NEW YORK Without Serena Williams, the U.S. Open women's title suddenly seems up for grabs.
Her sister, Venus, can look forward to the possibility of facing someone else in a Grand Slam final. Lindsay Davenport or Jennifer Capriati could add to their collections of major titles. Kim Clijsters just might claim her first.
Serena's withdrawal Friday because of left knee surgery makes for a distinctly different tournament. And with Pete Sampras all but retired, the Open will be without either defending champion for the first time since 1971 when action starts Aug. 25.
''It's just much more wide open without Serena in the field,'' Davenport said Saturday at a hard-court event in Carlsbad, Calif.
''It changes a lot. She would be the clear favorite of any Slam that we enter.''
Now there's an understatement.
The world's No. 1-ranked player, Serena has won five of the past six majors, a streak that began at the 2002 French Open and extended to Wimbledon last month.
Each time, she beat Venus in the final. The lone blip: a three-set loss to eventual champion Justine Henin-Hardenne in the French Open semifinals this year.
That run is all the more impressive given that Serena was playing on a bum knee for about a year. Originally diagnosed as tendinitis, it forced her to pull out of the tournament in Scottsdale, Ariz., in late February.
At the time, Serena said: ''Usually it doesn't hurt this bad. But it was like this during Toronto last year, and I think I made a good decision and pulled out. I went on to do well at the Open, so I just want to make sure my judgment was correct.''
She withdrew from three California tournaments in the past three weeks because of the knee problem and, after the operation, is expected to be out up to two months.
The WTA Tour said Serena was resting at home in Los Angeles with her family and wasn't available for comment Saturday.
''It is a disappointment to have her out of action at the moment. She's arguably one of the hottest athletes in the country right now in any sport and has been on a great roll,'' WTA Tour chief executive Larry Scott said in a telephone interview from Florida. ''The fortunate thing is the operation seems to have gone very, very well. Serena wants to get back to action and save her No. 1 ranking this year.''
Despite never having won one of the four majors, Clijsters should surpass Serena in the computer rankings by the Open and could do it as soon as Aug. 11. The Belgian enters Sunday's final in Carlsbad with a tour-high five titles this season and has been a semifinalist at all of her 12 tournaments in 2003.
''You don't wish it on anyone, especially her. What she's done for women's tennis is incredible,'' Clijsters said.
''I know how bad I felt when I couldn't play because of my shoulder, and she has the U.S. Open coming up and is the defending champion
" It must be very hard for her.''
Both Williams sisters have health problems right now; Venus has leg and abdominal injuries that hampered her at Wimbledon. Neither has played a match since the July 5 final at the All England Club.
While Clijsters and Henin-Hardenne are ranked ahead of her, No. 4 Venus probably will take the label of ''favorite'' if she's in good shape heading to the year's last major.
In part, that's because Venus won the 2000 and 2001 Opens. And there's this: Setting aside the losses to her sister, Venus has a 51-2 record at Slams since Wimbledon in 2001.
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