All eyes at Wimbledon will be on the Williams sisters when the tournament begins tomorrow.
Serena Williams announced two weeks ago that the most successful tennis-playing siblings in history are returning from lengthy lay-offs just in time for Wimbledon, where they have won nine of the past 11 singles championships.
For Serena, it will be her first major tournament, and only second event, since she took home a second consecutive title from the All England Club in July 2010. Her nearly year-long absence resulted from a series of health issues, including two foot operations and blood clots in her lungs, that she said left her depressed and "on my deathbed".
Venus was sidelined by a hip injury from January until June. "I feel like we've been on a similar road together," Serena said at a tournament in Eastbourne, England, last week. "Her road hasn't been as arduous or as long as mine, but I know what she's been through coming back.
"We've been really enjoying our time just getting back together and practising next to her and looking over and seeing her play so well. I'm like, 'OK, I've got to do better'."
Part of the interest in the Williams sisters stems from wondering how much longer they will be around. Venus turned 31 on Friday; Serena will be 30 in September. "Whenever they enter a grand slam tournament, it's double the excitement and double the intrigue, I think, that they bring to the sport. They just bring a different level of tennis also, as far as the power and the emotional content," said television analyst Chris Evert, who won 18 grand slams.
"It would be monumental in my mind if Serena pulled off a win. I personally don't know how it's humanly possible for someone to take a year off like that and have gone through what she's been through physically with her ailments, and it would almost shock me if she did.
"But knowing Serena and the way she's come back before, you can never count her out."
Evert is one of only five women in tennis history who have won more major championships than Serena's 13. The others are Margaret Court (24), Steffi Graf (22), Helen Wills Moody (19) and Martina Navratilova (18). Among active players, Serena ranks No 1, followed by Venus with seven.
Not only has Venus won five titles at Wimbledon, and Serena four, since 2000, but they've also produced four all-in-the-family finals there in that span. Venus is 68-9 at Wimbledon, Serena 57-7. No one else in the 2011 draw has more than 27 match wins there.
As seven-time major champion John McEnroe put it: "I wouldn't minimise their chances."
The last major tournament, the French Open, was the first grand slam since 2003 without Serena or Venus, and chaos reigned. It became the only French Open where none of the top-three seeded women reached the quarter-finals, and it left some looking forward to when the sisters would pick up their rackets again.
"I'm sure when they come back, they'll come back ready. That's how they do it," said Mardy Fish, the men's world No 9. "Tennis has been pretty spoiled by their success and they're pretty special, two special sisters. And when they're not around, you can feel it."
Serena lost in the second round at Eastbourne, a three-set struggle against the woman she beat in last year's Wimbledon final, Vera Zvonareva. Venus lasted one round longer. They're not merely happy to be back, though. They want to contend for more titles.
"I always believe in myself when I go on the court," Venus said. "And I'm not just here to look good on the court; I'm here to win every match I'm in."
* Associated Press
@ For more on SERENA WILLIAMS visit www.thenational.ae/topics