US Open 2014: We look at the youthful talent aiming to spring a surprise or two at Flushing Meadows
By Razwan Mirza - Tweet me: @RazMirza
Last Updated: 23/08/14 2:58pm
The evergreen Serena Williams will be aiming to add to her 17 grand slam titles when she takes to the courts at Flushing Meadows.
But given the fact that the American won't be around forever, she heads into this year's US Open seeking to land her sixth title in less than her usual dominant form.
Another 32-year-old, Li Na, has proven that age is no obstacle after winning the Australian Open in January, although she will be missing through injury, while Maria Sharapova, fresh from winning her fifth grand slam title at Roland Garros, will be looking to add to her 2006 triumph in New York - eight years on.
Meanwhile, Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova will be out to show that she is not just a grasscourt player as she looks to add to her 12 career titles.
Now there are a select group of women who are aiming to make a breakthough and become future grand slam queens.
We take a look at some of the youthful talent who will be hoping to spring a surprise or two at Flushing Meadows this summer.
Eugenie Bouchard (Sky Bet odds: 12/1)
The Canadian from Westmount, Quebec, has had a remarkable year having reached two grand slam semi-finals and a final. She made a major breakthrough on her first trip to the Australian Open where she became the first Canadian to reach a major semi-final since Carling Bassett-Seguso at the 1984 US Open.
Bouchard also caught the public's attention with her bubbly personality and army of followers - the 'Genie Army' in Melbourne. She claimed her first WTA title the day before the start of this year's French Open when she beat Karolina Pliskova to win the WTA Nurnberger Versicherungscup. And she followed that up with another semi-final appearance at the French Open, but suffered an agonising 4-6 7-5 6-2 defeat to Maria Sharapova in Paris.
But Bouchard quickly learned from that hurtful loss and bounced back even stronger by reaching her first career grand slam final at Wimbledon, where she was a former junior singles and doubles champion. However, on her big day, she suffered a 6-3 6-0 humbling to the more powerful and aggressive Petra Kvitova on Centre Court, where there was no hiding place.
The 20-year-old's rise to fame has been truly remarkable considering she was ranked at a lowly 144 towards the end of 2012 to a career-high eight, just weeks before heading into the final major of the year. "It's been a little bit of a journey since Wimbledon, but I've been improving the whole way and hopefully I can get a few days' practice and be ready for the US Open," she said. Bouchard sports a long and lean frame, bright smile and golden locks and if she continues to show the same kind of skill, athleticism and aggression in her game, she has a great chance of going very far in New York.
Simona Halep (Sky Bet odds: 15/2)
The 22-year-old became the first Romanian woman in more than 30 years - since Virginia Ruzici in 1980 - to reach a grand slam singles final when she stormed into the Roland Garros showpiece, but in a little more than three hours she lost 6-4 6-7 (5) 6-4 to Maria Sharapova. A month later she made it through to the Wimbledon semi-finals but suffered another agonising loss, this time to Eugenie Bouchard. Despite those defeats Halep has cemented a place for herself at the top of the women's game.
Last year she collected the WTA's Most Improved Player Award last season after winning titles in Nuremberg, 'S-Hertogenbosch, Budapest, New Haven, Moscow and the Tournament of Champions in Sofia - second only to world No 1 Serena Williams (11 titles). She also rose an impressive 36 spots from 47 to a career-high world No 11 following a remarkable 12 months on the circuit.
The former French Open junior champion, whose idol is Justine Henin, finally made an impression at a grand slam at this year's Australian Open where she reached the quarter-finals before losing to eventual finalist Dominika Cibulkova. She quickly moved on by winning her seventh career title at the Qatar Open and has become the highest-ranked Romanian in the history of the WTA following her impressive runs at Roland Garros and the All England Club.
Amazingly, she was ranked 64th at the same time last year and is now at a career-high No 2. A hungry Halep will be a dark horse and will be one to keep a close eye on should she progress to the latter stages at Flushing Meadows.
Sloane Stephens (Sky Bet odds: 40/1)
The American was the newcomer on the block last year and oozes charm through her infectious personality. She loves the big stage as well as the attention and received plenty of it at last year's Australian Open after making it through to her first grand slam semi-final, thanks in large part to a sensational win over her idol Serena Williams.
The 21-year-old from Plantation, Florida went down to eventual champion Victoria Azarenka in the last four, although the performance in Melbourne helped put her name on the tennis map. At this year's tournament, Stephens received a double dose of the Minsk Miss, falling to her in the fourth round.
A quarter-final appearance at Indian Wells was her only notable achievement leading up to Roland Garros where she enjoyed plenty of shopping, sightseeing, Haagen-Dazs ice cream and a spot in the fourth round, losing out to eventual finalist Simona Halep.
