By Sean Hartnett
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After Kim Clijsters pulled out of the U.S. Open due to a lingering muscle strain, competition became a lot fiercer.  Without the back-to-back champion and three-time winning Belgian as favorite, there are plenty of contenders who are gunning for the title.

2009 U.S. Open runner-up Caroline Wozniacki currently holds the No. 1 position in the WTA Rankings.  The 21-year-old Dane suffered disappointing exits in this year’s Australian and French Opens but was able to win five other singles titles in 2011.  She has been long-tipped to win a major and Flushing Meadows could be the venue where Wozniacki makes good on her promising potential and finally collects a major title.

Vera Zvonareva reached last year’s U.S. Open Final where she was easily beaten by Clijsters after only an hour of play.  The 26-year old Russian will be looking to return to the final stage and continue her success on hard courts.  Along with reaching the 2010 U.S. Open Final, she reached the semifinals at the 2011 Australian Open and 2011 Cincinnati Masters.

Maria Sharapova won the Cincinnati Masters three days ago and is hoping that her momentum from winning the hard court event will translate in U.S. Open play.  Sharapova won at Flushing Meadows in 2006 but hasn’t made it beyond the fourth round since.  That’s where she lost out to Wozniacki in last year’s tournament.  Hard courts traditionally favor speedier athletes but winning in Cincinnati proves that Sharapova is capable of performing on any surface.

Serena Williams is determined to make a strong push after suffering from various injuries and medical problems.  A toe injury forced Williams to withdraw from the Cincinnati Masters before sound round play.  Serena is a three-time U.S. Open winner with her most recent title in 2008.  Her 28th seeding at this year’s U.S. Open means that she will face a top-seeded favorite early in the tournament.  That could either work in her favor by allowing her to knock out one of the contenders or lead to an early exit.

Li Na has a track record of performing well in majors and has plays with more power than her 5’7” frame would suggest.  Na won this year’s French Open and finished runner-up at the 2011 Australian Open.  She seems to have an innate ability to handle pressure and play her best tennis when her back is against the wall.

26-year old Serbian Jelana Jankovic finished runner-up in Cincinnati and could be considered an outside favorite.  Similar to Wozniacki and Zvonareva, Jankovic relies on her mobility and counter-punching abilities.  The same can’t be said about 2011 Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova who leans heavily on her power game and isn’t very agile.

Who would I back to make this year’s U.S. Open finals?  It depends on how the brackets are drawn of course.  My two tournament favorites would be Sharapova and Wozniacki.  It’s always hard to count out Sharapova because of her mental strength and powerful game.  She has enough speed to compensate on hard courts as shown in Cincinnati.  Her intimidating style of play and power makes it difficult for smaller foes like Wozniacki.

I can only pick one winner and I’m going to go with Wozniacki.  She was able to defeat Sharapova in the fourth round last year but lost out to Zvonareva in the semifinals.  The courts at Flushing Meadows favor her game and it seems inevitable that her time will soon come to dominate women’s tennis.  Taking the 2011 U.S. Open may be the first of Wozniacki’s numerous major triumphs to come.

Who do you believe has the edge in the 2011 U.S. Women’s Open?  Share your thoughts below and send your tweets to @HartyLFC. Tomorrow, I will be previewing the men’s bracket.

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