It’s the most depleted draw in US Open history but nothing was going to stop Serena Williams from hunting an elusive 24th grand slam singles crown in New York.
Not age, not COVID-19, not anything.
Six of the world’s top eight players have bypassed the event, including would-be Australian top seed Ashleigh Barty.
But try telling Williams the eventual winner may not be deemed the worthiest of champions.
“I think this whole year deserves an asterisk,” Williams said when asked if the 2020 Open needed one because of the glut of withdrawals.
Along with Barty, world No.2 and reigning Wimbledon champion Simona Halep, world No.5 Elina Svitolina, sixth-ranked titleholder Bianca Andreescu, world No.7 Kiki Bertens and world No.8 Belinda Bencic have also opted out.
In total, a quarter of the top 100 won’t be playing.
Williams, though, remains obsessed with matching Margaret Court’s all-time record of 24 majors and, turning 39 next month, knows the clock is ticking.
Beaten in four of the past six grand slam finals, including the last two at Flushing Meadows, the American will likely never again be presented with a better opportunity to catch Court.
With a history of blood clots and having twice suffered pulmonary embolisms, the six-times Open champion and nine-times finalist is taking every precaution in New York.
The second-oldest woman in the draw, behind her 40-year-old sister Venus, Williams has chosen to stay in a private house instead of any of the tournament hotels, saying she feels safer around less people.
“I have health issues and I don’t necessarily want to get sick,” she said.
“And, if I do, I want the good version. So I have been doing extra vitamins. So if something happens, at least I will have the good strain, I guess, of the virus.”
With the strictest of biosecurity measures in place, the greater dangers to Williams will probably come on court.
Elevated to third seed behind Karolina Pliskova and Australian Open champion Sofia Kenin, the world No.9 has what should be a straightforward opener against compatriot Kristie Ahn.
If she progresses, Williams will play either Margarita Gasparyan or 2016 Olympic gold medallist Monica Puig.
Then her path could become loaded with pot holes, including a potential round-three clash wirh enigmatic 2017 champion Sloane Stepehens and a possible fourth-round meeting with 15th seed Maria Sakkari, the Greek who beat Williams at this week’s lead-up event at Flushing Meadows.
Fellow former world No.1 and 2020 Australian Open runner-up Garbine Muguruza or 2017 finalist Madison Keys could await Williams in the quarters, with Kenin her projected semi-final foe.
Should she make a third successive final in New York, Williams’ most likely opponent would be Pliskova or 2018 champion Naomi Osaka.
Pliskova opens against world No.145 Anhelina Kalinina, with Kenin playing Yanina Wickmayer, a one-time Open semi-finalist now ranked 146th.