- Associated Press - Saturday, August 27, 2011

NEW YORK (AP) - Remember when Serena Williams was chastised for not taking tennis seriously enough?

For picking and choosing where to play and when to expend full effort? For not devoting herself fully to the sport and instead taking time to dabble in acting, fashion design or other interests?

Well, maybe she knew exactly what she was doing all along, because it certainly appears as though it’s all worked out pretty well on the court. After nearly a full year off thanks to a series of health scares, Williams is right back at the top of her game _ and she can prove that at the U.S. Open.

“I’m just here to play one match, and the next match, and hopefully I can get to seven wins,” Williams said, referring to the number of victories required to win a Grand Slam title. “That’s what I’m here for.”

The season’s last Grand Slam tournament is scheduled to start Monday, so long as Hurricane Irene doesn’t get in the way. On Saturday, light rain chased players off the practice courts before noon. Workers prepared for the approaching storm, “taking away anything that was not secured to the ground,” U.S. Tennis Association spokesman Chris Widmaier said. The entire USTA National Tennis Center was to be shut no later than 5 p.m. Saturday, and closed to the public Sunday.

Some players who originally were scheduled to hold pre-tournament news conferences Saturday did not, including top-ranked Novak Djokovic and Williams, who hasn’t played in New York since her profanity-laced, racket-brandishing tirade at a line judge after a foot-fault call at the end of a loss to Kim Clijsters in the 2009 semifinals.

The 29-year-old American missed last year’s U.S. Open during a lengthy absence from the tour after two foot operations from getting cut by glass at a restaurant in July 2010, then clots in her lungs, and then a gathering of blood under the skin of her stomach.

Since returning to action in June at a grass-court tuneup for Wimbledon, she has gone 16-2, making her the woman to watch in New York, along with Maria Sharapova (whose three major titles include the 2006 U.S. Open). Two-time reigning champion Clijsters, meanwhile, withdrew with a stomach muscle injury.

Most of the attention in the men’s field is, as usual, on the top trio of Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer, who have combined to win 25 of the past 26 Grand Slam championships.

New No. 1 Djokovic is having one of the greatest tennis seasons in history: 57-2 with nine titles, including at Wimbledon and the Australian Open.

“Impressive, to say the least,” Federer said Saturday. “He’s done amazing to have a run like that, especially after losing here in the finals last year” against Nadal.

Williams leads all active women with 13 major singles titles, the sixth-highest total in history, and won the U.S. Open in 1999, 2002 and 2008.

Showing off a renewed dedication to fitness and those same old stinging serves _ the most dangerous in women’s tennis _ and powerful groundstrokes, Williams won tournaments at Stanford and Toronto this month on hard courts, the surface used in New York. They were her first consecutive titles since 2008.

“She committed herself. She practiced. She’s won two tournaments. That’s unbelievable. It’s incredible,” 18-time major champion Chris Evert said. “Not to undermine the rest of the field, but it just shows that she’s head and shoulders above anybody else, again, when she’s healthy.”

Evert was among those who wondered aloud in the past about Williams‘ dedication to tennis, writing an open letter to her in Tennis Magazine. That was in early 2006, when Williams was in the midst of a stretch during which she entered only seven of 12 Grand Slam tournaments, winning one.

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