Williams sisters are ready to put year of pain out to grass

The moment the Williams sisters left Centre Court a year ago - Serena with the women's singles title, Venus with the runner-up prize - everything started to go wrong, both for them and their family.

First came the injuries. Venus, who damaged a stomach muscle during a tournament in Poland the previous April and struggled to keep the appointment with Serena in the Wimbledon final, continued to suffer for the rest of the year. If the stomach muscle was not giving her jip, twisted ankles took over. In Serena's case, her knees began to give way and she had to have surgery. Both players missed the US Open and have spent more time with physiotherapists than on the court.

Then, in September, there was a tragedy. Their half-sister, Yetunde Price, was shot dead in the notorious Los Angeles suburb of Compton, where Venus and Serena first played tennis on park courts.

Indeed, so much has befallen the powerful Americans, the dominant forces in women's tennis after the turn of the century, that some people wonder if a combination of physical problems and outside interests has all but finished them as major players.

For the moment, if they are able to raise their games, events beyond their control may conspire to help them extend their prosperity on the lawns of SW19, where viable challengers seem as scarce as 47-year-olds with wild cards.

At the recent French Open, two of a burgeoning group of Russian players, Anastasia Myskina and Elena Dementieva, participated in a derisory final.

This reflected poorly on the Williams sisters, who were eliminated within minutes of each other in the quarter-finals, Serena ("I was an amateur today") losing to Jennifer Capriati, Venus, who twisted an ankle, losing to Myskina. The Williamses had neither the preparation nor the fitness to capitalise on the absence of the injured Kim Clijsters and the early elimination of Justine Henin-Hardenne, who tried to come back too soon after a glandular illness.

The two Belgians, who had supplanted the Williamses at the head of the women's game, will not be playing at Wimbledon, which gives Serena and Venus another opportunity to flex their muscles.

But do they still have the ambition that marked them out as champions? When Venus arrived on the scene, in October 1994, everybody marvelled at her development away from the customary route of junior tournaments. Her father, the eccentric Richard Williams, expressed no surprise. He simply advised the tennis community that his youngest daughter, Serena, was almost ready to make her move and that the girls would take turns as No 1 in the world. He was spot on.

Venus and Serena, who share a house in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida, have won more than £16m between them in prize money and millions more from advertising and endorsements. They have won 10 Grand Slam singles titles.

The 24-year-old Venus won Wimbledon and the United States Open in 2000 and 2001. Serena, 22, won the US Open in 1999 and went on to win the four majors in a row from June 2002 - the French Open, Wimbledon, the US Open and the Australian Open - calling the feat "The Serena Slam". Serena defeated Venus in all four finals, and went on to beat Venus in the Wimbledon final last July.

In addition, Venus runs her own interior design business and Serena has her own fashion label and also has tried her hand at acting. Serena has appeared as often on the front pages attending celebrity events as she has on the back pages winning tournaments. "I'm an actress, I'm a model and an athlete. I put athlete third on my list," she was quoted as saying in April.

It has been suggested that the urge to change direction may be even stronger for Venus, who has been eclipsed by her younger sister. Richard Williams has in the past dropped hints that he expected Venus to leave tennis within a few years. She is studying for a degree in interior design and sometimes appears weary of the demands of professional tennis.

"It's not exactly normal to play tennis five hours a day every day," Venus said earlier this year. "That wears on your body. I haven't had to have surgery yet at all, so in a way I'm fortunate with that. But I have had injuries that put you in a hard place, injuries that are hard to heal."

The sisters either bristle or make light of the notion that their other activities impinge on their tennis. "I don't have any acting gig right now," Serena smiled. "It's not like I get acting gigs all the time. And designing is something really easy. It's all about sketching. Sure, it's a lot about fabrics, but usually other people get my fabrics for me. It's actually relaxing for me just to be drawing.

"Being on tour as a tennis player, the majority of my time is spent in the hotel, and when I'm in my room there's a lot of stuff I can be doing. I could be drawing, I could be making new dresses, I could be reading scripts, whatever it takes. I always try to put use to my time."

What had she learned from acting? "Never show anyone your emotions. When you're on the court, you kind of have to act: I'm angry, but I'm not going to show I'm angry, or I'm sad, but I'm not going to show that I'm sad, or I'm tired, but I'm going to keep the same expression on my face. You can't do that when you're acting, but that's how I try to act on the court."

Venus, asked after losing at the French Open how long she thought it would be before Serena and herself were able to dominate again, did not hesitate. "Next event," she said. "We're both competitors more than anything, and athletes. We compete very well. So we won't just sit back and accept a loss or accept a performance that's below what we expect of ourselves."

Serena is relishing the opportunity of becoming the first woman to complete a hat-trick of Wimbledon singles titles since Steffi Graf in 1993. "I love Wimbledon," Serena said. "I love winning Wimbledon. It gets no better than winning Wimbledon, I'm convinced. I like everything about it: the grass, the white outfits, the atmosphere. Pete Sampras felt the same way about winning Wimbledon.

"I love the US Open as well. I love New York and I love playing on that big court. But there's something about Wimbledon that I can't get enough of. Winning the Australian [last year] was a big thing. That was four [Grand Slam tournaments] in a row for me. Then winning Wimbledon again was great."

That is a particularly happy memory after her experience at last year's French Open, when she was in tears in the interview room after being booed and jeered on the court during her semi-final against Henin-Hardenne.

"You're right," Serena said. "That really put an exclamation point on Wimbledon. That really made me way more excited and determined to just dust myself off and go out there and win. What happened in Paris was very unfair. But it was life. Afterwards I was thinking I could actually have done a lot better, but at the end of the day I think I showed a lot of aplomb, a lot of self-assuredness and class, and I handled the situation pretty well.

"You truly are a champion when you do things other than win. No one really appreciates you as a champion, no matter how many titles you win. It's like: 'OK, who really cares?' That's their point. They want the real champ."

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