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Serena's pursuit of number 24 follows lacklustre tune-up

(Reuters) - Serena Williams will face a depleted field at this year’s U.S. Open but her recent form has made clear that her latest quest for a record-tying 24th Grand Slam singles title will hardly be a cakewalk.

FILE PHOTO: Aug 25, 2020; Flushing Meadows, New York, USA; Serena Williams (USA) serves against Maria Sakkari (GRE) during the Western & Southern Open at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center. Mandatory Credit: Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports

Since tennis returned from a COVID-19 hiatus that lasted nearly five months, Williams has gone 3-2 in matches that all lasted three sets and have taken a toll on her weary legs.

“It’s hard to play the way I have been playing and to stay positive,” said Williams. “And to play nine hours in a week is too much. I don’t usually play like that. It’s all new for me.”

After falling to world number 116 Shelby Rogers in the Top Seed Open quarter-finals, Williams went on to the Western & Southern Open where she lost in the third round to 13th-seeded Greek Maria Sakkari.

Williams squandered an opportunity to close out the Sakkari contest on serve in the second set and started getting cramps as her opponent launched a comeback.

“I don’t think that helps mentally when it’s like you know the match is over and you have won the match, and now your legs were already tired and now they are even more tired, and now it’s even more tired,” said Williams.

“I put myself in a bad situation. It’s like dating a guy that you know sucks. That’s literally what I keep doing out here. It’s like I have got to get rid of this guy. It just makes no sense. It’s frustrating.”

With so many of the world’s top players opting not to travel to New York amid the COVID-19 outbreak for the Aug. 31-Sept. 13 U.S. Open, the path to a Grand Slam title might never again appear so undaunting for Williams.

The 38-year-old will be seeded third at the U.S. Open and was drawn into the same quarter as former champion Sloane Stephens, 2017 finalist Madison Keys, two-times Grand Slam winner Garbine Muguruza and Sakkari.

“If she doesn’t win this one, I would think people, and more specifically she herself, would most probably doubt that she can win another one,” seven-times Grand Slam champion and Eurosport analyst Mats Wilander said.

“If she doesn’t win this one, it’s going to be harder to win the next one and the one after that.”

Reporting by Frank Pingue in Toronto; Additional reporting by Martyn Herman, editing by Ed Osmond

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