Eastbourne, England, June 14: The return of Venus and Serena Williams has been widely welcomed by tennis fans, and even with Wimbledon just around the corner, their fellow players are adamant they feel the same way.
The sisters have won nine of the last 11 Wimbledons between them. Their arrival in Eastbourne this week is understandably the talk of the town. Serena, the 13-time grand slam champion, is playing for the first time in nearly a year, and Venus returns after a five-month layoff.
Seven of the world's top 10 players are also here, but the spotlight is elsewhere. Vera Zvonareva was asked this week if she was happy the focus was off her, as it would normally be on her as the top seed.
“I think Serena and Venus, they deserve the attention they get, because they're great champions,” Zvonareva said. “They have done a lot for women's tennis. They have done a lot not only for tennis, for women's sport in general.”
Zvonareva lost to Serena Williams in the Wimbledon final last year, a match which would turn out to be Williams' last for almost a year. The No. 3-ranked Russian has reached two grand slam finals without winning one. The No. 1, Caroline Wozniacki, is also without a major, and most recently crashed out in the third round of the French Open.
Li Na's win at Roland Garros hinted at a Chinese boom in the future for women's tennis, but for now, the expectation appears to be that Serena will reclaim her throne.
The 29-year-old American's record backs up that expectation. The 28-year-old Kim Clijsters has won the other two grand slam tournaments since Serena's injury. Serena has a 7-2 record against Clijsters, and 5-1 against Li.
Almost as soon as she uttered “Serena's back,” the younger Williams sister was installed as one of the favorites for the Wimbledon title.
Nine-time Wimbledon champion Martina Navratilova believes it is too much to expect Serena to lift the trophy this year.
“It's like betting on a horse which you haven't see run for a year—but she's an amazing horse,” she said. “Both the Williams sisters are such an unknown at Wimbledon this year, they could be in the finals or they could go out in the second round. I don't see them winning.”
Navratilova also backed Li to prosper at Wimbledon. Like Zvonareva, Li says she is delighted to see Venus and Serena back.
“Of course (it's) good for the fans,” she said. “I think many fans missed them already. And also I was so happy after (their) injury they will come back. Always tough. You have to be mentally so strong (playing them). So I was happy they are coming back now.”
Only Francesca Schiavone has been prepared to acknowledge that the sisters' return “makes it tough for everybody,” but the 2010 French Open champion said it could spur on the rest of the players.
“It's great to have them back, I think not just for tennis but for us,” she said. “They are champions, they are great athletes. They come back, it's tough, it's tough for everybody but it's interesting because when you play with the big athletes, personally I like the fight, to give the best to win. It's great.”
During a packed news conference on Monday, Serena described how the blood clots on her lung, which resulted from a cut to her foot, had threatened her career, and even her life.
“I was literally on my deathbed,” she said, before later joking that she was glad her physio persuaded her to go to hospital to investigate her breathing problems instead of the party she planned to attend that night.
Andy Roddick is in no doubt that Serena's return is not just a boost for women's tennis, but the game as a whole.
“I think I speak for most people in tennis in saying you want her in the game for so many reasons,” he said at Queen's last week. “Not only because she wins and she's a great champion but because she brings pop culture to tennis.
“No disrespect to any of the other women that are playing right now but I think women's tennis needs that dominating figure.” AP