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Williams Sisters: 1-2

Venus Williams, French Open opening match, May 23, 2010

This is week-old news, I know. I meant to get to it before. And if I wait much longer, as the French Opentennis championships roll onward, it may stop being true. So I better get to it now.

Eight days ago, Venus Williams was upset by Arazane Rezai in straight sets in the final of the Madrid Open. By reaching the finals, Venus ascended to #2 in the rankings behind her sister Serena, who has been #1 all year.

The Williams sisters first occupied the top two slots in the rankings in 2002, and haven’t done so since 2003. Between injuries to or lack of interest in tennis by one or the other over the years, I would never have imagined that they would return to the top. But here they are. It’s astonishing.

Venus turns 30 in just over 3 weeks. Serena is 28. I recall reading an article about them when they were 14 and 13, focusing on their father Richard’s non-traditional training methods and his bold prediction that some day they would be the top two players in the world. It was difficult to know how seriously to take him. They didn’t play in the standard youth tournaments. Mostly they played each other. Were they that good? No way to know.

In 1997, Venus burst on the scene. She lost in the 2nd round at the French Open, the first round at Wimbledon, but made the finals at the US Open, where she lost, at age 17, to the still-younger Martina Hingis. She would not return to a grand slam final for three years, having to watch her younger sister win the US Open in 1999 over Hingis (who had beaten her in the semi-final, thereby averting an all-Williams final). In 2000 and 2001, she won both Wimbledon and the US Open, reaching as high as #2 in the rankings. She didn’t get to #1 until 2002, which turned out to be not her year but Serena’s. Serena did not play in the Australian that year, but won the French, Wimbledon, and the US championships, going on to win the Australian Open in 2003. Venus, as you may recall, was the losing finalist in all four! There was no question who was #1 in the world. Serena. Or who was #2. Venus. And that’s where they were ranked once Serena won Wimbledon in July.

Venus was never the same player after that, largely due to injuries. Since the 2003 Australian, she has not gotten past the quarterfinals there or at the French, and has reached the semifinals of the US Open only once. In contrast, she has continued to shine at Wimbledon when healthy, with three more wins and two more runner-up finishes. Serena has had her own woes outside the Australian, which she has won four times since 2003. At the French, she reached the semi-finals in 2003, but hasn’t been that far since. Her win at the US Open in 2008 after several years of not getting past the quarter-finals signaled her recent return to top form. She followed it by victories at the Australian Open and Wimbledon in 2009, the shocking loss to Kim Clijsters in the US semi-finals last September, and the latest Australian victory in January, securing the #1 ranking along the way.

With consistent play this season, Venus is back to #2. Based on their recent records in Paris, I won’t be surprised if neither of them reaches the finals next week. That could end their 1-2 reign, depending on how deep they go in the tournament and on how the other highly-ranked players do. (Caroline Wozniacki is #3, Jelena Jankovic #4, Elena Dementieva #5, Svetlana Kuznetsova #6.) There’s even a chance that Venus can overtake Serena at #1.

Meanwhile, a tip of my hat to Richard Williams. He was doubly right. They got to be 1-2, then fell quite low at times, but now they’re back. Whatever happens in Paris this week and next, I look forward to Wimbledon.

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