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Serena Williams faces steep climb in what is probably her final U.S. Open

Serena Williams practices at Arthur Ashe Stadium before the start of the U.S. Open tennis tournament in New York, Thursday, Aug. 25, 2022. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

Serena Williams has stared down all manner of challenges in her tennis career, but she has never faced a major tournament quite like this one.

When the U.S. Open begins Monday in New York, it will probably mark the final stop on a farewell tour for one of the greatest athletes of all time. Williams will open her 21st appearance at Flushing Meadows against world No. 80 Danka Kovinic, whom she has never faced. The pair will play Monday, probably in prime time.

Kovinic, a native of Montenegro, has never advanced beyond the third round at a major, which she reached at the Australian Open and French Open this year.

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Williams, whose retirement announcement this month drove U.S. Open ticket sales sky high, is the jewel in an ever-dwindling collection of tennis giants at the year’s final major. Four-time U.S. Open champion Rafael Nadal is aiming for his third major championship of 2022 after withdrawing from Wimbledon ahead of his semifinal match because of an abdominal injury. Two-time U.S. Open champion Naomi Osaka also will compete.

Both of the world’s top-ranked players, Iga Swiatek and Daniil Medvedev, will play. Medvedev, who beat Novak Djokovic in last year’s U.S. Open final for his first Grand Slam trophy, missed Wimbledon because of the All-England Club’s ban of Russian players.

But neither Djokovic nor Roger Federer will make an appearance in New York. Federer’s absence is no surprise. The 41-year-old is recovering from knee surgery and has not competed in a major this year. He last played the U.S. Open in 2019.

Djokovic, who said after Wimbledon he would not get the coronavirus vaccine, announced Thursday he will miss the year’s final major. The United States requires proof of vaccination for nonimmigrant noncitizens to enter the country, meaning Djokovic’s major trophy tally will sit at 21 — compared with Nadal’s 22 and Federer’s 20 — until next year.

For Williams, Kovinic is merely one part of a grand challenge waiting for her in New York.

In addition to her own emotions in the moment and what will surely be an impassioned, sellout crowd at Arthur Ashe Stadium when she plays, the 23-time major champion has struggled mightily on court recently.

Williams, who turns 41 next month, has not resembled the player who once ruled tennis for some time. She has turned her attention increasingly away from sports and toward her family and flourishing business career in recent years, playing just four singles matches since Wimbledon in 2021. She hasn’t won two consecutive matches since the 2021 French Open, where she advanced to the fourth round.

Her most recent match was a 65-minute loss against defending U.S. Open champion Emma Raducanu in Cincinnati last week. Her play was riddled with uncharacteristic errors, and her serve — the powerful, defining element of her game that revolutionized modern women’s tennis — often failed her. She played the match with a strip of athletic tape on her leg, apparently to ease left knee pain that reportedly caused the match to be delayed by one day.

Should Williams defeat the 27-year-old Kovinic, world No. 2 Anett Kontaveit of Estonia probably awaits her in the second round.

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Elsewhere in the draw, Osaka will face No. 19 seed Danielle Collins, the Virginia graduate who captured the tennis world’s attention as a surprise semifinalist at the Australian Open in 2019. Collins lost to Ashleigh Barty in the final in Melbourne this year. The pair are in the same quarter of the draw as Raducanu and Venus Williams.

No. 12 seed Coco Gauff sits in No. 3 seed Maria Sakkari’s quarter along with two-time major champion and No. 7 seed Simona Halep.

In the men’s draw, No. 2 seed Nadal will face Rinky Hijikata of Australia in the first round. Top-seeded Medvedev will face 24-year-old American Stefan Kozlov and 2020 U.S. Open champion Dominic Thiem faces a stiff matchup against No. 12 seed Pablo Carreño Busta. Three-time major champion Andy Murray will have a difficult test against No. 24 seed Francisco Cerundolo.

World No. 2 Alexander Zverev announced Monday he will not compete as he continues to recover from a brutal ankle injury suffered during his French Open semifinal against Nadal.

The most intriguing first-round men’s match may be No. 23 seed Nick Kyrgios against his countryman, doubles partner and good friend Thanasi Kokkinakis.