Serena Williams better than ever

We've seen the reinvention so many times we've become a bit numb: Serena Williams makes another improbable comeback -- from serious injury, a basic lack of interest, whatever -- and returns to her spot as the best women's tennis player in the world. Ho hum.

But step back a moment and consider what's happened in 2012:

Williams won the Wimbledon title and Olympic singles and doubles gold medals in a span of five weeks -- and she'll turn 31 next month. Roger Federer, also 30, won Wimbledon with a back-to-the-future burst and is the No. 1-ranked ATP World Tour player.

But, unlike Serena, he is not the overwhelming U.S. Open favorite.

"I've got one number for you," said ESPN tennis analyst Brad Gilbert. "Seventeen. That's all you need to know."

He's right.

That was the number of games Williams dropped in six matches in London, a ludicrous number.

That's an average of a 6-1, 6-2 victory -- against the best players in the world, motivated by a rare opportunity for an Olympic medal.

Williams squashed world No. 1 Victoria Azarenka by that average score 6-1, 6-2, then smoked No. 3 and French Open champion Maria Sharapova 6-0, 6-1 in a 63-minute final. Sharapova would have been the WTA's top-ranked player had she won.

"I don't know what that says about her -- or her competitors," Gilbert mused. "To see someone rip through people like that on a surface where it's harder to beat people … she made the last two opponents look like they were nonexistent. Watching the Sharapova match you're thinking, 'This could be love and love.' That was really remarkable."

Serena completed the career "Golden Slam," joining Steffi Graf (who won gold at the 1988 Seoul Olympics) as the only players to win all four majors and an Olympic singles title. Sharapova has lost her past eight matches to Williams, a streak that goes back seven years.

Here's another slice of context:

As a 17-year-old in her second professional season, Williams -- sporting hundreds of white beads in her hair -- blitzed the 1999 U.S. Open field to win her first major title. She beat 16-year-old Kim Clijsters (ranked No. 98 in the world) in the third round and Conchita Martinez in the fourth. In her last three matches, Serena beat No. 4-ranked Monica Seles, No. 2 Lindsay Davenport and No. 1 Martina Hingis.

That was 13 years ago.

In her first run as the WTA's No. 1 player, Williams won Wimbledon in 2002, part of the Serena Slam that would bring her four straight major titles over two years.

She was the top player for 57 straight weeks but then stepped away from the throne for more than five years.

Seven women -- including Amelie Mauresmo, Jelena Jankovic and Ana Ivanovic -- were ranked No. 1 while Serena battled a nagging knee injury. Williams returned to No. 1 in September 2008 after winning the U.S. Open and traded places at the top a number of times with Dinara Safina before launching a 47-week stay atop the rankings.

A severe foot injury in July 2010 and a series of well-documented health scares forced her to miss three consecutive majors.

Now Williams has won 17 straight matches and 34 of her past 35; a stunning loss to Virginie Razzano in the first round at Roland Garros is her only lapse in concentration. Williams is not currently No. 1 (she's No. 4), but there is no doubt she's playing the best tennis on the planet, regardless of gender.

"At her very best, the way she's playing, it's the highest level that's ever been played by a woman," said Justin Gimelstob, who will be on hand in New York for Tennis Channel. "If she's healthy and mentally engaged, everyone else is playing for second."

Can anyone beat her at the U.S. Open? Even the loquacious Gilbert momentarily found himself at a loss for words when the question came up.

"I mean," he began. "No. After the French, she really hasn't had an off day. She dropped a couple of sets early at Wimbledon, but the only way she can lose is by having a flat day, you know, struggling against someone unheralded in the early rounds. She's a massive favorite -- like by three touchdowns."