At Wimbledon, Stephens fell at the first hurdle to Maria Kirilenko and then suffered back-to-back losses to Jelena Jankovic in Montreal and Cincinnati in the build-up to the US Open. The world No 22 has wowed observers with her prodigious serve and powerful stroke play. Her athleticism, speed and fluid all-court motion makes her a dangerous competitor in New York.
Madison Keys (Sky Bet odds: 66/1)
The Rock Island native won the first WTA Tour title of her career with victory over Angelique Kerber at the Aegon International in Eastbourne - just two days before the start of Wimbledon. "I have always loved grass. To win my first title on grass is just an amazing experience," said Keys after her win.
Keys was the first teenager to win a Premier-level title since Caroline Wozniacki in New Haven in 2009 and broke into the top 30 on the back of that victory - she is currently ranked 28 in the world. At Wimbledon, she reached the last-32 before being forced to retire against Yaroslava Shvedova due to injury. More recently, she pushed Sabine Lisicki in Montreal and then Maria Sharapova in Cincinnati.
The big-hitting 19-year-old has already compiled victories over Simona Halep and Alize Cornet this year. She also defeated Julia Goerges to reach the semi-finals of the Strasbourg International before bowing out to another promising talenent in Monica Puig of Puerto Rico. It was her second semi-final of the year having also also made the final four at Osaka late last year and the Sydney International earlier this year.
At 5ft 10in Keys is still growing and looks to have everything in the locker, including a monster serve which reaches over 100mph and some ferocious groundstrokes on forehand and backhand wings. She also has wonderful balance and her court coverage can compete with the very best in the game. The rookie made her Fed Cup debut in early February, although she was unable to inspire the United States against Italy as they went down to a 3-1 defeat in Cleveland. Madison may hold the key to the future of women's tennis in America and clearly has the weapons to be a Top 10 player of the future.
Belinda Bencic (Sky Bet odds: 500/1)
Bencic could well be the next 'Swiss Miss' having already improved 350 places since April 2013 to current world No 59. She has clearly been blossoming under the guidance of Melanie Molitor, Martina Hingis’ mother. "Belinda is the best junior player in the world and I think that shows that she has a great potential," said Molitor. "The number one junior player usually develops into a good senior player as well. As for Belinda it's all up to her and what she makes of it. She certainly has good basics, she's very versatile and therefore I think she has good chances."
The teenager made her WTA debut aged 15 and has gone on to win the French Open and Wimbledon junior titles before rising to become world junior No 1. She put on a gritty display against defending champion Li Na at the Australian Open, but fell in straight sets, and then made her main draw debut at Roland Garros, losing out to her more experienced opponent, Venus Williams.
Hingis says the youngster shows fearlessness in her game and could go very far. "Belinda’s got a very bright future. You're not really nervous when you're 17. You don't feel any pressure. You're just excited to go out there and play and you don't think too much about it. You're not doubting yourself or worrying about anything that's gone on in the past."
The 17-year-old recently suffered a double-bagel drubbing against Caroline Wozniacki in Istanbul and then lost in the round of 64 to Karin Knapp in Cincinnati. She relies on her court-craft, but also has the power to let rip from the baseline. She is also an adept counter-puncher, but can be prone to bouts of petulance. "My goal is to improve every day, to get as far as I can, be the best that I can, and just to look step-by-step. I don't want to set any goals - it's extra pressure - and I will just play," she said.
Taylor Townsend (Sky Bet odds: 400/1)
The southpaw is a free spirit in a world of hyper-drilled young players. She possesses timing to die for and spends her time training with 250 pound American football players. The former junior No 1 and Australian Open junior champion smacked an impressive 43 winners past Alize Cornet in a brilliant victory to reach the third round at Roland Garros earlier this year which caught the eye of many observers and high-profile players.
She also loves to attack the net, even using a serve and volley technique on occasions, and her touch is a throwback to the days before power became tennis' signature weapon. Townsend already has lots of fans, one of them is Andy Murray, who praised her game on Twitter during her win over Cornet. The Scot said: "I love the way she played tennis, basically. She's just a really nice player to watch. She hits the ball great. She's very talented. She volleys. You don't see that much now on the men or the women's tour. She had drop shots, she had angles, good attitude. She was just very fun to watch. She's going to be a very good player."
Townsend reads the game well and stamina does not seem to be an issue, but she has not played nearly as many senior events as her contemporaries like Donna Vekic or Belinda Bencic, whom she was runner-up to in the Wimbledon junior tournament last year. She went down to Klara Koukalova in the first-round at the All England Club this year, although her form has picked up of late, having reached the last-16 in Washington and the round of 32 in Cincinnati.
If Townsend continues to play in the same manner at the US Open, then the world No 103 is bound to climb into the top 100. The 18-year-old has a winning mix of natural charm and confidence and she knows she possesses something special. "I have a lot of weapons, and I have a lot of gifts and talents that not many people have that I have to believe in," said Townsend, who is coached by former Wimbledon finalist Zina Garrison.