Scott Ferguson previews the women's draw at the US Open which, while competitive as ever, throws up a pair of solid fancies at 14/1.
The current state of the women's game is best underlined by this statistic: the last four women's US Open finals have involved eight different players. As you'd expect, the outright winner market is wide open and that creates a decent betting heat.
The greatest female player of all time is marked as tournament favourite yet hasn't won a major title in two and a half years. Time is running out for Serena Williams to claim that elusive 24th grand slam to equal the record of Margaret Court.
Since her last victory in Australia in January 2017, Williams has reached three grand slam finals, and been beaten in straight sets on each occasion, most recently at Wimbledon. That's starting to add up to more than just coincidence, and her task here is complicated by a spasming back which saw her retire in the Toronto final, a debilitating ailment which is almost certain to return at some stage. We just don't know if that day is tomorrow, next week or next year.
The defending champion and world number one, Naomi Osaka, looked like she was regaining form after months of waywardness since the Australian Open before succumbing to a knee injury in Cincinnati. She had struggled with the pressure and demands of being at the top of the sport, but appeared more relaxed back on hardcourt. Whether that remains the case as defending champion remains to be seen.
Media focus on Ashleigh Barty has dropped just a little since her fourth round exit at Wimbledon, especially now that she's been knocked off her perch at the top of the rankings. She lost to Sofia Kenin in Toronto and eventual finalist Svetland Kuznetsova in Cincinnati, but got enough matches under her belt (five) to tune up nicely for this tournament. The draw hasn't been particularly kind but her best is good enough to make it two grand slams for the season.
Wimbledon champion Simona Halep rounds out the top four in the market. She retired with an achilles injury in Toronto but bounced back the following week in Cincinnati, losing a tight one in round three against eventual winner Madison Keys. After first-round exits in successive years, her ranking can only go up in the next fortnight and following her SW19 heroics, she rates a player.
The form through Cincinnati looks a solid guide. Of her six opponents, the aforementioned MADISON KEYS defeated three former number ones and the weakest of the sextet was Sofia Kenin, the rising US star currently ranked 20.
Keys was a finalist here in 2017 and lost to eventual winner Osaka in the semi-finals last year and, after injury concerns at Wimbledon and at the start of the North American summer season, she has found her groove again. If she can surpass Kenin again in the third round, I can see her going very deep in the draw and 16/1 is a price worth taking.
Canadian Bianca Andreescu has been on a remarkable rise and it could yet get better with a breakthrough grand slam title.
Ranked 152 last Christmas, she qualified in Auckland and reached the final. A week later she qualified for the Australian Open, losing in the second round. She then won a challenger event at Newport Beach, lost to Kenin in the Acapulco semi-final, won Indian Wells as a wildcard then retired in the fourth round in Miami with a shoulder injury.
She came back too early for the French Open, winning one match before withdrawing, missed Wimbledon, then resumed at her national championship, the Rogers Cup in Toronto, where she took the title when Williams retired.
Fatigue and general soreness, understandable after her long break, got to her by the end of the week, forcing her to withdraw from Cincinnati which started the very next day. However, injury concerns were dispelled when she played in a team exhibition event in the run-up to Flushing Meadows and she looks a fascinating contender at 10/1.
Dissecting the draw quarter-by-quarter, Osaka should be able to progress through the top section. Her path throws up a potential clash with a star teenager - either the Russian Anastasia Potapova or the darling of this year's Wimbledon, Coco Gauff - in the third round. Beyond that lies Belinda Bencic or Anett Kontaveit in round four.
On the other side of the quarter, recent Washington finalist Aryna Sabalenka (the only player to take a set off Osaka in her title run last year) has to face Victoria Azarenka first-up on the way to a likely third-round clash with Donna Vekic. Seventh seed Kiki Bertens rounds out the section but lost early in both Toronto and Cincinnati. Her only hardcourt win of the North American summer has been over a qualifier and she is yet to go beyond the third round of either hardcourt major.
There are clear concerns with virtually every player here and that includes Osaka, but she's likely to be good enough without being at all tempting at the prices.
In quarter two, it's almost as open as the outright market.
Halep and Petra Kvitova will be favoured but they have the likes of Wimbledon semi-finalist Barbora Strycova, two-time finalist Caroline Wozniacki, Canadian sensation Andreescu, who has a 35-4 hardcourt record this year, 2017 champion Sloane Stephens, veteran and recent Cincinnati finalist Kuznetsova, former world number one Garbine Muguruza and Belgian rising star Elise Mertens to deal with.
Andreescu, though, brings such strong hard court form to the table that she's fancied to come through here. Consider her to win the section but all things considered she goes in as the back-up outright wager behind Keys.
The third quarter pits together at least four players on the verge of winning something big. Elena Svitolina and Karolina Pliskova bookend the section with Kenin and Keys the main dangers.
Further in, Venus Williams, Dayana Yastremska, Johanna Konta, Marketa Vondrousova and Caroline Garcia would also fancy their chances with a spoonful of luck. As mentioned earlier, Keys can break through here if she maintains her Cincinnati form. Similar to Andreescu, take the win Q3 option if you wish to effectively make it an each-way bet for four places.
The final quarter opens with the clash of the opening round, Serena Williams against long-time rival Maria Sharapova. While that sounds big on paper, the Russian hasn't gone beyond round two since Melbourne.
2016 champion Angelique Kerber lost in the first round of both Premier events, her first two matches since splitting with her coach Rainer Schuettler.
At the bottom of the section, we find second seed Barty and Maria Sakkari, who recently made the semis in San Diego and quarters in Cincinnati, losing in three to the Australian. Barty should get through but Sakkari is starting to make her mark on the tour and could capitalise on any luck heading her way.
As is now customary, then, this is a wide-open contest, but Keys looks to be coming to the boil at just the right time and can triumph at generous odds.
Posted at 1855 BST on 24/08/19.