NEW YORK – Whether or not she ends up holding the trophy at the end, Serena Williams has no competition at the U.S. Open this year.
She is the top personality, the woman to watch in a sport that has struggled of late to find, and hold onto, a compelling star.
Part of it is because of the basic numbers — Williams has 13 Grand Slam titles compared to the grand total of zero from the other seven women left in the field.
Part of it is the image — a mercurial and physically intimidating presence on the court, who can charm people when she's off of it.
"There are certain people who are pretty special," said Tracy Austin, who was one of those people back in her day, "and sometimes we don't appreciate it 'til they're gone."
Play on Tuesday was washed out when a slow-moving rainstorm moved over the Big Apple and forced tournament officials to push several matches involving top players — Andy Roddick, Andy Murray and Caroline Wozniacki — onto outside courts when play resumes.
Williams, though, will be on center stage, as usual, and figures to be for the rest of the week. A favorite coming into the tournament, her odds have only grown shorter — 4-11 at some sports books in Europe — as the other "big names" in her sport have lost (Maria Sharapova), withdrawn (Serena's sister, Venus) or failed to show up (Kim Clijsters).
"Of course there's a chance. That's why you play in sports," Austin said when asked if anyone else could even dream of beating Williams this week. "But it's a smaller chance. I've said in the past that I thought a certain player was a favorite, maybe Serena was the favorite or Justine (Henin) was a favorite. But I can't remember a time in a while when there was as big a gap between Serena, the favorite, and the rest.
"For her to lose the U.S. Open, she's going to have to have a really bad day and someone else is going to have to have a day where they're just really in the zone."
The candidates include Wozniacki, who has been to only one Grand Slam final, and No. 2 Vera Zvonareva, who has been to two Grand Slam finals and won a total of eight games, five of them against Williams at Wimbledon last year. Also last year, Zvonareva fell 6-2, 6-1 to Clijsters, the two-time defending champion who would have likely been Williams' best competition here had she not pulled out before the tournament with an injury.
It was two years ago, when Clijsters played Williams in the semifinals, that Williams got mad at a line judge who called a foot fault against her on a second serve when she was two points away from losing the match. The tirade that followed earned her a point penalty that ended her stay at Flushing Meadows.
She missed last year's U.S. Open after stepping on broken glass in a restaurant in Germany. She had two foot surgeries, blood clots in her lungs and surgery for a stomach hematoma before returning to play in June. This could be the first time she's been at full health since she won the 2010 Wimbledon title.
After her latest victory, a 6-3, 6-4 win over Ana Ivanovic, Ivanovic conceded it's intimidating going against such a presence. This from a player who was ranked No. 1 only three years ago.
"I really try not to look so much across the net," Ivanovic said. "I just tried to focus on my game and tried to do everything that I can."
Which will be Pavlyuchenkova's strategy, too.
"I don't want to go out there and enjoy just being on the center court playing against Serena," she said. "I would like to do well, try to fight, and with my effort I try to beat her. But of course I respect her a lot, as well. She's just great."
If Williams wins three more matches, it wouldn't be the first time she's won a major after essentially working her way into playing shape following a long break. She won the 2007 Australian Open after a year in which she played only four tournaments and was criticized for looking out of shape.
"Yes, Kim Clijsters came back and won the U.S. Open in her third tournament back," Austin said of Clijsters' win in 2009. "That's unusual. But Serena has done this multiple times, where she's been off for a long, long time and came back and won the tournament because she's just a better athlete than everybody else and she has better mental toughness than everybody else. I don't think there are other players, other sports, where this happens."