Just as two of the top three men spurned the Rogers Cup, two of the top three women decided that the sweltering August heat of Cincinnati does not quite fit into their agendas.  Outside the absences of Azarenka and defending champion Sharapova, neither of whom will have struck a ball in the 2012 US Open Series, the draw contains most of the key figures whom one can expect to contend at the season’s final major.  Chief among them is the Wimbledon champion and Olympic gold medalist, but Serena can expect resistance from rivals old and new at the last significant non-major of the year on American soil.

First quarter:  Not quite towering above the draw as its top seed, Radwanska hopes to rebound from a slight lull after reaching the Wimbledon final.  In the aftermath of that breakthrough, she understandably crumbled at the Olympics and the Rogers Cup, so Cincinnati represents her last chance to regain momentum before the US Open.  Close to her are two journeywomen who excelled during the grass season, Paszek and Pironkova.  Reaching her second straight Wimbledon quarterfinal, the former of those two built upon her accomplishment with a quarterfinal appearance in Montreal as well.  Probably tired from an eventful week north of the border, where she defeated two top-10 opponents in one day, Montreal finalist Li Na might melt a bit in the torrid temperatures of Cincinnati.  Her projected third-round opponent, Bartoli, did not benefit as much as expected from shifting to hard courts immediately after Wimbledon rather than staying on grass for the Olympics.  After she battled to the final in a porous Carlsbad draw, Kvitova crammed two baguettes down her throat in Canada.  If she faces Radwanska in the quarterfinal, she would need to overcome a woman who never has fallen to her before and who decisively halted her strongest surge of 2012 in Miami.  Lurking in a relatively tranquil section of the draw, meanwhile, Sloane Stephens aims to garner a win or two but has not left a notable impact on the US Open Series so far.

Semifinalist:  Radwanska

Second quarter:  Between the two Roland Garros finalists who anchor this section stands its most decorated champion, just a humble wildcard adjacent to Maria Kirilenko.  Invigorated by the doubles gold that fueled her comeback, Venus should relish the fast court here as long as she does not suffer a lull in motivation after achieving that goal.  The Russian has troubled before, however, and she turned heads at the Olympics by finishing fourth in singles after defeating Kvitova and winning the bronze medal in doubles with Petrova.  Also in this section filled with her compatriots, her partner opens against Makarova and then likely would meet the staggering Pavlyuchenkova.  In the midst of a wasted season, the former junior #1 probably needs to reset for 2013 despite a finals appearance in Washington, where the anonymous Rybarikova demolished her.  Like Haas and Nalbandian in the men’s draw, Stosur and Halep could meet in the same round of Cincinnati that they did in Montreal.  Since she fell on her sword against Errani at Roland Garros, the reigning US Open champion has shown little to suggest that she will mount a credible title defense.  On the other hand, most of that span unfolded on grass, her worst surface, so one impressive result could catapult her into serious contention just as her march to the Rogers Cup final did last year.  Stosur’s Paris nemesis must brace herself for a third-round collision with Venus, not an assignment that she likely can solve any more effectively than she did in a Wimbledon rout at the American’s hands.  Slightly disappointing last week, Christina McHale continues to vie with Stephens for the title of most promising young American woman—although probably not for this Premier Five title.  Earning their best results in doubles lately, Zheng and Hantuchova should engage in a stylish albeit irrelevant first-round encounter. 

Semifinalist:  Venus

Third quarter:  In the liveliest quarter of the draw, two Serbian brunettes smolder near two blondes who recently renewed their acquaintance.  When Wozniacki and Kvitova met on Saturday, their entertaining if uneven three-setter featured the stark contrast in styles that some observers have felt the WTA showcases too rarely.  Licking her wounds from that defeat, the fifth this year in which she lost after winning the first set, the former #1 might face her fellow former #1 Ivanovic in the third round.  Owner of the major title that Wozniacki still lacks, the Serb enters Cincinnati somewhat bruised from the first double bagel of her career in Toronto, which followed a near-double bagel against Azarenka at Wimbledon.  A victory over the woman whom she dominated in Indian Wells would erase that embarrassment, but former fast-court nemesis Peer might intercept her before then.  Another brunette subject to oscillating form, Goerges could not extend the momentum from her upset over Radwanska at the Olympics and remains an enigma capable of virtually anything from one week to the next.  All the same, she might strike fear into Wozniacki if she rather than Ivanovic should meet her in the third round, for she has defeated the Dane three times since the start of 2011.  In somewhat better position is Kvitova, although the explosive serve of Mona Barthel would pose an intriguing test for a player perhaps basking in the glow of last week’s laurels.  A surprise finalist here last year, Jankovic would struggle to overcome a scintillating version of Petra here and has struggled to string together any victories at all lately.  With a US Open seed probably at stake, can she rise out of her doldrums to the occasion?

Semifinalist:  Kvitova

Fourth quarter:  On four of the five lines above Serena Williams, excluding the “bye” line, are qualifiers surely trembling already at the thought of the Wimbledon champion’s firepower.  In fact, eight of the fourteen players in this section will remain unknown until Monday.  Even more stunning than her usual self at the Olympics, she lost just 17 games  there to a sequence of talented rivals.  Like her sister, Serena may suffer a hangover from her sensational week(s) in London, but she has lost just one match since Miami while winning four titles and singles gold.  At Charleston this spring, Safarova won just one game from Serena in the first of those finals, and she may need to heal mentally from a devastating collapse against Li in the third set of a Rogers Cup semifinal.  Perhaps the only intriguing match in this section, a potential second-round encounter between Kerber and the surprising Lepchenko pits two players who will fancy their chances in New York.  A semifinalist there in 2011, the German sixth seed has shown determination if not quite nerves of steel before when overcoming home players like Bartoli in Paris, Wozniacki in Copenhagen, or McHale and Stephens in Indian Wells.  Nevertheless, one must wonder when her vast accumulation of matches this season finally will exact its toll on her.  Since Razzano would have needed to qualify for Roland Garros had she not received a wildcard, Serena perhaps should not take this swarm of qualifiers too lightly.  Even if she does, though, she probably can muddle through well enough.

Semifinalist:  Serena

Final:  Radwanska vs. Serena

Champion:  Serena Williams