Only one name matters on the women’s side: Serena Williams, the three-time champion who returns to Flushing Meadows, N.Y., for the first time since her profane outburst led to her default from the 2009 tournament’s semifinals. Seeded a lowly 28th, Williams is the clear favorite nonetheless, having stormed back from a near year-long hiatus forced by injury and illness to dominate the hard-court season.
But first comes a more daunting name: Hurricane Irene, whose strong winds and torrential rains are due to hit Long Island on Sunday, the day before the U.S. Open is scheduled to begin.
Tournament officials took the unprecedented step of canceling Arthur Ashe Kids’ Day on Saturday and announced they’ll shutter the Billie Jean King Tennis Center altogether on Sunday, scuttling the customary pre-event practice sessions and interviews. Meantime, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg ordered an evacuation of the city’s low-lying areas, and all Broadway shows were canceled for the weekend.
All told, it’s an ominous beginning for the season’s final major, which is scheduled to conclude on a somber note, with the men’s championship to be contested on the 10th anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks.
But New Yorkers have a proud record of soldiering on. And when the courts are dried and the debris carted off in Irene’s wake, the U.S. Open will get underway.
No doubt, its spotlight will shine most intently on Williams — particularly with two-time defending champion Kim Clijsters sidelined by injury.
Williams has played in only five tournaments in the last 14 months. And her return to form — reaching Wimbledon’s fourth round and winning back-to-back hard-court tournaments this summer — has been jaw-dropping.
“That’s unbelievable; it’s incredible,” says Chris Evert, who won 18 majors before retiring in 1989 and has returned to the sport as an ESPN analyst. “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.”
Williams’s dominance after being sidelined by foot surgery in 2010 and suffering a pulmonary embolism in February attests to her exceptional qualities as an athlete. But it also says something less impressive about the state of women’s tennis.
None of her rivals seized the opportunity presented by Williams’s hiatus to assert themselves as the world’s best player.
Caroline Wozniacki ascended to the No. 1 ranking more by effort than excellence, competing in so many tournaments that she accumulated enough points to vault ahead of everyone else. But the Dane has yet to win a major, shrinking rather than thriving at important moments. And although she embarks on her fifth U.S. Open campaign as the No. 1 seed, the 21-year-old Wozniacki has been in the news more of late for her budding romance with golfer Rory McIlroy than her on-court triumphs.