NEW YORK • For the first time in US Open history, the women's final sold out before the men's.
It is indicative of the expectation surrounding Serena Williams' bid to register the first calendar-year Grand Slam in 27 years. There is also the small matter of a record-setting seventh US Open singles title in the Open era.
Given her head-to-head records against those who stand in her way, it is no wonder that tickets to the Sept 12 final have been snapped up, with resale tickets going for as much as US$9,000 (S$12,600).
Second seed Simona Halep is 1-6 against the American, who has won the last three US titles. Third-seeded Maria Sharapova is 2-18 against Williams, with her last win coming 11 years ago. Fourth seed Caroline Wozniacki has won once in 11 meetings with the 33-year-old.
Williams has been invincible yet has seemed beatable during this late career surge. The biggest server the women's game has ever known has struggled at times with her delivery. She lost nine sets during her victorious runs through the Australian, French and Wimbledon championships this year, including seven first-set losses.
Yet no one has succeeded in derailing her Grand Slam charge this season.
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The top-ranked American is at the centre of the women's tennis universe as she aims for history and unprecedented domination. Williams, the three-time defending champion, is bidding to complete a calendar-year sweep of the four Grand Slams, which was last accomplished by Steffi Graf in 1988. Another triumph would also give Williams a total of 22Grand Slam singles titles.
The 23-year-old Romanian recently ascended to world No. 2 after reaching the final in the Cincinnati Masters last week. Halep has not enjoyed the best of seasons in the Majors, with a quarter-final exit at the Australian Open her best finish, but she will be on the opposite side of the draw from Williams as she brings strong form to her pursuit of a maiden Major win.
The 18-year-old Swiss is being hailed as the future of tennis. She handed Williams only her second loss of the season this month in Toronto en route to winning the title, her second of the year. Bencic's lack of Grand Slam experience could be a factor, though she did reach the US Open quarter-finals last year.
"Who can stop her?" pondered US Fed Cup captain Mary Joe Fernandez, commentator for ESPN.
"If she plays her best, she's better than everybody and she will win. I think the best chance to upset Serena is earlier rather than later."
Several players could test Williams early, although Russia's world No. 86 Vitalia Diatchenko is not expected to trouble her tomorrow.
Mirjana Lucic-Baroni of Croatia, who upset Halep at Roland Garros, should be Williams' second-round opponent.
American Sloane Stephens could be there for the third round, and big-serving compatriot Madison Keys may be waiting in the fourth round.
The quarter-finals could put Williams against either her sister Venus, eighth-seeded Czech Karolina Pliskova or dangerous 18-year-old Belinda Bencic of Switzerland.
Bencic beat Williams in the Toronto semi-finals on her way to a second career WTA title.
"You sort of need a Bencic (type) that goes out there bold and brave, loving the moment and playing Serena," added Fernandez.
Halep, who reached two finals in the US hardcourt run-up to the Open, has won more hardcourt matches this year than anyone on tour with 32 and is tied with Williams for most WTA titles on the surface this year with three.
"I have a lot of confidence right now because I played tough matches and won difficult matches," said the world No. 2.
Even if Williams falls short of joining Maureen Connolly (1953), Margaret Court (1970) and Steffi Graf (1988) as the only women to register a calendar-year Grand Slam, several top analysts believe she has already established herself as the best women's player ever.
"To me, she's the greatest female player that every played," said seven-times Major winner John McEnroe, adding that Williams has become better with age.
"She's better in every way now. She's more prepared now."
Former doubles specialist Pam Shriver noted that Williams has dominated this year despite not playing at her best and that underlines her greatness. So too her longevity and consistency at the top.
"This year I've put her as my all-time great," she said. "She's still winning so many Majors, so many more than anyone else in their 30s. She's won them in the 90s, 2000s and now - three different decades."
Williams said she is treating the season's final Grand Slam like any other title defence. But she acknowledges that a final in Arthur Ashe Stadium would bring her the greatest possible spotlight.
"It's the biggest stadium for tennis players in the world. It's the biggest stage in the world, in New York," she said. "It doesn't get any bigger or better than this."
Day 1: Morning (tomorrow, 11pm). Night (Tuesday, 7am), StarHub Ch201