Wimbledon 2011: Wide open for the Williams’ comeback
With both Williams sisters absent all year and Clijsters injured, the way seemed clear for a fresh champion
Trying to prise the fingers of a Williams off the silver Rosewater Dish has been the aim of the best in women’s tennis since the start of this millennium.
But nine out of the last 11 Wimbledon titles have gone either to Venus Williams -five -or to current champion Serena Williams -four.
Only two other names have interrupted the Williams run since 1999 – Maria Sharapova in 2004 and Amelie Mauresmo in 2006, but even that is not the whole story.
Five of the runners-up have also been a Williams, with Serena beating her elder sister three times and Venus returning the favour in 2008.
Yet only once during that run did either sister win as the top seed, when Serena was No1 in 2003. And thereby hangs a tale.
For these two extraordinary women have often turned assumptions about tennis on its head by taking extended breaks from the tour, only to return as strong, committed and successful as ever.
And once again this year, despite both being absent for most of 2011, their names are still at the forefront of this year’s predictions for the Wimbledon title.
How have they continued to dominate where many younger opponents -the likes of Dinara Safina and Ana Ivanovic -have fallen by the wayside with injury or premature burnout?
At the launch of a new fashion line last summer, Venus revealed why she believes that she and her sister have retained their enthusiasm for tennis over such a long career.
It derives from an upbringing that stressed the importance of a life outside the tennis court: “We were brought up with a different mentality, a different philosophy in life, to have an entrepreneurial spirit.”
Their father, Richard, would take Venus and Serena to the practice courts every day after school, but he was wary of allowing them to play at tournaments too soon and too often.
Other things were, and remain, central to their lives. For example, at 19, Venus embarked on a degree in clothing design. It took her several years to graduate, but she did notch up seven Grand Slam singles titles along the way.
Serena, like her sister, has her own fashion line, and she has become involved in broadcasting, in writing and in various charities, and she part-owns, with her sister, the Miami Dolphins.
Tennis, then, is one component within the sisters’ multifaceted family and business interests, but a constant and vital one. As Serena stressed ahead of Wimbledon: “I’ll stop [tennis] when I’m ready, and I’m just not ready. I really enjoy being out there.”
So Venus, just turned 31, returned to Eastbourne last week, five months after retiring with a hip injury at the Australian Open. Her previous event was the US Open where she lost to Kim Clijsters in the semi-finals. Before New York, it was Wimbledon and a quarter-final place and, prior to that, the French Open.
Altogether, she played just nine events in 2010. Four of them were Grand Slams, and in four others she reached the finals, winning two. In short, Venus may have played fewer tournaments than many other women but she still made her mark.
And she did so again when she strode onto the grass at Eastbourne, beating world No11 Andrea Petkovic followed by Ivanovic before falling in the quarters.
Because of her thin 2011 playing resume, Venus is seeded just 23 at Wimbledon and so faces an uphill struggle to reach the final stages of her favourite Slam. She opened her account with a storming win over the 6ft 3in serve-and-volley power of Akgul Amanmuradova for the loss of just four games and faced no break points.
Her first seeded opponent, Jelena Jankovic, should not trouble her on grass, either, but her next match against last year’s finalist, and a strong contender for the title, Vera Zvonareva, will be tough. The quarters could also be difficult in the shape of Eastbourne finalist Petra Kvitova.
The 21-year old has won titles in Paris and Madrid this year, too, taking major scalps in the process, and reached the semi-finals of Wimbledon last year.
A Venus semi might include Victoria Azarenka, another hot tip for the title, or any number of others from a dense and tough quarter: Francesca Schiavone, Andrea Petkovic, Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova and the woman who beat Venus in Eastbourne, Daniela Hantuchova.
The tall Slovak was also a finalist in Birmingham, confirming a strong return to form in recent months for the former world No5.
So Venus faces some major hurdles if she is to reach her ninth Wimbledon final, but then the last time she was seeded 23, in 2007, she went on to win the title.
Serena’s achievements have been, if anything, even more eye-watering than her sister’s. She has 13 Grand Slam titles and is one of only three women to win a Major in three different decades.
She won her first WTA title in 1999 and took a title in every subsequent year except 2006. What is remarkable about this is the catalogue of injuries she sustained throughout: eight months between 2003-4, the first six months of 2006, two months in 2007 and three months in the spring of 2010. But she saved the worst for last.
After her 2010 Wimbledon victory, Serena required surgery on a cut foot that sidelined her for the rest of the year and she was unable to defend her Australian title. Then came the shock news that she had undergone surgery for a pulmonary embolism in early spring.
Naturally, her appearance at Eastbourne last week was greeted with much pleasure but also some concern, especially when she went 1-6 down against Tsvetana Pironkova. But Serena hit back to win that opening match and then came within a game of beating Zvonareva in a rigorous three-setter.
Now, with just two matches under her belt since last July, Serena opens play on Centre Court as defending champion and, on paper, she could progress to the fourth round with little trouble.
There, however, she may meet the feisty powerhouse, Marion Bartoli, who has just won Eastbourne and reached the semis of the French Open: She will not be easily worn down or intimidated.
The quarters are even more daunting, though the prospect of Serena against the latest Grand Slam champion, one of the cleanest and sharpest shot-makers around, Na Li, is an exciting one.
Looking further ahead -and the longer Serena plays the better she is likely to get -the semis seem more likely to hold the resurgent confidence of Sharapova than the safer game of Caroline Wozniacki.
But every step will be a mountain to climb for the woman who has been out of the tour for 12 months, even if that woman hit 89 aces -a record -in last year’s Wimbledon.
Venus said this week: “The beauty of having a long career is being able to use the experience you learn on the court. I think more and more players are starting to realise it’s an advantage to be able to play longer because then you actually understand the game.”
She and her sister epitomise that ethos -as do a few others. After all, the last eight Grand Slam titles have gone to women nearing 30: the Williams, Clijsters, Schiavone and Li.
Is there, then, anyone who would write off the Williams sisters’ chances of confounding all the rules again?