3/30/2012 6:00:00 PM
Serena and Venus Williams are both now over 30 and on great days are still playing top-five level tennis. Since her comeback from injury and illness last June, Serena has occasionally shown No. 1 level tennis, but has not won a title in the three Grand Slams that she has competed in.
It’s been a rare day when Venus has shown No. 1 stuff since 2009, when she was still playing a lot and winning an occasional title. Now, coming off a long period when she was fighting the autoimmune disease Sjogren’s Syndrome and unable to take to the court, she cannot be expected to retake the top spot, much less make it back into the top five again for more than a few weeks or so.
But what Venus can do is aim for short bursts of brilliance and hope that a draw opens enough so she can make an impact at a major again.
Both sisters have been pretty banged up since mid 2003, and now are dealing with difficult medical conditions: Serena needs to be careful that she does not suffer another pulmonary embolism like she did in February of 2011; and Venus has had to change her diet and find ways to feel energetic again while battling a disease that makes her tired most of the time.
It is fair to say that the Williams sisters' sporadic play over the years has helped them prolong their on court lives, but that does not mean that while in the twilight of their careers that they can afford to take off long periods of time when healthy.
Take for example, Roger Federer, who is at a similar age. Admittedly, no great player in tennis history has suffered fewer injuries than the Swiss, who has won a record 16 Grand Slams over the past eight years. But if you look at one of the reasons behind Federer being able to stay relevant at age 30 and his generally excellent play since last October, it is partly because he got into a groove striking a lot of balls. He is still a terrific athlete, but there is no way he is going to run the youngsters under the table or completely overpower them: he has to be in a rhythm to have his strokes finally tuned.
That is likely going to be the case with the Williams sisters for the rest of their careers. While Serena proved through 2007 that she could still win majors without a lot of matches under her belt, that has not been the case since then. In 2010, when she won the last two of her 13 Grand Slams at the Australian Open and Wimbledon, she had come off of plenty of play. Prior to the 2010 Aussie Open, she had won the year-end 2009 WTA Championships, had a solid off-season and then reached the final of Sydney prior to Melbourne.
Before she stormed to the Wimbledon crown again, she had played Rome, Madrid and Roland Garros.
Serena’s last US Open title, which came in 2008, arrived after she had a heavy summer of play, including the Olympics. Even last summer, when she played her best tennis up until the final of the US Open, where she lost to Sam Stosur, she had already pocketed 18 matches from mid-June to late August.
Venus' last major title came at 2008 Wimbledon, when she hit through and around Serena for the title. The greatest grass court player of her generation (yes, even better than Serena) had played seven tournaments prior to touching down on grass. She has been super competitive at some of the Slams since then without a tremendous amount of match play, but has not won another, and has only reached the final of one more -- 2009 Wimbledon.
That year was what we can actually call the seven-time Slam champ's last good full season, as Venus won titles in Dubai and Acapulco and reached two other finals outside of Wimbledon at Stanford and the WTA Championships. She had an admirable first half to 2010 and was in the mix at nearly tournament she played, but knee tendonitis began to get the better of her by mid summer and although she fought Kim Clijsters’ tooth and nail in the US Open semis, her game, as well as her health, was not quite all there and hasn’t been since then.
For whatever reason, the so-called common wisdom around the sisters is that they can show up anytime, anywhere and break down the field. But this year alone, Serena has not shown an ability to do that. Sure, a difficult ankle injury in Brisbane submarined her chances to win another Aussie Open as she could not push off on her leg and therefore put on admittedly her worst serving performance at a major ever in a loss to Ekaterina Makarova.
But look at what happened this past week in Miami, when she did come in in reasonable health and for a few matches looked like she might dominate the tournament again, especially when she avenged her US Open loss to Stosur. She went on court against Caroline Wozniacki, the same woman she had bullied last September in New York, was run around silly while committing one unforced error after another. She had no feel for the ball and was unable to play herself back into the match. She was rusty and in her case at the age of 30, rust didn’t sleep.
Venus actually performed better in Miami then she could have been hoped for. For her not to have played a match since the US Open (and don’t forget she only played 11 matches in 2011) and take out the cagey Kimiko Date-Krumm, Wimbledon champ Petra Kvitova, the tough Aleksandra Wozniack and former No. 1 Ana Ivanovic was a phenomenal feat. She looked tired in the quarters in her quick loss to Agnieszka Radwanska, but she says that was because she stayed up too late after the Ivanovic victory, not because she isn’t in shape.
“I don't have a condition problem,” she said. “Let's definitely get that straight. I'm always fit.”
Both Venus and Serena will head to Charleston for the Family Circle Cup on green clay, which begins on April 2nd. Serena then is scheduled to fly to Ukraine for the US’ Fed Cup tie, an event she must show up at if she is to hope to be given an exemption to play the Olympics (she already does not meet the standard criteria as she did not make herself available to play Fed Cup during the past two years).
It is less than probable that either sister can win Roland Garros at this stage in their careers, but they both could be factors on clay and if they want to head into the grass court stretch (which this year also includes the Olympic on grass) feeling as they can pull off any shot in their arsenals, they must, if healthy, get in as much match play as possible. For Serena that will mean contesting Madrid and Rome in May, and for Venus, trying to schedule two red clay court tournaments prior to Roland Garros.
Of course, as is often said, overall health is more important than banging balls across the net, but given that Serena and Venus both have major goals left, they should know by now that more frequent match play will be paramount to their success.
And fans would love to see them out there more, too.
Matt Cronin is a senior writer for Inside Tennis magazine, and the co-owner of the award winning TennisReporters.net. He writes the Ticker for Tennis.com, contributes regularly to Reuters, and is a radio analyst for all the Grand Slams. He just published the book, “Epic: John McEnroe, Bjorn Borg and the Greatest Tennis Season Ever.”