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Jury is still out on Serena

NEW YORK -- We are happy to report that Serena Williams is back on top of her game.

On Monday night at the U.S. Open, Williams broke new fashion ground -- which, of course, is saying something. She took the court at Arthur Ashe Stadium wearing a searingly short pleated denim skirt with a form-fitting studded black tank top cut high enough to feature her pierced naval. The ensemble was accessorized with a black headband, armband and quasi-Mary Janes to match. The effect was sort of a biker-school girl hybrid.

The condition of her tenuous tennis game? It's hard to say. Williams worked over Sandra Kleinova of the Czech Republic 6-1, 6-3 in a tidy 53 minutes. But Kleinova is ranked No. 84 on the WTA Tour and now sports a 7-23 record in singles this year. Maybe it was Serena's rig that kept Kleinova off balance.

"I tried not to look at it," Kleinova explained later.

Would she wear an outfit like that?

"No," Kleinova said. "I'm not that kind of person. It's her style. At least it's better than the [pink 'Pirates of the Caribbean'] one she wore at the French Open. My friend played her there and couldn't stop laughing."

In a U.S. Open marked by the emergence of Maria Sharapova, the return of Justine Henin-Hardenne and the possible impending retirement of Lindsay Davenport, Serena Williams has flown, improbably, under the radar. Among a rather expansive collection of Open questions, she might be the biggest.

Williams, who missed eight months following knee surgery, has won only one title in the last year -- Miami back in early April. After losing to Sharapova in the Wimbledon final and Davenport in the Los Angeles final, Williams hadn't hit an official WTA Tour ball in five weeks. The pain in her left knee caused her to withdraw from, in order, San Diego, Montreal and the Olympics in Athens, Greece.

And now, here is Williams at the National Tennis Center, scene of her first Grand Slam victory, as a 17-year-old in 1999. So, Serena, how is the old knee holding up?

"I'm feeling pretty good out there," Williams said, vaguely. "I think I performed at a decent level. I've been working really, really hard. I'm finally getting to the point where I'm actually playing better and focusing better."

For a period of 15 months not so very long ago, Williams seemed unbeatable.

She won four consecutive Grand Slam singles titles -- the 2002 French Open, Wimbledon and U.S. Open and the 2003 Australian Open -- then reached the semifinals at Roland Garros and won at Wimbledon. The run was good (very good) for five Slam championships in a span of six played. Williams was the dominant player in tennis and her performance could only be measured against history.

And then her left knee collapsed under the stress. A partial tear in her quadriceps was repaired on Aug. 1, 2003 -- you can see the ugly two-inch scar just above her kneecap -- but the collateral fallout is still being felt.

"I expected to win everything," Serena said last Friday. "But then I realized that you can't just come back where you left off, no matter how hard I tried."

While Henin-Hardenne was winning last year's U.S. Open and this year's Australian Open -- giving her three of four major titles -- Williams sat out both of those Grand Slam events. When she finally returned, there was immediate success in Miami but it was, perhaps, too easy. Williams withdrew before her third-round match in Charleston and, despite her sturdy 28-5 record, has not been her dominant self.

Jennifer Capriati, who had lost to Williams in eight consecutive matches, beat her in the semifinals at Rome and, 16 days later, in the quarterfinals at Roland Garros. The loss to Davenport in Los Angeles and the subsequent five-week sabbatical couldn't have helped Williams' confidence.

Williams is technically the No. 3 seed here, but her WTA ranking is a lowly No. 11; she received a protected ranking because of her injury. Serena's sister Venus, for example, is ranked No. 12 and was seeded No. 11. It's an important point, for Serena has an exceptionally easy draw into the quarterfinals, where she could meet No. 8 Capriati. If form holds, Amelie Mauresmo, the No. 2 seed, would await in the semifinals.

Against Kleinova, Williams looked reasonably sharp; she held a ludicrous 35-3 edge in winners. Her serve was solid.

"She served really well," Kleinova said. "It's hard to return -- even for the guys."

Williams warmed up with leg wraps that looked suspiciously like boots, before electing to peel off the top section. She'll probably wait until the European indoor season to play in those knee-high boots.

"This is a 'Rebel Without a Cause Line,' " Williams explained. "There's no cause for me to be such a rebel that I'm being right now."

Is she irritated that it's been more than a year since she won a Grand Slam title?

"No," Williams said. "I haven't even thought about it. I also have never had major surgery and been out for a long time and not picked up a racket for a long time. So it's definitely not like I've been playing and playing and actually had an incredible 12 months."

Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.