I wasn’t able to do any pre-tournament write-ups or picks for this year’s US Open because of my assignment in New Haven. But now that I’m back in San Francisco with a bit of free time on my hands, the quarterfinals seemed like as good a place as any to get back on the horse and make some picks for the last Slam of the year. Ladies first!
Belinda Bencic (SUI) vs Shuai Peng (CHN)
H2H: No previous meetings
There’s no match history between these two players, so there’s not much to say on the prospects for this match other than generalities.
Bencic has played good tennis to reach the quarters; particularly in her match against the veteran Jelena Jankovic. I fully expected Jankovic to dig deep into her bag of tricks for a win against her 17 year-old opponent, but it didn’t happen. Bencic, young and prone to some impatience/volatility, kept it together on one of the game’s biggest stages; and in one of the biggest matches of her life.
Can she give a repeat performance in the quarters? That depends on her opponent, Peng Shuai. Peng steadily knocked off an impressive roster of players in reaching the quarters (Zheng, Radwanska, Vinci, and Safarova), and did so impressively without dropping a set. She’s not a flashy player, and doesn’t possess any huge weapons. But she will make you play solid and consistent tennis to beat her.
Bencic is certainly talented enough, but I’m not sure if she’s steady enough at this stage in her career to rise to the occasion in a Slam quarterfinal. For that reason alone, I’ll go with Peng. But I won’t be surprised if it goes either way given the volatility of this year’s tournament.
Pick: Peng Shuai
Caroline Wozniacki (DEN)  vs Sara Errani (ITA) 
H2H: Wozniacki leads 2-1
Underestimate Sara Errani at your own risk; especially after her revenge-fueled victory over Venus Williams the other day. It wasn’t pretty. And yes, Venus is not the “Venus” we remember from her pre-Sjogren days. But none of that mattered in the end. Sara came away with the hard-fought victory, and has a chance to redeem her disappointing year in singles.
The same could be said for Caroline. After spotty results earlier in the year, she’s played like Dane possessed during the summer hard court swing. She took Serena the distance in their two last tournaments (Montreal and Cincinnati), and knocked out Maria in a brilliant R16 match to reach the quarters. She’s serving harder, hitting her forehand harder, and is notably mixing up her shot patterns to keep opponents off-balance. Moreover, her backhand winner on match point against Maria, a pre-2014 rarity, tells you everything you need to know about where Caro is with her game. (Hint: aggressive.)
I don’t want to risk getting Sara riled up again, but I’m going with Caro in this one. Sara has picked up her game, but Caro’s the one most primed for a breakthrough.
Pick: Caroline Wozniacki
Serena Williams (USA)  vs Flavia Pennetta (ITA) 
H2H: Williams leads 5-0
Serena is, of course, the prohibitive favorite in any match-up at any tournament. But this particular version of Serena is a bit more vulnerable and prone to meltdowns than the one we’ve come to know in recent years. With time winding down on her Hall of Fame career, she’s put tremendous pressure on herself to reach coveted milestones. That pressure has virtually crippled her in the Slams this year, with early exits in Melbourne, Paris, and London. It says a ton that this is her first Slam quarterfinal of 2014.
Flavia’s year has also been underwhelming after her early success in winning the title at Indian Wells. Her match results have been unpredictable at best, and haven’t come close to those reaching the earlier highs of the year. In spite of it all, she’s made it through to the second week, and is facing off against Serena for the second time at the Open.
Unfortunately for Flavia, she’s only won a grand total of six games in her last four hard court sets against Serena. Even in a tournament filled with upsets, this does NOT bode well. I’m picking Serena to reach her first Slam semifinal with a routine win over the Italian.
Pick: Serena Williams
Victoria Azarenka (BLR)  vs Ekaterina Makarova (RUS) 
H2H: Azarenka leads 3-2
Ekaterina won their last match on clay in three sets (2013), but has yet to beat Vika on a hard court. She’s a great player with big weapons who has managed some stunning Slam upsets over the past couple of years. Unfortunately, she’s never backed up those upsets in the later rounds when the pressure was at its’ highest.
Vika, on the other hand, lives for the big moments in the big matches. Sometimes she’s a bit too prickly on court for my taste, but you can’t deny her competitive fight. It’s taken her to the Open final the past two years, and could very well again for a hat trick of final appearances in successive years. She came into New York with a ton of rust and lack of match play, but she’s found a way to make it through.
She may not be playing her best tennis right now, but I’ve got to go with Vika for the win on her chutzpah alone.
Pick: Victoria Azarenka