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Serena Williams Enters Open With Serve Abandoning Her at Majors

Aug. 22 (Bloomberg) -- Serena Williams’s most potent shot, a serve that ranks as the best in women’s tennis, has deserted her at 2014’s major tournaments and left her on the brink of a Grand Slam title shutout entering the U.S. Open.

Though Williams remains No. 1 in the world and has a WTA Tour-best five tournament titles in 2014, she has yet to reach a quarterfinal in any major event this year. Unless she wins in New York, she would lack a Grand Slam singles title for the first time in an injury-free season since 2001.

While Williams leads all women by winning points on 51 percent of her second serves this year, she managed to take just 30 percent of her second-serve points in a third-round loss at Wimbledon and 27 percent in a second-round French Open defeat.

“People have sort of put the intimidation factor aside and been really aggressive,” Hall of Fame player and ESPN commentator Pam Shriver, who calls Williams’s serve the best ever, said in a telephone interview. “We’ll see how it holds up at the U.S. Open, with the pressure of not having won a major all year long.”

Williams, 32, reasserted her dominance after the Wimbledon ouster in late June. She has a 12-1 record since then, with the only defeat coming to sister Venus. She already has clinched the U.S. Open Series title by winning two hard-court events leading up to the Open that begins Aug. 25. She’s won $2.7 million in prize money in 2014, bringing her on-court earnings to a women’s career record $56.9 million.

Two-Time Champion

Yet the two-time defending U.S. Open champion, who won two of tennis’ four major tournaments last year, remains stuck on 17 Grand Slam singles titles -- one short of tying Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova for fourth place on the career list.

“For sure you think about it,” Williams said at a news conference in New York yesterday during the U.S. Open draw. “Everyone talks about it every time I step into a press conference, so even if I’m not thinking about it, I kind of have to. I’ve been going for that 18th all year and it hasn’t happened. Eventually, maybe I’ll get it. I feel like I’m playing really well.”

Williams’s failure to win any of the three majors so far this year -- the Australian Open, French Open and Wimbledon -- has been part of a 2014 Grand Slam season in which six men and women have captured titles. Two of those winners won’t be playing at the U.S. Open because of injury.

The men’s titlists have been Stan Wawrinka, 29, of Switzerland (Australian Open); Rafael Nadal, 28, of Spain (French Open), and Novak Djokovic, 27, of Serbia (Wimbledon). Nadal, the defending champion, will miss the New York tournament with a wrist injury.

The women’s champions are Li Na, 32, of China (Australian Open); Maria Sharapova, 27, of Russia (French Open), and Petra Kvitova, 24, of the Czech Republic (Wimbledon). Li is out now with knee pain.

The Favorite

Williams, who opens against 18-year-old Taylor Townsend of the U.S., is the 7-4 favorite to win the Open at the LVH sports book in Las Vegas, with Sharapova the second choice at 6-1 odds. Among the men, Djokovic is the even money favorite with Roger Federer, 33, of Switzerland, second at 3-1 and Andy Murray, 27, of the U.K., at 4-1.

Williams started the Grand Slam season with a fourth-round loss to Ana Ivanovic, 26, of Serbia at the Australian Open. Spain’s Garbine Muguruza, 20, defeated her 6-2, 6-2 at the French Open, Williams’s most lopsided defeat in a major. Williams served three aces and seven double faults while losing to France’s Alize Cornet, 24, in the third round of Wimbledon, her earliest exit there since 2005.

One Loss

Since that Wimbledon defeat, though, she has only lost to her sister in the semifinals in Montreal. She won titles at Cincinnati and at Stanford, California, to clinch the U.S. Open Series title based on tournaments leading up to the U.S. Open. If she wins in New York, that means a $1 million bonus in addition to the $3 million U.S. Open prize for a record-setting payout.

Williams’s dominance in recent weeks has, as always, been powered by her serve.

The Williams serve is not the fastest on the women’s tour. Germany’s Sabine Lisicki, 24, set a record in July with a 131 mile per hour (211 kilometer per hour) serve at Stanford. Williams, whose fastest serve of 128.6 mph came at the 2013 Australian Open, is not even No. 1 in her own family -- Venus, 34, is second with a 129 mph serve in 2007.

In addition to power, Shriver said the keys to Serena Williams’s serving success are consistency, athleticism, upper-body strength and planning.

“Serena knows where her toss is going all the time,” Shriver said. “She is pretty clear about when she stands up to the line what serve she is going to hit. It sounds easy, but it’s not like a pitcher who has a catcher. You are an individual athlete and have to figure out what you’re hitting.”

Ace Leader

Williams leads the WTA Tour with 360 aces this year, and in service games won at 81.7 percent. She also led in 2013 in aces and service games won, as well as first-serve points won at 74.7 percent (she’s No. 2 on first-serve points won this year at 75.1 percent, trailing Coco Vandeweghe’s 76.3 percent).

The losses in the majors have made her wary of every opponent, Williams said.

“The way my year is going, I’m worried about every single match,” she said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Rob Gloster in San Francisco at rgloster@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Michael Sillup at msillup@bloomberg.net Dex McLuskey

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