NEW YORK — Remember when Serena Williams was chastised for not taking tennis seriously enough?
For picking and choosing where to play and when to expend full effort? For not devoting fully to the sport and instead taking time to dabble in acting, fashion design or other interests?
Well, maybe she knew exactly what she was doing all along, because it certainly appears as though it’s all worked out pretty well on the court. After nearly a full year off thanks to a series of health scares, Williams is right back at the top of her game — and at the top of the sport — and she can prove that at the U.S. Open.
The season’s last Grand Slam tournament is scheduled to start Monday, so long as Hurricane Irene doesn’t get in the way.
“I’m just here to play one match, and the next match, and hopefully I can get to seven wins,” Williams said, referring to the number of victories required to win a Grand Slam title. “That’s what I’m here for.”
She leads all active women with 13 major singles titles, the sixth-highest total in history, and won the U.S. Open in 1999, 2002 and 2008.
But the 29-year-old American missed last year’s tournament at Flushing Meadows, part of a lengthy absence from the tour after two foot operations from getting cut by glass at a restaurant in July 2010, then clots in her lungs, and then a gathering of blood under the skin of her stomach.
Since returning to action in June at a grass-court tuneup for Wimbledon, she has gone 16-2, making her the woman to watch in New York, along with Maria Sharapova (whose three major titles include the 2006 U.S. Open). Most of the attention in the men’s field is, as usual, on the top trio of Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer, who have combined to win 25 of the past 26 Grand Sl am championships.
New No. 1 Djokovic is having one of the greatest tennis seasons in history: 57-2 with nine titles, including at Wimbledon and the Australian Open.
Showing off a renewed dedication to fitness and those same old stinging serves — the most dangerous in women’s tennis — and powerful groundstrokes, Williams won tournaments at Stanford and Toronto this month on hard courts, the surface used in New York. They were her first consecutive titles since 2008.
“She committed herself. She practiced. She’s won two tournaments. That’s unbelievable. It’s incredible,” 18-time major champion Chris Evert said. “Not to undermine the rest of the field, but it just shows that she’s head and shoulders above anybody else, again, when she’s healthy.”
Evert was among those who wondered aloud in the past about Williams’ dedication to tennis, writing an open letter to her in Tennis Magazine. That was in early 2006, when Williams was in the midst of a stretch during which she entered only seven of 12 Grand Slam tournaments, winning one.
“I’ve been thinking about your career, and something is troubling me,” Evert began.
“In the short term you may be happy with the various things going on in your life, but I wonder whether 20 years from now you might reflect on your career and regret not putting 100 percent of yourself into tennis. Because whether you want to admit it or not, these distractions are tarnishing your legacy,” the letter continued.
Since the start of the 2007 season, Williams has won six of her major championships, while continuing to pursue outside interests and grow her status as a celebrity who transcends her sport.
“Yeah, she’s had the last laugh. … I mean, this is a woman who is living a full life, who is very multidimensional. So she’s dipped in and out … of the game,” said Evert, who will call U. S. Open matches for ESPN2. “Still, when she’s been in the game, (she’s) committed herself and been No. 1.”
Yes, she once was ranked that high — and could very well be again. But after Wimbledon last month, Williams fell to 175th, due to all that time away. She’s built her ranking back into the top 30, and the U.S. Open followed the WTA’s lead, seeding her 28th.
Many observers, such as Evert and seven-time major champion John McEnroe, decried that decision, saying Williams’ past success and recent form merited a high seeding.
As for Williams herself? She wasn’t worried about what number is beside her name in the draw.
“I don’t know why people are so upset,” Williams told The Associated Press. “My goal was just to be seeded, and I got that goal, so that’s good.”
Her older sister Venus, whose seven Grand Slam titles include the 2000 and 2001 U.S. Opens, is ranked 36th and isn’t seeded at all for the U.S. Open. She was off the tour for four months early in the season because of a hip injury and has been sidelined again since Wimbledon because of a virus.
Like Serena, Venus — who is 31 — has managed to be at or near the top of tennis for years and years despite — or perhaps as a result of — pursuing off-court interests and occasionally missing chunks of playing time.
“We did what was best for us, and it’s worked out,” Venus said. “Serena and I plan on playing the game for quite a few more years. Everything’s worked out for us.”
How have they been able to do it?
“We’re just blessed, I guess,” Venus said. “We don’t believe we need a lot of matches, so mentally, we’re prepared to do what it takes.”
Asked this week when she last felt as fit and strong on a court as she does right now, Serena replied, “It’s been a long time.”
After pausing a moment to consider the question, she said: “It’s been a while. Since, like, 2002.”
And with that, Serena let out a hearty laugh.