's 53-16 this year and won her first two career tournament titles in Paris against Marion Bartoli and in Copenhagen, where she upset former No. 1 Caroline Wozniacki in front of a partisan Danish crowd.
"It was a big win," Kerber said of beating the Dane in Copenhagen. "It was my second title, and in my first title in Paris, I played Bartoli in France. So everyone was also against me. So maybe ... "
She stopped short. ... Who would look forward to playing facing Serena Williams in the final of the U.S. Open?
"I beat Serena last week in Cincinnati and that was one of the biggest wins of my career," Kerber said. "And then I beat [Petra] Kvitova, who won the tournament before [in Montreal.] I reached the final for the first time in such a big tournament. It was a great week for me, and for sure, I have a lot of confidence to go to New York."
Maybe Kerber should go ahead and finish that sentence.
Rusty Hall, 817-390-7816
Women to watch
Serena Williams: At 30, Serena might only be ranked No. 4, but there's little doubt that she is the most dominant player in the world when healthy and focused. She became a 14-time Grand Slam singles champion by winning Wimbledon in July, and she also crushed Maria Sharapova 6-0, 6-1 to win the Olympic gold medal at Wimbledon. In 44 majors, the three-time U.S. Open champion has failed to advanced past the fourth round 11 times. Only twice has she failed to reach the quarterfinals at Flushing.
Maria Sharapova: The No. 3-ranked Russian completed a career Grand Slam with her victory at the French Open in June. She won the U.S. Open in 2006, but she hasn't advanced past the fourth round since. A prolonged recovery for shoulder surgery slowed the 25-year-old for the better part of two years. But she has a career record of 24-7 at Flushing, and her victory at Roland Garros is proof that she is back.
Victoria Azarenka: The 23-year-old from Belarus is ranked No. 1 in the world after a sizzling start to the season. She won her first 26 matches of the year, including her first Grand Slam singles title at the Australian Open. She's 12-6 at the U.S. Open. She reached the semifinals at the Olympics before losing to Serena Williams, but she lost in her only hard-court tune-up match in Montreal to Tamira Paszek.
Petra Kvitova: The No. 5-ranked Czech is 5-4 at the U.S. Open and won the 2011 Wimbledon title. She is coming off a victories in New Haven and Montreal and advanced to the semifinals in Cincinnati. She's won 20 of her last 23 matches after beating Maria Kirilenko in New Haven on Saturday. Kvitova became the third Czech woman to reach No. 2 in the world, joining Martina Navratilova and Jana Novotna.
Samantha Stosur: The No. 7-ranked Aussie is back to defend her first major title. At the age of 28, Stosur has the experience to get the job done, but her results have not be overly impressive since reaching the semifinals of the French Open. Stosur has just four wins since June 17, two of those coming in Cincinnati last week before losing to Venus Williams. In 37 majors, she has only advanced past the fourth round five times.
Men to watch
With the withdrawal of No. 3 Rafael Nadal because of knee injury, the Big Three in men's tennis is down to two -- Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic. Or is it? Andy Murray has made a case that he can fill Nadal's shoes just fine and keep a Big Three intact for a little longer. A couple of others could also get into the act.
Roger Federer: The Swiss won his 17th Grand Slam singles title at Wimbledon on July 8 and returned to the top of the rankings for the first time in two years (since May 24, 2010). He is coming off his 76th career title last week in Cincinnati and is 28-2 on hard courts this year. He is 61-7 all-time at the U.S. Open, where he has won five championships. He has reached at least the semifinals every year since 2004 but last won the title in 2008.
Novak Djokovic: Last year, the No. 2-ranked Serb was almost unbeatable. This year, not so much. But the five-time Grand Slam singles champion is always a threat. He won the Rogers Cup in Toronto three weeks ago and reached the finals last week in Cincinnati before falling to Roger Federer. Djokovic is 29-3 this year on hard courts and won the Australian Open earlier this year. He's reached at least the semifinals in all but one of his 11 tournaments this year.
Andy Murray: The Scot is coming off an Olympic gold medal performance earlier this month in which he defeated Roger Federer on Centre Court at Wimbledon. The victory came just weeks after the No. 4-ranked Murray lost to Federer at the Wimbledon Championships. Murray is 19-7 this year on hard courts, but he failed to advance past the round of 16 at both Toronto and Cincinnati.
John Isner: The big American is ranked No. 10 and coming off his fifth career title Saturday at the Winston-Salem Open by beating Tomas Berdych. Isner has been showing that he can beat some of the best players in the game, but that hasn't translated into success at the majors yet for the former NCAA champion. He lost in the first round at Wimbledon, the second round at the French Open and the third round at the Australian Open.
Jo-Wilfried Tsonga: The No. 6-ranked Frenchman has had some of his best showings on the hard courts and at the U.S. Open, where he advanced to the quarterfinals last year before falling to Roger Federer. All eight of his career titles have come on hard courts. He reached the finals of the Australian Open in 2008 and the semifinals in 2010.
Juan Martin Del Potro: In the age of Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic, the No. 8-ranked Argentine is the only other player in the past 30 Grand Slam events to win a major championship (U.S. Open, 2009). Del Potro is 24-8 on hard courts this year and has 11 career titles, including seven on hard courts. The 23-year-old is 15-4 in five trips to the U.S. Open.