Serena and Venus Williams may have slipped to 25 and 32 respectively in the world rankings after long layoffs due to injury, but they both say they are fit and raring to go – the younger sister even declaring in her trademark third-person style: "Serena's back!"
"I'm here to win," said Venus, as she prepared to play at the Aegon International at Eastbourne, which starts tomorrow. "I'm very excited to be back. I can't believe I finally made it. It's been a long road."
Her sister, meanwhile, gave a playful warning before she plays the last warm-up tournament before she defends her Wimbledon title: "I am so excited to be healthy enough to compete again. These past 12 months have been extremely tough and character-building. Serena's back!"
The defending Wimbledon champion Serena, 29, and Venus, who turns 31 on Friday, are making their first appearance at the South Coast tournament since 1998.
The Williamses usually return to Florida after the French Open, but their plans to nab another title in SW19 meant a change. "Normally we take this period before Wimbledon to go home and rest and train but this year the best preparation is to be at Eastbourne and play some matches," Venus said.
Serena cut her right foot on broken glass in a Munich restaurant only days after winning her fourth Wimbledon singles title and has not played since; Venus has not played since pulling out of this year's Australian. Serena underwent two bouts of surgery as the injury – which affected her tendons – was discovered to be more serious than at first thought. Then in February doctors discovered she had a potentially fatal blood clot in her lung and she underwent surgery to remove it.
Venus, the No 4 seed at this year's Australian Open, retired with a pelvic muscle injury just six minutes into her third-round match against Andrea Petkovic. By coincidence her first opponent at Eastbourne tomorrow is Petkovic, while Serena begins her campaign on Tuesday against Tsvetana Pironkova of Bulgaria.
It's a strong field at Eastbourne as the field contains 13 of the world's top 20, including the French Open champion, Li Na, but Venus remains unfazed. "Whoever is across the net is my focus. I don't think about what has happened before because you can't predict what anyone is going to do, so my whole concern is to make sure I'm in the next round and that's all I ever think about."
It has been a tough time, Venus said. "I had no idea when I or Serena was going to make it back. Every time I had a hope for returning, it passed by." When asked if the game had missed them, she replied with a laugh: "I hope so."
Both Serena and Venus have had repeated absences from the WTA tour during their careers with a range of injuries, which some in the game suggest have sometimes been tactical, though the breaks have not been detrimental to their astonishing CVs – they have 80 singles titles, 20 of them slams and between them have won nine of the last 11 Wimbledons. When Serena came back after a two-month absence due to back injury and then a dose of flu to win the US Open in 1999, it set a trend. When she twisted her knee in 2003 dancing in heels at a Los Angeles nightclub and suffered an eight-month layoff, she returned the following year to win Wimbledon.
So do layoffs sometimes work in their favour? "I'll take any advantage I can get," said Venus, wryly. "I feel pretty fit. I've never given myself 10 out of 10 for anything, but I'd say eight and a half. I was aiming to come back in Miami [in April] but that didn't happen. I wasn't ready.
"I listened to the doctors and did what they told me to do. I went to the gym every day. I started light practices every other day in April. It was a slow process and very stressful. But I would say Serena and I always believe in ourselves so that's a huge plus.
"It's not only about winning, but staying healthy too. We try to be smart in our preparation and we're here to win and we're going to do our best to take two titles home."
She was equally punchy when asked if it would reflect badly on the women's game if either Williams were to win Wimbledon. "Ten years from now nobody's going to remember, 'poor Venus, she was injured, poor X player something else'. It will just say, Wimbledon title with hopefully my name on it, and that's all that matters."Reuse content