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At U.S. Open, it's all about the Williams sisters, as usual

There are compelling stories in women's draw, including the comebacks of Kim Clijsters and Maria Sharapova. But it's still Venus and Serena who get people talking.

August 31, 2009|Diane Pucin

Kim Clijsters is back in tennis, a charmingly happy wife and mother of a 1-year-old daughter, and she will certainly bring her happy smile to the place where she enjoyed her single biggest tournament triumph, the U.S. Open.

Dinara Safina will bring a No. 1 ranking and the honored spot as the No. 1-seeded player to Flushing Meadows, N.Y., but she will also carry her reputation as, so far, being unable to reach the pinnacle, to win any of the four major championships. Elena Dementieva, the elegant Russian with wickedly powered ground strokes but a historically unreliable serve, has had perhaps the best summer hard-court season of any of the top female players.

But more often than not over the last 15 months, women's major tennis tournaments have been dominated, win or lose, by sisters Serena and Venus Williams, who between them have won four of the last six Grand Slam singles titles.

Because of the draw, second-seeded Serena and third-seeded Venus can't play for the title. If they meet, it will be in the semifinals and, as John McEnroe said last week, "That's a shame. They are the two to beat. They always seem to rise to the occasion at the big ones."

At the last major, Wimbledon, Serena beat Venus to win her 11th Grand Slam title and give herself an 11-10 advantage in matches against her sister.

When WTA Chief Executive Stacey Allaster spoke about what is perceived as a dwindling base of compelling personalities and notable talents on the tour, she fought back by first mentioning Venus and Serena. But Venus is 29 and Serena will turn 28 next month. Their future is not endless.

And after that Allaster went to praising the "global nature" of the field. "We have the Russians," she said. "We have the young Eastern Europeans, we have the rising Chinese." But isn't it hard, Allaster was asked, to sell an individual sport on the basis of nationalities? Other than at the Olympics, tennis isn't about the Russians against the Chinese or the Americans versus the Eastern Europeans.

"We have the Williams sisters," Allaster said again.

Martina Navratilova, a Tennis Channel commentator, said it wasn't lack of talent that has kept players such as Dementieva and Safina from making a greater impact by winning more major titles.

"It's a lack of belief," Navratilova said. "You have to just go out and do it, and more often than not lately the Williams sisters go out and do it."

In fact at this Open, aside from the Williams sisters, the two most intriguing players are unseeded, and one is a wild-card entrant.

Maria Sharapova, 22, is still working her way back from October shoulder surgery that took her off the tour for eight months, and has spent the summer learning a new service motion and finding her match stamina.

And Clijsters, 26, returned to tennis last month from a two-year hiatus after she got married to former Villanova basketball player Brian Lynch. She had a daughter, Jada, last year.

Clijsters made the semifinals and quarterfinals of her first two tournaments back and could be a dangerous opponent for Venus Williams in that quarter of the draw.

"Coming to the courts, it's obviously a very nice feeling," said Clijsters, whose one and only major title came in New York in 2005.

Serena Williams took note that Clijsters has won five of her first seven matches this summer, including victories over French Open champion Svetlana Kuznetsova and ninth-ranked Victoria Azarenka.

"I have to say, I was a little shocked," said Williams, the defending Open champion. "I expected her to do well, but it looks like she took a week off, not a couple of years."

The Williams sisters haven't won any of the summer hard-court tournaments, but that's not unusual.

Fighting for non-major championships or hunting for ranking points isn't what the sisters are about.

"Winning the big tournaments, it's what is important now," Serena had said this summer. "Except I like playing Venus in the finals."

And that's the problem. Without enough ranking points, a matchup in the final isn't guaranteed.

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diane.pucin@latimes.com

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BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX

U.S. Open at a glance

Notable men's matches: Five-time defending champion and top-seeded Roger Federer faces Devin Britton, an 18-year-old from Ole Miss who became the youngest NCAA champion this season, 10 a.m. PDT in Arthur Ashe Stadium. Bjorn Phau of Germany plays No. 5-seeded Andy Roddick in the second night match at Ashe Stadium. Two daytime matches of interest: Donald Young against 14th-seeded Tommy Robredo, and French Open finalist Robin Soderling vs. Albert Montanes.

Notable women's matches: Second-seeded Serena Williams vs. Alexa Glatch of Newport Beach is the third day match in Arthur Ashe Stadium; Also: Kim Clijsters vs. Victoriya Kutuzova, Venus Williams vs. Vera Dushevina.

Notable quotes: Second-seeded Andy Murray of Scotland, on why the U.S. Open is the major tournament he most wants to win: "It's just a very, very different atmosphere to the other Grand Slams if you look at the crowds and the way the matches go on center court with the big screen and the music, the stars that come to watch. It tastes a little bit different than the other ones."

Women's defending champion and 2009 Wimbledon winner Serena Williams, on her book that is being released Tuesday: "I'm excited to have a book coming out. I think it's great, it's almost surreal, like, I never thought I would get to this point in my life and just have an opportunity to write. I love writing and then actually to have an opportunity to have a book coming out, which I think is just beyond cool. So I think it will motivate me to want to do really well here."

-- Diane Pucin

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