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Serena separating herself from the rest

TORONTO -- The talk of the tour on the women's side is Serena Williams, who has provided the field with some consistency by winning two tournaments in the past three weeks. It is the first time Williams has won two regular, non-Grand Slam tournaments since 2008, and after nearly a year off with injury and medical problems, she is undefeated since losing in the fourth round of Wimbledon, the second event of her return.

"I guess she makes it look very easy," said Samantha Stosur, after losing 6-4, 6-2 in the Toronto final. "It's not that easy to come back on tour and win two events in your first four tournaments.

"She never throws matches away," Stosur added. "I think to go out there and beat her, you have to beat her."

Though the field is extremely competitive otherwise, not many seem up to this task at the moment. Williams' victories have included two statement wins over Maria Sharapova and Victoria Azarenka, matches that demonstrated not just the strength of Williams' game but also her mental edge against even the top players. She has also cruised against some of this season's breakouts like Sabine Lisicki and Julia Goerges. Williams was tested by dangerous mid-career pros like Jie Zheng and Lucie Safarova in Toronto last week but remained steady and found a little extra at the crucial stages. She has had a little trouble with Marion Bartoli and has yet to face recent Grand Slam winners Li Na or Petra Kvitova, but they, too, look like occasional rather than regular threats at this stage.

Kim Clijsters would be the obvious candidate, but is under an injury cloud after retiring from her opening match in Toronto.

So is a Novak Djokovic-type streak possible for Williams?

"No, I mean, I hope so, one day," she said. "The guy is running every ball down. You know, maybe that's what I need to start doing."

Williams has had her own dominant stretches, winning eight titles and reaching two finals in 2002, but rarely plays a full schedule and has made a habit of saving her best for the Grand Slams. But according to her, health problems that put her career in jeopardy earlier this year may change that.

"My goals have been, you know, just to give it my all at every match and every tournament," Williams said. "Not that it wasn't like that before, but I definitely had a tremendous, tremendous amount of focus in the Grand Slams."

The first test will be whether she plays Cincinnati, which would be her second event in a row and third in four weeks. After winning Sunday, Williams said she planned to play and earlier in the week talked about her evident fitness since returning after Wimbledon. "I just decided if I could be fit, maybe that can be a new level in my game, because I think I've always been, I think, a halfway decent player," she said. "I thought, what haven't I been? I have never really been fit, you know?"

Clijsters' concern

A return from injury resulted in an exit with injury for Clijsters, who retired leading 6-3, 1-2 against Zheng in her opening match in Toronto, pointing to her left side. The problem turned out to be a partial tear of the abdominal muscle, which she first felt when warming up earlier that day. Though Clijsters was reluctant to speculate about her recovery prospects afterward, the mere description of the injury is enough to put her U.S. Open defense in doubt. Even if she does play, the two-time defending champ will be coming in with limited practice time and no warm-up matches except for the set and three games she played Tuesday night.

Before this, Clijsters had played only two matches since March because of the two ankle injuries she had previously sustained in the spring, and the Canadian event was her first since she pulled out of Wimbledon. All in all, she is in a tougher position than in 2009, when she won in Flushing Meadows just three tournaments into her return from retirement. At least then the Belgian had the benefit of having trained fully for several months instead of having to rest an injury, and had played two tournaments beforehand.

Grunts and groans

A few weeks after Wimbledon, officials admitted they were concerned about players' grunting. WTA CEO Stacey Allaster talked about whether the tour is planning to take any action on the issue. Maybe, eventually. "It's on the radar, yes," said Allaster, speaking to reporters before a ceremony honoring her and Agassi in Toronto on Saturday. "We have a hindrance rule. The chair umpire has the authority that if she thinks something is happening from one of the competitors where they're interfering with competition. The reality of it is the athletes themselves are not coming to me, saying, we have an issue.

"I think I'm very fan-centric, and if there is a number of fans who are communicating with us that it's an issue, then it's something that we need to look at.

"The collective challenge is it's very difficult to change the existing athletes, because this is how they've trained, prepared for their entire lives. But I think where we potentially could make collective changes as a sport together with federations like Tennis Canada, with the ITF, is work at the junior level and working [with] coaches to train the athletes slightly differently and be mindful of it."

Virtual success

Having the men's and women's events held simultaneously in Toronto and Montreal instead of back-to-back might not have been an ideal situation for Canadian tournament organizers, but their solution of turning it into a "virtual" joint event showed there could be benefits to better coordinate during all weeks when events are going on in different places. It's become common to see back-to-back ATP and WTA finals on Sundays at this time of year, but this was a full-week version. Canadian television presented the events as if they were one, and though it didn't always take full advantage of the opportunities, the broadcast went back and forth between men's and women's matches the way it usually does at a Grand Slam.

The more unique feature was that spectators on site also virtually got to be at both events. In Toronto, there were 250 televisions showing the action in both cities, and draws and results from both events. The stadium entrances featured two televisions, one showing the men's matches and the other the women's. Both events were also broadcast around the grounds -- and in the player areas.

"The players find it really interesting," Toronto tournament director Karl Hale said. "They've been talking about it -- what's been going on in Montreal."

Now, the "virtual" experience wasn't enough to actually fool anyone, and live tennis naturally took precedence for fans. But the dual broadcasts were invaluable during rain breaks, when fans could retreat under the tents and watch tennis. The tournaments proved remarkably coordinated in this respect during the first few days -- rain in one city meant sunshine in the other, with things clearing up just as rain arrived at the other location. It was enough to get people talking.

"This is how men and women should always work together," laughed Andrea Petkovic.

Some of the players were also tickled by the video link at news conferences that allowed media in both cities to watch and ask questions. "Are you kidding me?" exclaimed Djokovic, looking at the screen. "This is incredible. Hello, Toronto."

There were fewer positive reviews for the staggered scheduling in Montreal, partly used to keep overlap between the men's and women's matches to a minimum but often resulting in long gaps and 5:30 night matches that reportedly began with few people in the stands. But here, too, there was remarkable tandem between the two events. An evening blowout in one city usually meant a long three-setter in the other. And on Saturday, the women's semifinals both finished within minutes of when the men's semifinals were set to begin.

Within Canada, moving from two weeks to one created concerns about reduced exposure time for the game in the country. But for year-round tennis fans who have been frustrated by how little television and streaming integration there has been outside the Grand Slams, this was a breath of fresh air. Even joint events like Indian Wells and Miami have had separate and mutually exclusive broadcasts of ATP and WTA matches. This past week was a template for how each significant week in the calendar could ideally be presented.

Kamakshi Tandon is a freelance tennis writer for ESPN.com.