Knee injury prompts heightened effort

NEW YORK -- The first thing you notice is the scar.

It's a jagged 2-inch line running just above Serena Williams' left knee, a reminder of the surgery that sidelined her for the last half of 2003 and the start of this season.

She has another reminder: the pain in that knee, keeping her off
the tour for the last month, forcing her to skip the Olympics, and
seemingly making her as vulnerable as she's been in years heading
to the U.S. Open, which starts Monday.

Don't be so sure about that last part, though. Asked how close
she is to being all the way back, Williams said: "Probably about
90 percent right now, maybe 95."

"I've been able to prepare a lot. Once I realized I wasn't
going to the Olympics, I've just been in the gym every day, twice a
day. And then, finally, I've been spending some time on the
court," she said in an interview Friday.

"It was a lot of work that I didn't necessarily want to do, but
I had to do it because I wanted to be here. So I did it. And I'm

Williams wasn't able to defend her 2002 U.S. Open title; the
Aug. 1, 2003, operation prevented that.

She returned to action in March at Key Biscayne, Fla., winning
her first tournament -- her only title in the past 12 months. Her
older sister Venus missed six months with an abdominal strain, then
was hampered this season by other injuries.

Serena hasn't won a major in 14 months, Venus in three years.

"They've always been capable of turning it on. In this
situation, it is a little bit different because when you've had
injuries, and you're out for so long, the other players are not
afraid of you. Their games are improving and they keep moving on,"
U.S. Fed Cup captain Zina Garrison said.

"Right now, it's gotten to the point the other players are not
afraid of them. They don't have that dominance that they had

That might be true, but as Serena put it Friday after a
10-minute promotional appearance at Niketown, showing off bootlike
sneakers she might wear to warm up on court at the Open: "I don't
see anyone saying, 'Oh, I play Serena Williams! Yes!"'

The pleasure of facing Serena in the first round Monday night at
Arthur Ashe Stadium goes to Sandra Kleinova of the Czech Republic,
who's ranked 83rd and carries a 7-22 record in 2004.

Serena is 28-5 this season; her ranking fell out of the top 10.
Not quite up to the unbelievable standards she set while reaching
No. 1 in the rankings and winning six Grand Slam titles, including
four straight.

She's 24-2 at the Open since 1999, including two titles. The
only losses: to Lindsay Davenport in the 2000 quarterfinals, and to
Venus in the 2001 final.

"I feel like I have nothing to lose. I really feel really,
really relaxed, and that's the best feeling in the world," Serena
said. "I've put a lot pressure on myself. I expected to win
everything. But then I realized that you can't just come back where
you left off, no matter how hard I tried."

Her path at the Open could include a quarterfinal against
another former No. 1, Jennifer Capriati. When they played at that
stage at the French Open, Capriati sent Serena to her earliest exit
at a major in more than four years.

Then, at Wimbledon, Serena appeared to be at the height of her
powers through six matches, dominating opponents right up until the
final. That's where she ran into Maria Sharapova, the 17-year-old
Siberian-turned-Floridian who won in straight sets.

That match came up this week, when Sharapova was asked about who
could provide the strongest challenge at the Open.

"I think everybody can be a threat," Sharapova said. "I mean,
I don't want to put out a name. You just never know. Sometimes you
think somebody is going to be a big threat, like when I played in
the final of Wimbledon, and then all of a sudden it turned around,
and it seemed sort of easy."

It's been quite some time since anyone spoke about a match
against Serena Williams that way.