Serena's one true U.S. Open challenger is Victoria Azarenka
Back into the Serena Arena we go. Another Grand Slam event, another U.S. Open, and when it comes to pre-tournament favorites, boldface names, talk of all-time tennis greats, there is no getting away from Serena Williams as Topic A.
Williams, of course, is the Open's defending champion, holder of 16 major-tournament titles. She is closing in on the Grand Slam totals of Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova (18 apiece), Helen Wills Moody (19), Steffi Graf (22) and Margaret Court (24).
Though Williams is nowhere near Graf's record of 377 consecutive weeks as the world's top-ranked player -- Williams' best streak is 123 weeks -- that in part is because Williams typically plays a lighter tour schedule than her contemporaries. And she is approaching $50 million in career prize money, easily the most in history.
More to the point, because her winnings reflect a dramatic increase in tournament payouts, it is how the search for a true Williams challenger goes on. So far, without real success.
Victoria Azarenka, the 24-year-old Belarussian who has won the last two Australian Open titles and pushed Williams to three sets in last year's U.S. Open final, may be the best candidate. It was Azarenka who finished 2012 as the No. 1 player and led all women in match victories (69).
But, again, her lead over Williams in that category is a function of a busier schedule: Azarenka played 79 matches last year, Williams 62. In the end, Williams (58-4, .935) had a better winning percentage than Azarenka (69-10, .873).
Nevertheless, Evert, who these days runs a tennis academy and works as a television commentator, declared Azarenka a "legitimate'' rival to Williams. "I think,'' Evert said, "that Victoria Azarenka is the one player that doesn't fear Serena. Victoria is like a street fighter out there. She's hungry. Hard courts are her best surface.
"What she does better than anybody else against Serena is the moving and the court coverage. She can run down Serena's power and defuse it with her own power. I love the fearlessness of Azarenka.''
In career head-to-head meetings, Williams holds a 12-3 edge over Azarenka. Yet even before Azarenka won their most recent duel -- via a third-set tiebreaker in the Mason, Ohio, final last week -- she proclaimed Williams a favorite opponent.
"I feel our matches make me grow,'' Azarenka said. "So I would take that. Growth in terms of a tennis player, pushing my limits and assessing what you have to do to be at the top of the game. I think you always take a lot more learning from losses, and I've lost quite a few to her.''
It long has been self-evident that Williams concentrates her greatest effort on Grand Slam events; that although she has endured some surprising upsets at the hands of lowly-ranked players in smaller tournaments, the tennis community has not wavered from considering her No. 1 regardless of the actual ranking number she carries.
"She's got so much willpower, it's amazing," said Martina Hingis, who is dabbling in a second comeback as a doubles player at 32 -- 13 years since she was the top-ranked player.
Of the 31-year-old Williams, Hingis said, "I really admire how she can get out there and motivate herself all the time, over and over, after all these years."
Perhaps Azarenka or some other come-lately can begin to test her. Meanwhile, Williams remains her sport's headliner. And it sounded like a warning when she said last week, "I plan on playing a long, long time. We'll see how it goes."