Karolina Pliskova of the Czech Republic may well be the World No.1 and top seed at the US Open which starts on Monday, but it is Maria Sharapova, the Russian wild-card entrant, who is stealing the headlines as she is pitted against second-seeded Simona Halep of Romania in the first round.
For Sharapova, it will mark her first match since pulling out of the Stanford Classic three weeks ago with an arm injury and her return to Grand Slam action.
A former World No.1 and five-time majors champion, Sharapova came off a 15-month doping ban in April after testing positive for heart drug meldonium at the 2016 Australian Open.
She has had mixed results since re-joining the WTA Tour and will need to be at her best early to keep alive any hope of her first title at Flushing Meadows since 2006.
For Halep, it is just the draw she did not want and just adds to her mounting challenges.
Sharapova, 30, has never lost to the Romanian in six meetings and won in straight sets, 6-4 6-4, at their last meeting in the first round of the 2015 WTA Finals.
Halep, 25, is one of eight players vying for the top ranking at the US Open but has had struggled with consistency throughout the season.
In Cincinnati, she had the chance to earn the No.1 ranking if she won the tournament, but was dominated by No 3 Garbiñe Muguruza, 6-1 6-0.
Earlier this summer, she lost to No 4 Elina Svitolina at the Rogers Cup semi-finals and retired from heat exhaustion against Ekaterina Makarova in the quarter-finals of the Citi Open in Washington.
Cincinnati marked the third time this year that Halep failed to win with the top ranking on the line, after losing to 20-year-old Jelena Ostapenko at the French Open final and to Johanna Konta in the Wimbledon quarter-finals.
Whether she feels pressure because of it is a question she gets asked about at nearly every tournament she plays.
“It’s tough to analyse anymore about this thing,” she told reporters after last Sunday’s loss in Cinci.
“Maybe I feel the pressure and I don’t realise it. Maybe I just played bad. I don’t know what to say. But it’s still there. I have still — I still have a chance. So I will work for it, and maybe one day it will be there.”
Halep could meet Konta in the quarter-finals and Muguruza in the semi-finals but she will need to earn her first victory against Sharapova to do so.
Konta rallied from within two points of defeat to end Halep’s bid to become World No.1 at Wimbledon
The British No.1 will face Serbia’s Aleksandra Krunic, ranked No 77, in the opening round.
Seeded seventh, Konta has reached the fourth round in New York for the last two years and has a realistic chance to go the distance.
Konta, who was 26 in May and close to completing 10 years on the prof tour, won the Miami Open earlier this year, the most prestigious trophy to be lifted by a British woman in 40 years.
The US Open draw becomes the battleground for the top spot, with eight women vying for a chance to leave the last Slam of the season with the WTA World No 1 ranking – Pliskova, Halep, Muguruza, Svitolina, Caroline Wozniacki, Konta, Svetlana Kuznetsova, and Venus Williams, all having a mathematical shot at it.
Pliskova heads into the US Open with the narrowest lead over a World No 2 since 19 October, 2009, holding a slim five-point margin over Halep.
A finalist last year, Pliskova is defending 1,300 points, which means the door is open for the other seven women to overtake her over the fortnight.
After taking off last year’s US Open points, Halep sets the target mark of 5,965 points, meaning even if she loses in the first round, the remaining seven players will have to keep winning to overtake her post-US Open point total.
As Halep progresses, the target mark shifts: for example, if Halep wins her opening match (6,025 points), Venus, who can earn a maximum point total of 5,976 points with the title, will be eliminated from the No 1 chase.
Former World No.1 and defending champion Angelique Kerber has a tricky test as she takes on Japan’s Naomi Osaka in the opening round and could face red-hot Svitolina, who won a tune-up event at Toronto, in the quarters.
Wimbledon champion Muguruza, who is one of the favourites and fresh from her triumph at the Cincinnati Open, could face former World No.1 Wozniacki in the quarters.
Meanwhile, Pliskova, runner-up at last year’s tournament, will play her first round against Poland’s Magda Linette and is projected to meet the 2004 champion Kuznetsova in the last eight.
Britain’s Heather Watson, who has suffered six consecutive first-round losses here, will attempt to end that streak against France’s Alize Cornet.