- Associated Press - Monday, August 29, 2011

NEW YORK (AP) - When third-seeded Maria Sharapova looks at the list of top contenders for the U.S. Open, here’s what she sees:

_Serena Williams, seeded 28th and on the comeback trail, and her sister, Venus, unseeded and barely on the radar this year.

_A top seed, Caroline Wozniacki, who has never won a Grand Slam and a No. 2 seed, Vera Zvonareva, who has won a total of eight games in her two major finals.

_And she won’t see the name of two-time defending champion, Kim Clijsters, who last week said she wouldn’t be in New York because of a freshly injured stomach muscle.

Clijsters‘ withdrawal was the latest bit of news that _ on paper, at least _ appeared to open things up for Sharapova, a three-time major winner who, of late, has been playing her best tennis since shoulder surgery derailed her in late 2008.

“I can’t really think like that,” Sharapova said when asked how Clijsters‘ absence might help her chances for a second title at Flushing Meadows. “I don’t think that’s a mindset of a winner, to be honest. You’ve got to be ready to face anyone at any given moment.”

On Monday, Sharapova will open against Heather Watson, the 104th-ranked 19-year-old from Britain making her U.S. Open debut.

Also opening play Monday is fifth-seeded Petra Kvitova, who beat Sharapova in the Wimbledon finals earlier this summer, further cementing the argument that there are no sure things, or dominant players, at the current time in women’s tennis.

“She was able to find an answer, you know, in things that I kind of challenged her with,” Sharapova said. “It was a really great match for her at a big stage. That’s the only way you can really look at it.”

And yet, since that 6-3, 6-4 win over Sharapova at Wimbledon, Kvitova has won a total of two matches.

“I think she’s a good enough player to find her form back here,” Sharapova said.

After missing the better part of a year with a series of ailments that started when she got cut by glass at a restaurant in July 2010, Serena Williams is rounding into form. Earlier this month, she won tournaments in Stanford and Toronto and is 16-2 since June. Even as the 28th seed, she is widely considered the woman to beat.

“I’m just here to play one match, and the next match, and hopefully I can get to seven wins,” Williams said last week.

Play was set to begin largely on schedule Monday despite Hurricane Irene, which washed out practice days over the weekend. The only exception is in Arthur Ashe Stadium, where the first match will begin at 1 p.m. instead of 11 a.m., as workers prepare the stadium, which had been battened down for the hurricane.

Headlining action Monday night are Venus Williams and third-seeded Roger Federer, who is trying to avoid going 0 for 4 in Grand Slams for the first time since 2002.

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