(Reuters) - Serena Williams will once again be counted on to wave the Stars and Stripes at the U.S. Open as she takes center stage at New York's Flushing Meadows with the next generation of American tennis hopefuls waiting in the wings.

The world number one has always made a point of how special it is to play at home and there is no bigger stage than center court at the U.S. National Tennis Center during the year's final grand slam.

Expectations weigh on Williams but it is a burden she has capably carried on her muscular shoulders since claiming her maiden grand slam on the New York hard courts in 1999 and 14 years later continues to do the heavy-lifting for U.S. tennis.

"I love playing in the USA," said Williams after winning the Western & Southern Open in Cincinnati on Sunday. "Just feels so good it be an American and play in America.

"I love holding up the trophy. For me, there is no better feeling."

Williams has reached the U.S. Open winner's circle five times, including the last two years, and is favored to add a sixth to her collection when the gates swing open on Monday at Flushing Meadows.

She arrives in New York proclaiming to be at the top of her game, riding the momentum from hard court titles in Stanford and Cincinnati that book-end a semi-final appearance in Montreal where she lost to her resurgent sister Venus.

Adding to Williams's confidence, the path to the Sept. 7 women's final has been cleared of at least one major obstacle with another limping.

The last two years Williams has needed three sets to tame Victoria Azarenka and lift the crown but the Belarusian has missed a large chunk of the current campaign with a foot injury and is a big question mark.

Another potential threat, world number three and Australian Open champion Li Na, will not play in New York due to a knee injury.

"It (Cincinnati) was definitely the best performance of the (summer) hopefully not the last," said Williams. "My first day of practice (at Cincinnati) something just clicked.

"I don't know, I think all the hard work was just paying off.

"This is definitely a level that could take me to the title."


If there is one cloud hanging over Williams's U.S. Open buildup it has been her less than stellar play in the three grand slams where she has failed to reach the quarter-finals.

A fourth round loss at the Australian Open followed by a second round exit at the French and a third round upset at Wimbledon has left the U.S. Open as Williams's last opportunity this season this to add to her haul of 17 grand slam singles titles.

"To me, Serena's still at her best, better than everyone else," U.S Fed Cup captain Mary Joe Fernandez told Reuters. "Having said that, we've seen her falter at the majors and not be at her best.

"So I think that gives hope to everybody else, that she isn't invincible."

While the New York fans have provided Williams with a lift, Fernandez says history has laid heavily on her.