U.S. Open: Five women's tournament storylines

Irene who? With a hurricane bearing down on the East Coast and three days to go until the start of the 2011 U.S. Open, here are five women's tournament storylines to watch:

Who else but Serena Williams?

A little more than a year has passed since Serena Williams, then ranked No. 1 in the world and fresh off her fourth Wimbledon championship, stepped on a piece of glass at a Munich restaurant and turned women's tennis into a free-for-all. Her cut foot required two surgeries, which were followed by an emergency operation in March to remove a blood clot from her lung. Williams missed 49 weeks and three consecutive Grand Slam tournaments.

A year later, Williams seems poised to restore the natural order atop the women's game. Although the layoff (and resulting loss of rankings points) leaves her seeded No. 28 going into the U.S. Open, which begins Monday at Flushing Meadows, Williams is favored to win her 14th career Grand Slam singles title. It would be her first major victory since she won Wimbledon in 2010, just days before the initial foot injury that led to her year of health problems.

"She committed herself,'' 18-time Grand Slam singles winner and ESPN analyst Chris Evert said of Williams in a teleconference earlier this week. "She practiced. She's won two tournaments. That's unbelievable. It's incredible. 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. I would take a healthy Serena as a heavy favorite in this year's U.S. Open.''

Williams lost in the fourth round of this year's Wimbledon, her second tournament back. But she's looked like the Serena of old in her subsequent tournaments, trouncing Maria Sharapova 6-1, 6-3 en route to the Bank of the West Classic title at Stanford and then winning the Rogers Cup in Toronto on Aug. 14. (She also displayed some familiar Serena-esque antics by pulling out of the tournament in Cincinnati, citing a toe injury, and then showing up at Kim Kardashian's wedding a few days later.) But her high level of play since Wimbledon led many to scoff at the U.S. Open seedings when Williams, who lifted her ranking to No. 29 from a low of 175, was announced as the 28th seed.

Said seven-time Grand Slam singles champion John McEnroe, "Me, personally, I would have put [her] in the top eight without a doubt. I don't know why they didn't do it.''

Sharapova's strong summer

Those hard-pressed to pick anyone besides Williams to win the Open would have to give Maria Sharapova at least an outside shot. A three-time Grand Slam champion who beat Williams to win Wimbledon in 2004 and won the U.S. Open in 2006, Sharapova is enjoying a resurgent summer -- the lopsided loss to Serena in Stanford notwithstanding. Sharapova reached the Wimbledon final, falling to Petra Kvitova, and outlasted Jelena Jankovic to capture the Western & Southern Open in Cincinnati on Aug. 21. Sharapova is No. 4 in the world entering the U.S. Open, her highest ranking since a shoulder injury knocked her out for nine months during 2008-09.

Teen idols

There's been a dearth of top-level talent emerging in American tennis in recent years; it's been Serena and Venus Williams, and then a big drop-off. But a few talented up-and-comers might be quickly closing the gap. Christina McHale, the 19-year-old from New Jersey, was ranked No. 76 when she beat No. 1-ranked Caroline Wozniacki at Cincinnati two weeks ago. Sloane Stephens, 18, from Plantation, Fla., reached the quarterfinals at Carlsbad, Calif., earlier this month. Both will face qualifiers in a kind first-round draw for these American teenagers. But don't expect them to make a deep run just yet.

"Everybody wants to know who the next champion is,'' Evert said. "I'm always caught off guard, because it's like, OK, this is a journey. It's still a long road to becoming the top 10 in the world. And I think it can happen in the next, you know, three years. But right now at this point, I don't see anything happening like this year. But I think there's some really exciting and good, solid tennis players out there in the American field.''

Injuries already a factor

As Serena Williams ascends to the top of women's tennis yet again, the player with perhaps the best chance to challenge her for the U.S. Open title won't be in the field this year. Three-time champion Kim Clijsters missed Wimbledon with an ankle injury, rehabbed it successfully and then pulled an abdominal muscle. The latest injury will prevent the Belgian from defending her title. Williams has tweeted that the swollen toe that forced her out at Cincinnati is fine for the U.S. Open. But her sister's health is anybody's guess. Venus Williams skipped tournaments in Toronto and Cincinnati, her only two warm-up events, with a viral illness. She hasn't played since Wimbledon, where she lost in the fourth round, and there's considerable doubt the 2000 and 2001 champion can make a run here. American Bethanie Mattek-Sands, ranked No. 35, has missed the summer hard-court season with a shoulder injury but is back in the draw.

A major first?

The French Open saw a first-time major winner in Li Na of China. The following month, another woman won her first Grand Slam singles title, as Petra Kvitova beat Sharapova in the Wimbledon final. With Serena Williams back in form, the odds of a third consecutive first-time Grand Slam winner are slim. But you never know. Asked to name some candidates, television analyst Mary Carillo ticked off Sabine Lisicki, the hard-serving German who reached the Wimbledon semifinals, and Marion Bartoli, who knocked off Williams in the fourth round at Wimbledon. And almost as an afterthought, Carillo said, "Let's not forget the world's No. 1 player, let's not forget Caroline Wozniacki, who deserves a mention, for sure.'' That the top seed deserves no more than a mention says a lot about the seeding system -- and about Wozniacki's game right now.

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