- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 1, 2009

NEW YORK | At times throughout her career, Serena Williams has looked distracted, uninterested, aloof - or even out of shape - on the tennis court.

This is not one of those times.

Williams entered the U.S. Open as the prohibitive favorite, looking focused and confident in her pursuit of a third major title of the year to add to earlier victories at Wimbledon and the Australian Open.

“My focus is always different in Grand Slams,” Williams said Saturday. “I feel like, you know, this is it, and I really just get super disappointed when I lose in a Grand Slam. At the other tournaments I get desperately disappointed, but then I feel like there’s next week, and I try harder, and then there’s the next week.”

Indeed, Williams - who recorded an easy 6-4, 6-1 win Monday over 19-year-old Alexa Glatch in her opening match - followed a familiar path this year, dominating the Grand Slams but finding less success in lower-tier tournaments - an approach that cost her a chance at the No. 1 ranking this year.

That distinction instead belongs to Dinara Safina, a Russian veteran who still is seeking her first Grand Slam title.

Safina ascended the rankings via her success in clay-court events this spring. Her shaky showing in the spotlight of Grand Slam semifinals and finals - and her 0-4 record against Williams in the majors - illustrate the difference between being ranked No. 1 and being the world’s best player.

“I don’t think there’s any doubt in anybody’s mind that Serena Williams is the best player,” said Cliff Drysdale, an ESPN tennis analyst. “In addition to that, Dinara is really struggling. She is going to have a rough time, and I would be very surprised if she makes it to the semifinals.”

Safina admits to being weary after a long season, and her second-round loss to unheralded Aravane Rezai at a warmup tournament in Toronto gave credence to suggestions that she is not in top form.

So if Safina doesn’t challenge Williams in New York, who will?

The roster of potential challengers isn’t deep. Williams’ biggest threat may be her sister, Venus, who won the title in 2000 and 2001. The sisters have met four times at the U.S. Open, with each winning twice.

Fourth-seeded Elena Dementieva, who held a match point against Serena Williams in a thrilling semifinal at Wimbledon before falling in three sets, is another threat. The sturdy Russian avenged that loss by beating Williams en route to the title in Toronto last month. Like Safina, she is seeking her first Grand Slam title.

“She doesn’t need to do much different,” four-time U.S. Open winner Martina Navratilova said of Dementieva. “She just needs to apply the pressure. Hard courts are her best surface. … Once the ball is in play, she is tough to beat. I think she will be really confident. For her, the pressure to win a Grand Slam is much less than Safina at this time. She doesn’t need to do much different, just keep going.”

But after Williams and Dementieva, question marks abound. Svetlana Kuznetsova has looked shaky since winning the French Open in May. Jelena Jankovic, ranked No. 1 less than a year ago, has yet to make it past the fourth round of a Grand Slam this year, though she did beat Safina to win the title in Cincinnati.

“They haven’t been able to keep up emotionally and mentally,” Navratilova said. “They put too much pressure on themselves in the Slams. They have not stepped up mentally as well as they can. You know Venus and Serena always bring it on. … But that’s where you feel the gap.”

A U.S. Open title for Serena Williams would be her fourth and would give her the fourth-most Grand Slam singles titles in history behind Steffi Graf, Chris Evert and Navratilova. It also would make her just the sixth woman to win three Grand Slams in the same year on at least two occasions.

“I’m really a perfectionist,” she said. “And I feel like every practice I just work so hard and I try so hard, and so I feel like I have been having my best practices, but I think my dad’s like, ‘You’re doing great.’ My mom’s like, ‘You’re doing awesome.’ So it helps me. I just need to make sure I stay relaxed.”

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