Venus Williams made more than a little noise with her beads, brashness and bump with Irina Spirlea at the U.S. Open a year ago.

Now she's back hoping to raise the level a notch by capturing her first Grand Slam title.As the U.S. Open begins Monday, Williams returns more polished in every way, and has the confidence of several tournament titles behind her. Last year, she seemed to be learning on the run at the Open, assessing how to play big points in big matches, gauging when to rally, when to come in, when to go for hard shots, when to just keep the ball in play.

This time around, she's got most of that figured out.

"I think my serve is much better," Williams said. "I would say I'm much smarter. I think I play better shots. I make better selections. I know I win matches from my playing well or if I'm not supposed to win."

Williams has been bothered much of the summer by a strained knee, but says it is in pretty good shape right now with the help of rest and regular stretching.

At the start of the year, Williams boasted that she would be No. 1 by year's end. That's unlikely now, though her No. 5 seeding is not too shabby for someone playing less than two full years on the tour.

The women's draw at the Open is perhaps stronger than ever. Steffi Graf showed in Saturday's final victory over Jana Novotna in New Haven that she's ready to challenge for a major title again after a year away from the game. Novotna, though, should not be discounted with her confidence still high after winning Wimbledon.

Defending champion Martina Hingis has been in a slump since winning the Australian Open to start the year, but doesn't seem too worried. She tuned up by playing three tournaments and taking a week off.

"It seems like I always get to the semis and finals and can't win the tournament," she said. "But this is a different one, the last Grand Slam of the year. I'll save my energy and go round by round.

"This year the players became much stronger. You have the younger players, who are more experienced. And the older ones, they started practicing again and they want it back. They won the last two Grand Slams. Right now it's a very big competition."

With Graf on the rise, Arantxa Sanchez Vicario still high from her French Open title, Novotna strong and Monica Seles reasserting herself, the "older ones" certainly are looking eager to take the game back from the teens like Hingis, Anna Kournikova, and the Williams sisters.

Then, too, there's the player in the middle who never has won a major, Lindsay Davenport. The 1996 Olympic champion is slimmer and quicker than ever, and the hard courts at the National Tennis Center suit her game perfectly.