Thanks to Marion Bartoli and Li Na before her, Flavia Pennetta being retired as opposed to kicking off her title defense at the U.S. Open doesn’t feel too strange. However, it is fitting that the defending champion isn’t around for one of the more unpredictable and wide open majors in a while.
Serena Williams might still be injured, Angie Kerber’s momentum was halted just before becoming No. 1 and the 25-and-under elites (Simona Halep, Garbine Muguruza, Madison Keys) are every bit as confounding as they were months ago, even after significant successes and titles added to their cabinets.
They’ll surely be wrong, but the year’s final major wouldn’t be complete without some predictions:
SERENA WILLIAMS  QUARTER
Contenders: Serena Williams, Simona Halep, Carla Suarez Navarro, Sam Stosur, Elena Vesnina
Big name, little chance: Ana Ivanovic (slumping terribly, the end looks near; 48th in year-to-date rankings)
Notable others: Elena Vesnina (seeded), Dasha Kasatkina (seeded), Timea Babos (seeded), Kate Makarova, Camila Giorgi, Jelena Jankovic, Heather Watson, Dasha Gavrilova, Lucie Safarova, Kirsten Flipkens
Best first round matches: Williams/Makarova, Gavrilova/Safarova
This quarter is entirely dependent on Serena’s health, which is a complete guessing game without having seen her play since Rio. If she’s close to normal, she owns the matchups with Halep and CSN. If not, this is Halep’s chance for that elusive Slam.
She’s looked great since working in Las Vegas with Gil Reyes during the Olympics. Halep maintains her legs are the key to her game and the hard work on her fitness has translated to confidence and renewed swagger, though Flipkens and then Gavrilova or Safarova is a tough start.
AGA RADWANSKA  QUARTER
Contenders: Aga Radwanska, Venus Williams, Karolina Pliskova, Timea Bacsinszky, Nastia Pavlyuchenkova
Big name, little chance: Kiki Bertens (Roland Garros semifinalist has lost five matches in a row since reaching Gstaad final and is 5-10 on hardcourts this season), Caroline Garcia (capable of an upset, but not the consistency for a deep run), Laura Siegemund (impressive breakthrough season, but big wins have all come on clay)
Notable others: Genie Bouchard, Laura Robson, Ana Konjuh, Peng Shuai, Kiki Mladenovic, Louisa Chirico, Nicole Gibbs, Aleksandra Krunic, Julia Goerges, Yanina Wickmayer
Best first round match: Pavlyuchenkova/Chirico, Gibbs/Krunic
The U.S. Open is Radwanska’s worst Slam, Venus is 36, Pliskova won Cincinnati but routinely flops in Slams, and the floaters are intriguing. Picking a name out of a hat might be just as accurate a picking method as serious analysis when it comes to this quarter.
GARBINE MUGURUZA  QUARTER
Contenders: Garbine Muguruza, Madison Keys, Svetlana Kuznetsova, Johanna Konta, Barbora Strycova, Coco Vandeweghe, Monica Puig
Big name, little chance: Belinda Bencic (5-11 since mid-February amid injury-plagued season and 0-2 on summer hardcourts; just not in good enough form to do damage in the draw)
Notable others: Monica Niculescu, Naomi Osaka, Sorana Cirstea, Taylor Townsend, Caroline Wozniacki, Tsvetana Pironkova, Andrea Petkovic
Best first round matches: Kuznetsova/Schiavone, Wozniacki/Townsend, Strycova/Niculescu, Vandeweghe/Osaka
The quality of this quarter comes down to which Muguruza and Keys show up. The tough part of that is they can be smooth sailing and suddenly throw in a total clunker, as Muguruza did in the Cincinnati semifinals to Pliskova. Monica Puig is here too but it’s best to assume she’ll need some time to adjust to her new reality, not to mention she hasn’t played since winning the gold medal.
It’s hard to see this quarter imploding, which is a weird assurance to feel when the prominent seeds are so untrustworthy, including Kuznetsova and Konta.
ANGIE KERBER  QUARTER
Contenders: Angie Kerber, Roberta Vinci, Dominika Cibulkova, Petra Kvitova, Elina Svitolina
Big name, little chance: Sara Errani
Notable others: Irina Camelia-Begu (seeded), Misaki Doi (seeded), Christina McHale, Yulia Putintseva, Sabine Lisicki, Jelena Ostapenko, Cici Bellis, Alize Cornet, Mirjana Lucic-Baroni
Best first round matches: Putintseva/Lisicki, Kvitova/Ostapenko
Kerber has to be tired from all the tennis she’s played, Vinci is set to drop her 2015 finalist points and well out of the top 10 to the top 15, where Kvitova now resides after losing in New Haven to Radwanska. All three have a lot to lose, with Kerber going for No. 1 before Serena starts recovering points from her 2015 fall sabbatical, Vinci nearing retirement and Kvitova needing to salvage a year in which she’s yet to make a final and is just 4-3 at majors. Svitolina still remains a (over)hyped up-and-comer, but Cibulkova’s resume and experience suggests she’s the one who could take advantage of a vulnerable (but not weak) quarter.
Round of 16: S. Williams, Stosur, Suarez Navarro, Halep, Bouchard, Bacsinszky, Mladenovic, Wickmayer, Keys, Strycova, Konta, Muguruza, Vinci, Cibulkova, Svitolina, Kerber
Quarterfinals: Halep over S. Williams, Bouchard over Mladenovic, Konta over Keys, Cibulkova over Kerber. That second quarter is a complete unknown. It seems likely that Kerber’s busy summer will catch up with her in the second week, though she’d still become No. 1 with these predictions.
Semifinals: Halep over Bouchard, Cibulkova over Konta
Final: Halep over Cibulkova. A complete dart throw, but Halep is the best combination of in-form with fuel left in the tank.