(Reuters) - Eight women begin the U.S. Open with their eyes on the number one ranking but of all those contenders it is Garbine Muguruza on whose head the crown could sit most comfortably.
With dominant force Serena Williams absent as she prepares for motherhood, women’s tennis has been crying out for a player capable of taking a long-term lease at the summit and Spaniard Muguruza has the power and personality to oblige.
After beating Serena to win the 2016 French Open Muguruza struggled to adapt to her new-found status, but this year’s Wimbledon triumph has been taken smoothly in her long stride.
A 6-1 6-0 thrashing of world number two Simona Halep in the Cincinnati final last week sent an ominous message to the women’s field at Flushing Meadows and installed the 23-year-old as favourite for the title despite her having won only two matches in four U.S. Open appearances.
“If you were going to push me, I might go with Garbine Muguruza. She seems to be in a very good place after winning her second major in her career at Wimbledon,” twice winner Tracy Austin was quoted on the WTA’s website.
“She finished up winning in Cincinnati last week, which is a huge hard court lead-up tournament for the U.S. Open. She seems much more comfortable with the expectation.”
Muguruza’s record at the U.S. Open is a surprise given her attacking style of play and ability to dominate from the baseline. When she is on form she is hard to stop.
Romanian Halep will start the tournament as the ‘virtual’ number one when ‘year-on-year’ ranking points coming off are taken into account and she would be guaranteed making that a reality were she to win the title.
It was a similar story in the French Open where she lost in the final to Jelena Ostapenko and again in Cincinnati where she again had the chance to rise to world number one but fell tantalisingly short by losing the final.
Czech Karolina Pliskova, who lost to Angelique Kerber in last year’s final, took over as world number one almost by default when Halep lost in the Wimbledon quarter-finals -- a week after Pliskova had bowed out in round two.
Strangely, by virtue of the points system, she could lose the top spot even if she won the U.S. Open and landed a first major -- a sacrifice she would happily sign for.
“I would prefer to have a little bit more of a lead. But, you know, whatever comes I will just take it,” she said in Cincinnati where she lost to Muguruza.
“There’s no pressure to be world number one. It’s going to be difficult to really stay there, but maybe it’s good for me.”
Elina Svitolina, Caroline Wozniacki, Svetlana Kuznetsova, Johanna Konta and Venus Williams are the other players who could theoretically take over at the top, but there are other title contenders lurking further down the ranking list.
American Madison Keys, ranked 16, plays a similar power game to Muguruza and could go all the way, according to former U.S. Open champion Chris Evert who will be commentating for ESPN.
“When she’s healthy, and the way she’s currently playing, she definitely would be a threat to win the tournament,” she said. “Right now Muguruza on paper is the favourite. But don’t count out Madison Keys who has the power.”
Kerber knows only too well the pitfalls that can come with the number one ranking, having looked uncomfortable with the tag ever since taking over from Serena Williams.
The German will hope the return to New York will spark a revival in fortunes after slipping to world number six.
“I‘m thinking that my fighting spirit is of course back and I‘m feeling that it’s getting better and better,” the 29-year-old said looking ahead to the defence of her title.
Reporting by Martyn Herman in London; Editing by Frank Pingue