THE return of Maria Sharapova, in a dress encrusted with Swarovski crystals, offers the superstar sideshow, but the main event in the women’s singles at this year’s US Open is an eight-way shoot-out to be crowned the sport’s leading lady.

The absence of Serena Williams has created an opportunity at the top of the WTA rankings, and the fact no fewer than eight women can leave the last Grand Slam of the season as world No 1 makes for the kind of logjam usually only seen amongst yellow taxis queuing in the streets around Times Square.

In no particular order, it is worth reminding ourselves of these likely ladies. There is current incumbent Karolina Pliskova, the athletic Czech who rang the opening bell at the New York Stock Exchange last week. While her appearance in the final last year proves she has pedigree on this surface, the bad news is that it also means she has 1300 ranking points to defend, leaving the door ajar for seven other women to overtake her over the fortnight.

Just five points back is Simona Halep, whose pre-tournament publicity stunt of choice was throwing the first pitch at the NY Mets. The Romanian, who starts off the action with an eye-catching first-round meeting with Sharapova, would dearly love to consolidate her emergence as one of the top women players in the game by celebrating her first Grand Slam win.

Also in contention is Garbine Muguruza, the Spanish/Venezuelan who was so imperious when taking the Wimbledon title and Elina Svitolina of Ukraine, who has won more titles on the tour this year than anyone else. There is former world No 1 Caroline Wozniacki, 2004 US Open champion Svetlana Kuznetsova and Venus Williams, the grande dame of this field and the only woman to have reached two Grand Slam finals this year.

Completing the group is Johanna Konta, whose epic quest to become the first home winner of the women’s singles Wimbledon since Virginia Wade in 1977 ended at the semi-final stage. Also a semi-finalist in Australia, Konta has form on the hard courts and should not be dismissed as a contender for this title.

“I don’t know how you can pick anybody in the women’s competition,” said Chris Evert, speaking on behalf of “On paper, it’s Muguruza in her current form, but how is she going to deal with the pressure? In the past, she’s been a little fragile mentally, but at the same time, on paper, you’d have to pick her.

“There are others out there like Madison Keys and Pliskova, some other power players who can match Muguruza’s power and maybe have less pressure, and may be a little fresher than Muguruza. But it’s so hard to predict. There are just so many factors, especially with it being the last Grand Slam.

“When I said there are eight or 10 players who could win it, Konta is one of the eight or 10 players. But I’ve been a little disappointed with her hard-court season. She really played so great at Wimbledon, such beautiful tennis, and I thought maybe she would carry that over to the hard-court season. But I haven’t seen any great results.

“I don’t know if Wimbledon might have taken so much out of her. I know she was injured after Wimbledon, so she took a break. I’m not quite sure I would pick her. I would say that her chances aren’t that great, but of course, you never know with her because she’s got a great game.”

Fellow pundit John McEnroe said: “I think Konta is a good competitor and she’s done a lot of positive things. To me, she’s made some really good strides, although she is still a little mechanical at times. I respect what she’s done and how she seems to have recognised where parts of her game are weak, like mentally, and she’s gotten in touch or worked with the right people to get herself in a better frame of mind more often.

“She had a great week in Miami, winning on a hard court. Her game, to me, is best suited to hard courts, but I also believe that the emotional and physical toll at Wimbledon caught up with her, and she has to get herself going again.”

So too does Angelique Kerber, the world No 6, who cannot return to No 1 even though her win here last year seemed to mark her out as Serena’s successor.