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Related developments at Open?

In a jumbled, depleted women's field, a Williams sister could very well find a path to U.S. Open title.

August 25, 2008|Chuck Culpepper | Special to The Times

NEW YORK -- As the 7-train screeches into the Shea Stadium/National Tennis Center stop, the year's last tennis Grand Slam says hello with quite the goofy billboard shouting from out the right-side window.

It's Maria Sharapova pitching cameras, and while sticklers and other malcontents might point out that a torn rotator cuff means Sharapova won't actually, you know, play this U.S. Open, maybe the sign actually sort of works.

Ever since May, four months after Sharapova had won the Australian Open and some had howled at the moon about a possible Sharapova Slam, the women's game has become a strange brew of hodgepodge and mishmash.

If its Grand Slam year ends on a U.S. Open lacking both its defending champion and its billboard girl, well, that's probably apt.

The 2007 French and U.S. champion Justine Henin, perched at No. 1, retired stunningly in May. Sharapova entered the French Open as No. 1 but lost in the fourth round, whereupon Ana Ivanovic, Jelena Jankovic or Svetlana Kuznetsova could've snared the spot, which Ivanovic did.

Ivanovic came to Wimbledon and lost in the third round, whereupon Sharapova, Jankovic or Kuznetsova could've overtaken her, but none could. Jankovic finally did overtake her in early August, but Ivanovic since has overtaken Jankovic. Neither No. 1 Ivanovic nor No. 2 Jankovic nor No. 3 Serena Williams nor No. 4 Kuznetsova nor No. 5 Sharapova has won a tournament since the French.

If you think all of this hints it should be time for You Know Who and her younger sister You Know Who, you wouldn't be a nut case.

"I'm all about results and wish everyone the best of luck," Venus Williams, ranked No. 8, said Saturday, "but I'm really down with me winning this tournament, so . . . "

She didn't finish the sentence because the room busted up laughing, but her outlook achieved plausibility. It seems surely inaccurate -- but it's not -- that not one Williams has graced the last five U.S. Open women's singles finals.

Ever since Serena Williams, then 20, beat Venus Williams, then 22, in the 2002 final to portend Williams finals from there to eternity, Venus has reached one quarterfinal and one semifinal while having to withdraw twice, and Serena has reached two quarterfinals while having to withdraw once. Venus beat Serena in the fourth round in 2005, Henin beat both in 2007, both open 2008 Tuesday, and a disagreeable draw means they would meet in a quarterfinal.

With jet lag still wrathful from the trip from the Beijing Olympics, where the sisters won the gold medal in doubles, and with Venus saying she can't remember the day and Serena saying she hasn't adjusted as well as Venus, the draw peeved them not.

"Yeah, I have to get there first," Serena said, "and maybe I'll just go study, see what went wrong at Wimbledon," where she lost the final to Venus. "Hopefully I can rectify it."

They reiterated their plan to play for years and years -- "We're playing too well to think about the end," Venus said -- and they spoke of regaining Nos. 1 and 2, although Venus deadpanned, "That's the plan, but I don't think either of us is aiming for 2," which again broke up the room.

As it happens, Venus has remained at No. 8 since her repeat title at Wimbledon, but Serena's name has navigated the hodgepodge to No. 3 behind Ivanovic and Jankovic, who epitomizes a weary tour.

Jankovic's body seems to have protested her penchant for playing often, and when she spoke of the Olympics, where she reached the quarterfinals, she spoke of injections.

"I really tried my best," Jankovic said. "And I was taking the injections so I don't feel the pain when I was going on, you know, to play my matches. Otherwise I wouldn't be able to go on court and play. But now . . . it's finished, and now it's just a matter of, you know, getting, you know, firm again, getting all these muscles back and feeling like I used to feel before when I was fit and ready to play."

Beneath the mishmash does lurk one constant, if you'll look to No. 7 in the rankings. There's Dinara Safina, who turned up in Berlin in May ranked No. 17 and known for her talent but also wiring that sometimes short-circuited.

She won in Berlin, reached the final at the French, won in Carson and Montreal, reached the final in Beijing, conquered 10 different top-10 players along the way, belongs among the favorites especially in this shaky climate, and reminds that sports can be mysterious.

"Somehow I started to go out there and started to believe I'm a player and I can compete with them," she said. "Maybe before it was missing, this. And then I could not give them answers, but now I go out there and for their game I can always give them my answer, my game. . . . That's why I start to beat them."

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U.S. OPEN

* When: Today-Sept. 7

* Where: Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, New York

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

U.S. Open

The U.S. Open begins today and runs through Sept. 7:

* Surface: Hard courts.

* Where: The USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in New York.

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