REUTERS: The U.S. Open women's event is likely to be as competitive as ever this year despite a depleted field, with the players who shake off the ring rust accumulated during the COVID-19 stoppage likely to be the quickest to hold all the aces.
With six of the world's top 10 - including number one Ash Barty, Simona Halep and holder Bianca Andreescu - pulling out of the tournament for various reasons, Australian Open champion Sofia Kenin's status as a top contender had been strengthened.
But the 21-year-old American's preparations for Flushing Meadows suffered a blow on Sunday when she crashed out in the first round of the Western & Southern Open in New York following a straight sets defeat by Frenchwoman Alize Cornet.
"It is (winning the Australian Open) obviously there and no one can ever take that away, but I feel like I have to somehow set that aside," said Kenin, who will be the only reigning Grand Slam champion in the women's draw this year.
"Hopefully I'll play a bit better, and hopefully I'll have enough match play... we'll see how it goes."
Kenin's loss in the final U.S. Open tune-up event was the third time this year that she has fallen at the first hurdle following her Melbourne victory, raising doubts about her ability to back up her success with a second major title.
Fellow contender Naomi Osaka had no such trouble after she won the U.S. Open in 2018, as the Japanese went on to lift last year's Australian Open crown but she has mostly struggled to replicate the consistency of that fine run.
The 22-year-old had not played since February before signing up for the Western & Southern Open and will have to rediscover her best form to mount a serious challenge.
Like Osaka, American Coco Gauff used her time during the enforced break to speak out against social and racial injustice in the United States, earning widespread praise.
The 16-year-old has enjoyed a stunning run on the circuit since reaching the fourth round at Wimbledon in July 2019 and will hope to enhance her already considerable standing in the game by winning her first Grand Slam title.
Former world number one Karolina Pliskova is also chasing a maiden Slam and the Czech will fancy her chances, having come closest when finishing runner-up in New York in 2016.
The U.S. Open has produced a different champion in each of the previous five years, but the majority of fans will be rooting for six-times winner Serena Williams, even if they are not present in the bio-secure bubble to cheer her on.
"I'm actually super fit and I'm super ready," the 38-year-old, who has reached the last two finals at Flushing Meadows and is bidding for a record-equalling 24th major, told reporters.
"I feel I'm ready for anything."
(Reporting by Shrivathsa Sridhar in Bengaluru; Editing by Ken Ferris)