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Serena rolling off radar at U.S. Open

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NEW YORK – It’s just as well that Serena Williams has been wearing garish T-shirts with wacky slogans and that she doesn't mind stirring the pot with her public comments, because otherwise her path through this U.S. Open might have gone unnoticed.

The defending champion has produced majestic tennis and cut a swathe through the draw at Flushing Meadows, yet her route to the semifinals has been utterly overshadowed.

Williams has simply been too good to be genuinely interesting, barely breaking a sweat in five matches that have lacked any semblance of adventure.

At times it has almost looked as if the 27-year-old herself has gotten bored, swiping her way to what looks very much like a 12th Grand Slam title.

New York, it seems, has already put this one in the books, and now it’s seeking alternative women's storylines to keep occupied before the inevitable trophy-wielding Serena photo opportunity on Saturday night.

Indeed, Williams isn't even the most talked about American here. That status goes to Melanie Oudin, thanks to the tumultuous course that the teenager from Georgia has plotted past a withering army of weak-willed Russians.

Then there is Kim Clijsters, returning to the tour from retirement and motherhood and willing her way deep into the second week.

It’s Clijsters who is up next for Williams, in a Friday afternoon matchup that promises to be her toughest test yet.

But just how much of an examination will it be? Flavia Pennetta came into her quarterfinal with Williams on Tuesday night as one of the most in-form women on tour. And yet, it was no contest, with Williams toying with Pennetta before applying the killer touch when it mattered to rack up a 6-4, 6-3 win.

The main difference between Williams and the rest of the field is that she is just better, stronger, more consistent, more imaginative and more forceful than everyone else.

But then there is the X-factor that comes into play when she is tested, the inner will and drive that breeds an utter refusal to accept defeat, or even the concept of it.

Glimpses of that extra gear have only surfaced briefly at the U.S. Open because there has been no need. A sneak of it came against Pennetta, after the Italian held serve until 4-5 in the first set before Williams rattled off four straight points.

"I am really excited to have that fire," said Williams. "It is cool that I have a chance to get involved and be able to lift my game when I need it or in a really intense moment."

Clijsters and Williams have had some tough tussles in the past, even though Serena leads the head-to-head meetings 7-1.

They first squared off at the U.S. Open 10 years ago, with Clijsters extending Williams to 7-5 in the fifth set. The only other Slam meeting was in the Australian Open semifinal in 2003, when Clijsters let a 5-1 third-set lead fritter away and slipped to a heartbreaking defeat.

Clijsters will have her share of affection from the crowd, being beloved around the tennis world for her personable nature and now for her extraordinary comeback after becoming a parent.

"I can't believe how fast she is moving," said Williams. "It seems as if she is even faster than before. I was thinking that maybe I should have a baby and come back faster.

"I have nothing but good feelings for her. She is a really good-hearted individual who takes tennis seriously but life more seriously. That is the exact person I am. We are pretty similar personality-wise."

If the above comments had you start thinking that Williams has gone all soft and lost her champion's edge, think again.

Following her victory over Pennetta, she sported a T-shirt with the slogan "Serving up some hot damn" on the front. And she still found time for a verbal swipe at rival Dinara Safina, claiming that she had "bigger and better things to do" than worry about Safina's No. 1 ranking, at least for now.

Then there was the topic of whether Clijsters' victory over Venus Williams in the fourth round would serve as extra motivation for Serena.

A reporter who suggested Serena rarely seemed to hold a grudge against players who had beaten her sister got a cryptic response: "I'm a really good actress."

That she is.

After a week and a half of waiting in the wings, it’s time for the leading lady of Flushing Meadows to take center stage.