Tennis

US Open will be all about Serena

If Serena Williams stays focused, the US Open is as good as hers.
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Richard Evans

Richard Evans has covered tennis since the 1960s, reporting on more than 150 Grand Slams. He is author of 15 books, including the official history of the Davis Cup and the unofficial history of the modern game in "Open Tennis." Follow him on Twitter.

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It has to be Serena, doesn't it? The youngest Williams sister might have lost her way on the clay of Roland Garros in the first round of the French Open in May but this is going to be America, on hard courts in front of a huge crowd, most of whom will be willing her to victory.

But funny things happen to Serena at the US Open. She gets sick or injured and can't play; she yells at lines judges; she loses in straight sets in the final to a rank outsider in Samantha Stosur, as she did 12 months ago. And, strangest of all, only three of her 14 Grand Slam titles have come at Flushing Meadows.

Surely, it is time to put that right. Since losing in Paris, Serena has gone 19-1 at Wimbledon, the Olympics and on the WTA tour. The only loss came against that rising German talent Angelique Kerber in Cincinnati two weeks ago and Kerber is just the sort of opponent anyone could lose to if they were having an off day.

Serena hadn't quite sorted out her thoughts on the matter when she came off court following that loss, the only blemish on her rampaging summer. "I wanted to win today," she insisted. "But maybe my body was telling me not to. I felt really good going out there but it was a false alarm."

Serena and her body had better get on proper speaking terms before she tries to improve her US Open record. But on Saturday, in a calm, low-key interview at Flushing Meadows, the Olympic champion said she had taken two days off after Cincinnati.

"I think that helped me get myself together mentally,"  she said. "I came to New York really early and relaxed and karaoked and that was about it."

Asked how she handled being the one to beat, Serena replied, "You've got to embrace it whether you are the favorite or the one to beat or whether you are not. And I embrace it. At Wimbledon I wasn't the favorite. I embraced that. Hopefully I propel and do my best here."

The fact that she is only seeded No. 4 continues to make a mockery of the WTA ranking system.

Yes, Serena doesn't play as much as the other top women but, with only the very occasional blip, she proves, time and time again, that she is the best player in the world by handing out the most humiliating beatings to her closest rivals whenever she gets the chances. Ask No. 1 seed Viktoria Azarenka or No. 3 seed Maria Sharapova. They have sorry tales to tell when it comes to playing Serena.

With Serena out of the way, Sharapova was able to go on and confound all the critics by winning a Slam on clay at Roland Garros and will be just as determined now to add a second US Open title to her portfolio. Maria may offer the non-tennis public a different image when she goes off and promotes various business ventures -- Sugarpova candy being the latest -- but her day job is professional tennis and you won't find a more dedicated player.

The tall, elegant beauty is tough, too. "No matter how tough it was, no matter how many people didn't believe in me, didn't think I could get to this point (winning all four Slams) I didn't care and I didn't listen. I always relied on my own talent, on the help of my team," Sharapova said. "At the end of the day that's really what gets me through and gets me up."

As a declaration of belief and intent, that wasn't bad and Sharapova will be trying to prove it all over again these next two weeks. Like Serena, she used the word "embrace" to describe how she handled a certain situation -- in her case the craziness of New York.

"In the beginning it's certainly overwhelming but my experience has helped me a lot because from feeling like I was very small in a very big city with so much energy, I really embraced it over the years. Now I love New York with all its craziness and the fans and the late-night matches. You get used to it."

Sharapova is in Azarenka's half of the draw and opens against Hungary's Melinda Czink. Later she could meet Melanie Oudin providing the American gets past the experienced Czech Lucie Safarova in the first round, which won't be easy.

Petra Kvitova, who has won the US Open Series and it's $1 million bonus, is also in Sharapova's quarter.

Serena is in the bottom half of the draw and will play Coco Vanderweghe, an American who has only ever won one match at Grand Slam level, in the first round. Sloane Stephens, one of America's biggest hopes for the future, will need to get past former French Open champion Francesca Schiavone of Italy first up before she can think of playing Serena.

If Kerber beats Britain's Anne Keothavong, she will probably have the chance of playing the other Williams as Venus is matched with Bethanie Mattek-Sands in what should be a major first-round fashion clash.

Stosur, the defending champion, brings very little form into the event and it will be a surprise if she can survive to the final weekend. She is in Azarenka's quarter but the Belarussian will be more concerned with the proximity of China's Li Na, who just won Cincinnati. With Justine Henin's long time coach, Carlos Rodriguez now at her side, Li is starting to look like the player who won at Roland Garros last year.

There are plenty of contenders. But when all is said and done, this is Serena's tournament to win — or lose.

In the meantime, Murray had better not dream about winning it because his dreams seem confusing.

Talking in the media room at Arthur Ashe Stadium on Saturday, Murray was laughing at himself when he recounted this story:

"After Wimbledon, like four days after Wimbledon, I dreamt I won Wimbledon and I woke up in the morning and I was just starting to feel better. That didn't help. Then a few days after the Olympics, I dreamt that I had lost in the final of the Olympics. Obviously waking up remembering I had won was nice."

So no one needs to tell Murray that reality is nice. Rest assured he'll be working on it in the coming days.

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