By Nick McCarvel
Pick the sporting storyline of your choice this week at the Western & Southern Open in women’s singles and you won’t go wrong.
A world No.1 chasing her first win at this event. Mothers making a comeback to tour less than a year after having babies. Legends of the game playing on.
That’s all set to feature, with world No.1 Iga Swiatek aiming to fine-tune her game ahead of her US Open title defense later this month. Second-seeded Aryna Sabalenka leads a host of challengers looking to halt Swiatek, with not a single player missing from the best 39 in the world.
Here, five stories to watch out for as the week unfolds.
1. Swiatek faces challenging road to final
The four-time major winner Swiatek has never made the quarterfinals in Mason, and faces another tough road to get there – and beyond – this week. She could meet American Danielle Collins in the second round, having just escaped Collins in a three-set tussle in Montreal days ago.
Venus Williams, ageless at 43, could be a roadblock for Swiatek in the third round, with Venus taking on No.16 seed Veronika Kudermetova in her opener.
Potential quarterfinal foes for Swiatek include Wimbledon winner Marketa Vondrousova and reigning Cincinnati champion Caroline Garcia, though Garcia could meet Sloane Stephens in round two.
Garcia is looking to re-capture the magic she conjured up here a year ago and is a top eight seed along with fellow contenders Jessica Pegula, Elena Rybakina, Ons Jabeur, Coco Gauff and Maria Sakkari.
2. Maternal instincts: Wozniacki, Svitolina square off
Elina Svitolina captured the sport’s imagination last month with her inspiring run to the Wimbledon semis, stopped only by eventual champion Vondrousova. The Ukrainian’s comeback story continues with an all-mother match-up against Caroline Wozniacki, the former world No.1 who began her comeback just last week in Montreal.
“It’s nice to see a lot of moms on tour, doing well and playing well,” explains Wozniacki, who is back after over three years (and two kids) out of the game. “You can do both.”
Wozniacki and Svitolina are joined by fellow mom Victoria Azarenka in the main draw here, with Vika herself facing a tricky opener in 2021 French Open champion Barbora Krejcikova.
Wozniacki, who made her pro debut in Cincinnati as a 15-year-old in 2005, won her first match back last week over Australian Kimberly Birrell before being stopped by Vondrousova in Montreal.
“It’s a little bit like riding a bike,” Wozniacki, now 33, laughs about getting back into the tennis routine. “You quickly reel it in. As I play, I know it will be better and better.”
3. Venus Williams makes a legendary return
Weeks after her 43rd birthday, Venus Williams is showing no signs of stopping. The seven-time Grand Slam singles champion makes her 10th appearance in Cincinnati nearly 30 years after she first competed on the WTA, in 1994.
The elder Williams sister has a tough test in Kudermetova to open and could meet rising Chinese star Zheng Qinwen in the second round.
But for Venus, it’s all about the love of the game: “I’m just being me,” she told reporters at Wimbledon. “I live my life the best way I can. I’m a competitor. That’s what I do for a living, so… “
4. Pegula, Gauff among top challengers
While all eyes will be on Venus, Americans Pegula and Gauff have first-round byes as top eight seeds, Pegula arriving in Cincinnati after an upset over Swiatek en route to the Montreal final.
In total, there are nine American women in the singles draw (not including qualifiers), with feel-good stories also including Peyton Stearns, a Cincinnati native, who arrives here as the world No.57 a year after being ranked No.354 in the same week.
Jennifer Brady, the 2021 Australian Open runner-up, offers more good vibes, the former world No.13 back on tour nearly two years after foot issues took her out of the game in the summer of 2021.
5. Krejcikova/Siniakova headline doubles field
Much like Swiatek, the world No.1 doubles team in Krejcikova and partner Katerina Siniakova look to bring their best ahead of their US Open title defense, in particular after being forced out of Wimbledon due to an injury for Krejcikova.
The star power is plenty in the doubles draw, with Azarenka teaming up with French Open semi-finalist Beatriz Haddad Maia, while Brady pairs with close friend Asia Muhammad.
Garcia links up with Marta Kostyuk, while Jabeur is set to team up with Petra Martic.
The defending champions are Liudmila Kichenok and Jelena Ostapenko, who face a stiff test in Muchova & Vondrousova in round one.