By Steve Keating
(Reuters) - Serena Williams will once again be counted on to wave the Stars and Stripes at the U.S. Open as she takes center stage at New York's Flushing Meadows with the next generation of American tennis hopefuls waiting in the wings.
The world number one has always made a point of how special it is to play at home and there is no bigger stage than center court at the U.S. National Tennis Center during the year's final grand slam.
Expectations weigh on Williams but it is a burden she has capably carried on her muscular shoulders since claiming her maiden grand slam on the New York hard courts in 1999 and 14 years later continues to do the heavy-lifting for U.S. tennis.
"I love playing in the USA," said Williams after winning the Western & Southern Open in Cincinnati on Sunday. "Just feels so good it be an American and play in America.
"I love holding up the trophy. For me, there is no better feeling."
Williams has reached the U.S. Open winner's circle five times, including the last two years, and is favored to add a sixth to her collection when the gates swing open on Monday at Flushing Meadows.
She arrives in New York proclaiming to be at the top of her game, riding the momentum from hard court titles in Stanford and Cincinnati that book-end a semi-final appearance in Montreal where she lost to her resurgent sister Venus.
Adding to Williams’s confidence, the path to the Sept. 7 women's final has been cleared of at least one major obstacle with another limping.
The last two years Williams has needed three sets to tame Victoria Azarenka and lift the crown but the Belarusian has missed a large chunk of the current campaign with a foot injury and is a big question mark.
Another potential threat, world number three and Australian Open champion Li Na, will not play in New York due to a knee injury.
"It (Cincinnati) was definitely the best performance of the (summer) hopefully not the last," said Williams. "My first day of practice (at Cincinnati) something just clicked.
"I don't know, I think all the hard work was just paying off.
"This is definitely a level that could take me to the title."
If there is one cloud hanging over Williams's U.S. Open buildup it has been her less than stellar play in the three grand slams where she has failed to reach the quarter-finals.
A fourth round loss at the Australian Open followed by a second round exit at the French and a third round upset at Wimbledon has left the U.S. Open as Williams’s last opportunity this season this to add to her haul of 17 grand slam singles titles.
"To me, Serena’s still at her best, better than everyone else," U.S Fed Cup captain Mary Joe Fernandez told Reuters. "Having said that, we’ve seen her falter at the majors and not be at her best.
"So I think that gives hope to everybody else, that she isn’t invincible."
While the New York fans have provided Williams with a lift, Fernandez says history has laid heavily on her.
A victory at Flushing Meadows would move Williams level with Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova on the all-time list with 18 titles behind only Australian Margaret Court (24) and Steffi Graf (22).
"She’s playing for history now and she gets uptight," said Fernandez. "She’s the first person to admit it.
"She knows the importance of this. She’s going to be 33 years old.
"The window is closing, even though she’ll play, hopefully, a few more years. So each major is precious."
Williams, who will turn 33 on Sept. 26 has dutifully held the fort in recent years, waiting for reinforcements from the next generation of American tennis to arrive.
Help may finally be on the way.
After much despair about the dire state of U.S. tennis eight American women featured in the top 50 of the world rankings going into the year's final grand slam, but there is still unlikely to be any passing of the torch this year.
Williams' big sister Venus is 34 yet remains the second ranked American at number 20. Sloane Stephens is the next best placed American at 22 followed by Madison Keys at 28.
Even with Li out and Azarenka's status uncertain there is plenty of danger lurking up and down the draw.
Maria Sharapova, the 2006 U.S. Open champion, has had a steady if unspectacular buildup to Flushing Meadows while Agnieszka Radwanska will fancy her chances at a maiden grand slam.
Former world number one Caroline Wozniacki will also be eyeing her grand slam breakthrough, the Dane hitting her hard court stride with a title in Istanbul, followed by making the quarter-final in Montreal and semi-final in Cincinnati.
"It’s pretty wide open (after Williams)," said Fernandez. "You have to give next nod to Sharapova because she’s been there before, she’s won five majors, and she’s mentally so tough.
"We saw (Dominika) Cibulkova get to the finals of Australia, (Eugenie) Bouchard get to the finals of Wimbledon. Li Na’s not around, so that’s one less top player.
"If Serena loses, then look out. It’s wide open."
(Additional reporting by Steve Ginsburg. Editing by Gene Cherry)