Look who's back: Elusive Williams sisters reappear

Serena's decision to join Venus in next week's Eastbourne field is also excellent news for Wimbledon

The Lawn Tennis Association were so keen to promote tickets sales for next week's Aegon International at Eastbourne that they printed billboard posters and flyers featuring a doctored photograph of the Sussex town's seafront. Instead of pebbles on the beach the picture showed an expanse of golden sand, much to the disgust of local residents.

Organisers will hardly need to go to such lengths to sell the tournament now following yesterday's announcement that Serena Williams has been given a wild card and will join her sister Venus in the field.

It will be Serena's first appearance since she won Wimbledon last year. Within days of winning her fourth All England Club title, the 13-times Grand Slam champion cut her foot on a piece of glass in a restaurant in Munich, severing a tendon, and needed two operations to repair it.

Her recovery was put back even further three months ago when she was rushed to hospital to have a large haematoma removed from her stomach after a blood clot had travelled from a leg to her lungs. Sister Venus's recent physical problems – knee and hip injuries, which have seen her play only at the US and Australian Opens since last year's Wimbledon – appeared trifling in comparison.

Not only will next week be the first appearance at Eastbourne for 13 years by arguably the two most famous players in the women's game but it should also end the doubts as to whether the sisters will be playing at Wimbledon, which begins in 12 days' time.

Until yesterday many doubted whether Serena in particular would be returning to the All England Club. The fact that they are competing at Eastbourne is, moreover, a clear indication that they will be taking their returns seriously.

In recent years they have never played a warm-up tournament, preferring instead to train back home in the United States, but after such lengthy absences they clearly feel the need to get some matches under their belts before heading for Wimbledon.

"I am so excited to be healthy enough to compete again," Serena said in a statement announcing her return. "These past 12 months have been extremely tough and character-building. I have so much to be grateful for. I'm thankful to my family, friends and fans for all of their support. Serena's back!"

The bookmakers reacted by installing 29-year-old Serena as the second favourite to win Wimbledon behind Maria Sharapova, with 30-year-old Venus not far behind. If the odds seem remarkable considering the sisters' experiences in the last 12 months they are also a reflection of their extraordinary domination at the All England Club ever since Venus won her first Grand Slam title there 11 years ago.

Venus has won five Wimbledon titles and Serena four. Since the turn of the century there have been four all-Williams Wimbledon finals (in 2002, 2003, 2008 and 2009), while the 2006 final (between Amelie Mauresmo and Justine Henin) is the only one in which neither of the sisters featured.

Serena has made a career out of coming back to win major titles after lengthy breaks, although this is the longest period she has been off the court since she turned professional. Between September 2005 and August 2006, when she had a knee injury, Serena played just once, losing in the third round of the Australian Open. In the build-up to the 2007 Australian Open she played only five tournaments in the space of 16 months – she was again troubled by a knee problem – but went on to win the Melbourne title despite being ranked No 81 in the world. It was her first tournament victory for two years. She looked a long way short of fitness but won in emphatic style, beating Sharapova 6-1, 6-2 in the final.

During their recent time off the court the sisters' world rankings have been slipping fast, with Serena now No 25 and Venus No 32. Their rankings are such that they will not be seeded at Eastbourne, meaning they could meet in the first round at Devonshire Park, where they may also play doubles together. Wimbledon does not have to follow the world rankings and looks certain to install the sisters among the top seeds.

Serena and Venus have been overcoming odds ever since their father set out to turn them into champions on public courts in Compton, Los Angeles, where their sister Yetunde was shot dead eight years ago. Nevertheless, the last 12 months have been the most difficult of Serena's career.

"Especially when I had that second surgery, I was definitely depressed," Serena said in a rare recent interview with USA Today. "I cried all the time. I was miserable to be around."

Williams told the newspaper that she had spent 10 weeks in a plaster cast and a similar period in a walking boot following the foot surgery, while she wore a tube and drainage bag for a week after her haematoma surgery. To take her mind off her problems she said she had become a karaoke addict, sometimes staying up all night singing in her Los Angeles home.

Serena is also prolific on Twitter, where some of her contributions are, to say the least, obscure. Three days ago, not long after tweeting that she was unable to sleep, she wrote: "I love hard. And I fall harder. My heart is foolish."

Despite her burgeoning interests outside the game, Serena said she intended to play tennis for a good while yet. "I feel as a brand I'm here to be around for a long time," she said in the interview. "I always think I'm going to play again and I'm going to be faster, I'm going to be better, I'm going to be smarter, wiser."

There is no doubt that the women's game has missed the sisters, especially Serena. While Venus has not won a Grand Slam title for three years (and has not won one away from Wimbledon since 2001), Serena had won six of the last 12 Grand Slam tournaments by the time she claimed her fourth Wimbledon crown last summer.

Serena has spent a total of 123 weeks at the top of the world rankings. Other recent world No 1s who have never won a Grand Slam title – Dinara Safina, Jelena Jankovic and the current incumbent, Caroline Wozniacki – have repeatedly been asked how they can justify their position when Serena is still on the scene.

While Serena's entry should be a huge boost for Eastbourne – which has such a high-quality field that Svetlana Kuznetsova, the world No 12, is not among the top eight seeds – her presence at Wimbledon should also provide a fillip for the sales of "Grand Slam! England", the latest addition to her collection of nail varnishes, which are produced by a firm called OPI.

"England's premier tennis tournament warrants colours with extra glitz and glamour," Suzi Weiss-Fischmann, OPI's artistic director, said in a press release to publicise Williams' latest product.

The description of Wimbledon might bring a smile, but there is no doubt that "England's premier tennis tournament" will be a more colourful place with Serena around.

Renaissance women: The off-court activities of the Williams sisters

Fashion Serena launched her fashion label Aneres in 2004, while Venus launched her own, EleVen, in 2007.

Books Serena's autobiography "My Life: Queen of the Court" was released in 2009, followed in 2010 by Venus's business-oriented "Come to Win".

TV The sisters produced and acted in a reality TV-show, Venus and Serena for Real. Serena has guest-starred on ER, My Wife and Kids and Street Time.

Business Venus is CEO of the design company V Starr Interiors; she is also pursuing a BA in Interior Design, while Serena is a certified nail technician.

Music Serena appeared in Common's music video "I Want You" in 2007, and may pursue a collaboration with DJ Clue.

Charity Venus is the founding ambassador of the WTA-UNESCO Gender Equality Programme. The sisters are also involved with Stop the Violence.

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