The elephant in the room, so far as the women's draw at the U.S. Open is concerned, is the overpowering presence of Serena Williams. Hope took root two weeks ago in Cincinnati, where Li Na pushed Williams to the limit before losing in the semifinals, then world No. 2 Victoria Azarenka pushed Williams over the edge, winning a third-set tiebreaker for the title.
But Williams never has won a title in Cincinnati, and here at the Billie Jean King Tennis Center in Flushing, where she has four titles, she's a force of nature. Azarenka went three sets Tuesday in a fourth-round win over Ana Ivanovic and Li required three sets in a quarterfinal triumph over Ekaterina Makarova, then the Williams steamroller leveled Carla Suarez Navarro, 6-0, 6-0, in the quarterfinals Tuesday night. It is only the second time since 1968 in women's singles that an opponent was defeated 6-0, 6-0 in quarterfinals or later.
Williams has lost a grand total of 13 games in her first five wins in this Open, and she is No. 1 in service games won, holding serve 97 percent of the time (35 of 36). After the match, Williams cited her experience in the windy conditions at Arthur Ashe Stadium, saying, "I've been playing here like 50 years." Asked if she's peaking, Williams said: "No, not yet. I hope not."
Li ranks third in service games won at 83 percent (40 of 48), and Azarenka dropped to 21st at 74 percent (32 of 43) after winning only seven of her 14 service games in a 4-6, 6-3, 6-4 fourth-round win that was pushed back a day by Monday's rain. But the fact is that neither Li nor Azarenka is playing at the same level as Williams.
After Li topped Makarova, 6-4, 6-7 (5), 6-2, to become the first woman from China to reach the Open semis, she said, "I always try to be the first one . . . It was exciting." But as for the way she played, Li frowned and said: "I'm not so happy. Today's the first time I was feeling so nervous."
Li's nerves showed when she was up a mini-break in the second-set tiebreaker and recorded one of her eight double faults. But after losing her serve three times in the second set, Li steadied herself with a flawless final set. Asked how well she must serve to compete with Williams in Thursday's semifinal, Li said, "If you only think about what opponent is doing, you already lose match before you come on court."
Azarenka said it was "remarkable" she beat Ivanovic while playing less than her best. But the truth is that neither player could hold serve. They broke each other in seven straight games at one stretch. "I think we're just great returners," Azarenka said with a laugh. "It's as simple as that . . . There is a lot of room to improve, but I don't think my serve was a deal breaker in those games I lost today."
Azarenka, who won her second straight Australian Open in January, faces a quarterfinal Wednesday against Daniela Hantuchova. She's trying not to look ahead to a potential rematch of last year's Open final loss to Williams. Asked if she's at the same level now that she was in Cincinnati, Azarenka didn't try to pretend. "That's a little bit silly to compare," she said. "I never search for the feeling I had maybe in Cincinnati or the Australian Open. It's not going to feel the same way."
No, this U.S. Open has the feeling of a Williams walkover.