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NEW YORK (Reuters) - Line judges can relax, Serena Williams will not be gunning for her fourth U.S. Open title when the last grand slam event of the season starts next week in New York.
Her withdrawal after slicing her foot on a piece of broken glass in July will allow match officials to breathe a little easier safe in the knowledge that there will no repeat of her foul-mouthed outburst of last year.
But rather than detract from the tournament, the American's absence has unwittingly laid the foundations for one of the most wide-open women's grand slam events in years.
The depth in women's tennis has rarely been stronger and while Williams has been the dominant player for most of the past decade, there are many players willing to step up.
At least a dozen players hold genuine hopes of winning the August 30-September 12 tournament, but the favorite with oddsmakers and sentimentalists is Belgian's Kim Clijsters, a two-time winner in New York and this year's second seed.
She won her first title in 2005, but it was her inspiring victory last year after taking a break to start a family that will be the enduring memory of her career.
After sweeping aside younger opponents to become just the second mother to win a grand slam title, Clijsters celebrated by bringing her infant daughter on to center court.
But time could be running out for Clijsters, who has won three WTA Tour events this season including Cincinnati earlier this month. She has spoken about her desire to have a second child, which she said will probably lead her into retirement, while a niggling hip injury has raised fitness concerns.
"Perfection doesn't exist but we can try to get close," she told Reuters.
Denmark's Caroline Wozniacki, who lost to Clijsters in last year's final, returns as the top seed and looks to be hitting peak form at the right time.
She won in Montreal this month and if she wins her first grand slam title this year at the U.S. Open could overtake Serena Williams as the world number one.
"Of course I would like to be number one in the world but Serena is a great champion, she's won so many grand slams," she told reporters after winning in Montreal. "My goal for now is just to try to win a grand slam and the number one spot is secondary to that."
Wozniacki was promoted to top seed after Serena withdrew and the draw did her no favors, putting her in the same quarter as two Russian former U.S. Open champions, Maria Sharapova and Svetlana Kuznetsova.
Serbia's Jelena Jankovic, a U.S. Open finalist two years ago, looms as a possible semi-final opponent in a tricky top half of the draw, but it is Sharapova that poses the first big hurdle with the pair due to meet as early as the fourth round.
Sharapova has already won three of the four grand slam titles -- only the French Open has eluded her -- but her career has been stalled by shoulder problems.
She made a comeback at the start of this year and while she has not added to her grand slam collection she has been making steady progress and made the final at Cincinnati and had three match points before going down to Clijsters.
Sharapova, Clijsters and Kuznetsova are three of four players in the field who have already won the U.S. Open. The other is Venus Williams, who won in 2000 and 2001.
While Venus has not played in a grand slam final outside Wimbledon in seven years, she can never be overlooked.
She has been placed in the same quarter as Italy's surprise French Open finalist Francesca Schiavone and in the same half as Australia's Samantha Stosur, a runner-up in Paris this year and a contender in New York because of her powerful serve.
Editing by Frank Pingue