Serena understudies rush to hold court

In defeat, Eugenie Bouchard spoke of her stronger-than-ever hunger to win a first Grand Slam title. In victory, Petra Kvitova, the soft-spoken and newly minted Wimbledon champ, said she would try everything she could to attain the No. 1 ranking.

And with that, the gnawing sensation of worry for women's tennis dissipated a little further. Like women's golf, which now has an exciting and motivated group of players capable of making each tournament interesting and captivating a once-apathetic audience, women's tennis appears to be on the precipice of great things.

AP Photo/Sang Tan

Serena Williams loves nothing more than to prove people wrong, but whatever was ailing her could be cause for alarm.

No longer do I fear the entire tour rests on Serena Williams' shoulders.

This does not mean Williams plans to or should retire. It does not mean she will never win another Grand Slam title. But for the first time in a long time, I am not automatically penciling in her name as my champion before every Slam with the knowledge that she could win, should win and, come on, how in the world can we consider anyone else?

Clearly, this is also a weird time in women's tennis given we have no idea whatsoever the physical or emotional condition of the top-ranked player in the game.

To review, Williams left the Wimbledon doubles tournament in a state her camp termed a "viral illness," and this was indeed a strange one, rendering her unable to so much as bounce a tennis ball and catch it and making her look as if she had never picked up a racket before.

It was jarring and more than a little scary to watch. Not the first time Williams' status has been uncertain, certainly. The woman could have died from a pulmonary embolism a few years ago, so surely she has been in less-than-optimum condition before.

The difference now? Several things.

Observers, and even Williams herself, have questioned her commitment to tennis before. Over the past decade, she has developed many outside interests, started businesses, likely even suffered some career burnout.

In the long run, this helped her tennis. Her time off preserved her legs. And she was able to come back refreshed, reprogram and turn it on at will. Her superior skills were there when she needed them and at her best or even near-best, she was always better than the rest of the pack.

Even when she was out, she never seemed down emotionally. Quite the contrary. Williams seemed excited for all the other possibilities and seemingly thrived on the challenge of regaining her spot on top, reminding everyone it didn't matter how long she was gone, that as soon as she was back they'd know it.

Her commitment even as recently as after her second-round loss at the French was quite evident based on her comments, when she said she would work hard so as to never lose again.

But at almost 33, it's not so easy to flip the switch, as we saw at Wimbledon and Williams' third-round loss to No. 25 seed Alize Cornet. More important, the top players -- and evidently, even the Cornets of the world -- are no longer intimidated by Williams before they even take the court.

That was a significant advantage for Williams. Even Kvitova, one of the few players with the raw power to defeat Williams on equal terms, has never been able to do it. And do we need to mention Maria Sharapova, who hasn't been able to beat Serena in 10 years?

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After losing to Serena Williams in the past two US Open finals, this could be the year for Victoria Azarenka in New York.

Kvitova's eyes had to have been huge when she saw Williams go out at Wimbledon and that quarter of the draw open up. And players such as Kvitova, the wonderfully talented French Open finalist Simona Halep and the gritty Bouchard are gaining only more invaluable experience as they play in Grand Slam finals -- spots essentially vacated by Williams -- and emerging that much more capable in the future of taking on Williams and playing big matches in general.

Among those who may make my US Open ballot are Victoria Azarenka, runner-up to Williams the past two years, coming back from a foot injury and someone who loves playing in New York. Beyond that, Australian Open champ and last year's US Open semifinalist Li Na is ranked No. 2 and usually a factor; 2008 French Open champ Ana Ivanovic, who has emerged again this year, is someone to keep an eye on, as is American Sloane Stephens, who has the skills if not yet the consistency to compete at the top.

As for Williams, she always has had certain emotional frailties and is more vulnerable than most realize (see: 2012 French Open and her first-round collapse to Virginie Razzano). But she has largely been able to rely on her enormous talent to overcome the nervous tension.

It is therefore that much more jarring now to see her in a somewhat fragile state. But like many great athletes (Michael Jordan was one), Williams has thrived on proving people wrong. She has been written off many times before (see: '04, '06, '07 and '12 after that loss to Razzano) and come back to prove us wrong.

It makes all of this that much more interesting to see how it plays out.

And women's tennis all the more compelling because of it.

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