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Serena plays young Townsend in symbolic U.S. Open opener

By Larry Fine

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Serena Williams, who opens her quest for a third successive U.S. Open title with a meeting against fellow African American Taylor Townsend on Tuesday, said Arthur Ashe would have been proud.

On Arthur Ashe Kids' Day that drew legions of young hopefuls to the National Tennis Center on Saturday, Williams pondered the significance of her clash against the 18-year-old Townsend and the legacy of Ashe, whose name graces the center court stadium.

"I think he would say it's a great opportunity to see a veteran American player play the future of American tennis," 32-year-old Williams told reporters about her match against the 2012 Australian Open girls' champion.

"He was such an amazing guy. I had an opportunity to meet him. So I think he would be really proud and honored to see so many young African-American players... doing so well and playing so hard and just being role models for the next generation."

Williams said she took a lot from the example set by Ashe, a three-times major winner who claimed the U.S. title in 1968, and died in 1993 from AIDS-related pneumonia.

"I believe he had a great positive spirit," said the world number one. "You know, you have to go through what he went through. He had an incredibly positive spirit and just a positive outlook on everything.

"Obviously I didn't get to know him. I was incredibly young when I met him and it was ever so brief, but his legend absolutely lives on."

The top seed said playing Townsend would be special.

"It's going to be a great match for me. She's such a great player," said Williams, who won her first U.S. title on Arthur Ashe Stadium court in 1999.

"I have been able to see her play a little bit. She does everything really, really well. We're really good friends. We always talk and always text each other. It's going to be a really tough match for me.

TENNIS' FUTURE

"She's a very aggressive player. She comes to the net. She makes her shots. You don't really see that in tennis so much... it's good, refreshing and I think it's the future of tennis."

Williams is determined to end a disappointing grand slam season on a high note.

After a fourth-round loss in the Australian Open, a second-round exit from the French Open and a third-round ouster at Wimbledon, Williams is hungry for victory.

After wobbling away from Wimbledon after an illness forced her to withdraw from a doubles match, Williams has won at Cincinnati and Stanford and reached the semi-finals in Montreal in her U.S. Open run-up events.

"I think those matches were good for me because I haven't played a lot of matches this year. So technically I should be perfectly fine," she said. "I haven't played that much tennis this year."

Victory at Flushing Meadows would give her a sixth U.S. Open crown and lift her career haul of grand slam singles titles to 18, tying her with fellow-Americans Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova.

Still, echoing Ashe's positive spirit, Williams said if she fell short there would be another opportunity.

"Australian, Wimbledon, and French also could have been 18," she remarked. "Didn't quite happen.

"But there's always next year and the year after, so you don't give up."

(Editing by Gene Cherry)

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