NEW YORK: Serena Williams launches her bid for a record-equalling 24th Grand Slam title on Monday, sharing the Arthur Ashe Stadium stage with defending men's champion Rafael Nadal in a blockbuster US Open opening night.
The two superstars, who own 40 Grand Slam titles between them, headline an opening day that sees eight former US Open champions in action.
Williams counts six US Open titles among her 23 Grand Slams, and with one more she will equal Margaret Court's all-time record for major titles.
But the US superstar is something of an unknown quantity as she seeks her first Slam title since the birth of daughter Olympia last September.
"I can just continue to strive," says Williams, the 17th seed who called it "interesting" to be tipped as a favourite to win her first US Open title since 2014.
She's shown flashes of the old brilliance since her return in March, reaching the final at Wimbledon only to fall to Germany's Angelique Kerber.
Williams opens her campaign against Poland's Magda Linette, the world number 60 whose first career match against the imposing American will thrust her into the glare of the Ashe stadium lights on a night when organizers are pulling out all the stops in celebration of the 50th anniversary of the US Open.
Defending men's champion Nadal, ranked number one in the world and seeking a second Slam title of the season after yet another Roland Garros triumph, faces an emotional duel with old friend and Davis Cup teammate David Ferrer.
"It will be a special meeting," said Nadal, well aware that the slumping Ferrer will call time on his career at the end of the year.
Nadal was looking forward to playing in front of the boisterous New York fans.
"I always had a great connection with the crowd here," he said. "The crowd brings me to another level of energy. That's something that I enjoy."
Ashe stadium will be rocking after a pre-match a pre-match ceremony to honor past US Open champions and a musical set headlined by Kelly Clarkson, with entertainer Maxwell tapped to perform the national anthem.
Del Potro loves New York
The festivities won't be confined to the main court either as the new Louis Armstrong Stadium hosts a night twin-bill featuring former world number one Victoria Azarenka and 2009 US Open champion Juan Martin del Potro.
Azarenka, runner up to Williams in Flushing Meadows in 2012 and 2013, is unseeded as she, too, seeks to return to the top after time off to have a baby. She faces Slovakia's Viktoria Kuzmova while del Potro, seeded third behind Nadal and No. 2 Roger Federer, takes on American qualifier Donald Young.
"This is my favorite tournament -- I have big expectations playing in New York," said del Potro, who heads a quarter of the draw that also includes unseeded past champions Andy Murray and Stan Wawrinka.
Murray, still on the road back from a hip injury and downplaying his chances in his first Grand Slam in over a year, takes on Aussie James Duckworth in an Armstrong day match while Wawrinka, further along in his return from knee surgery, opens the action on Ashe against eighth-seeded Grigor Dimitrov.
It's a nightmare scenario for Dimitrov, who was seeded sixth when he lost to Wawrinka in the first round at Wimbledon.
Venus Williams, whose seven Grand Slam titles include two US Opens, faces a tough afternoon opener on Ashe against former champion Svetlana Kuznetsova of Russia.
Women's world number one Simona Halep launches the dayside action on Armstrong against Estonian Kaia Kanepi, a quarter-finalist last year, while defending women's champion Sloane Stephens, seeded third, plays Russian Evgeniya Rodina.
Stephens endured a sharp drop in form after her maiden Slam victory here last year. She halted the skid with a victory in Miami, then reached finals at Roland Garros and in Montreal -- losing both to Halep.
"Eventually I'm going to get her," said Stephens, who could face Halep in the semi-finals. "Hopefully it will be soon."