The first Serena sighting of the summer, last week in Toronto, was not an encouraging one.
The seven-time Grand Slam champion was broken by Stephanie Cohen-Aloro to open their match at the Rogers Cup, and lost the first set.
"I was so angry, I just wanted to crack every racket," Serena Williams said later. "But I didn't do it. That's a plus."
Barely. Williams, struggling with a weak right knee, rallied to defeat Cohen-Aloro, a Frenchwoman ranked No. 91 on the WTA Tour.
"I didn't feel very good at all," Williams said. "I wasn't even moving to any balls. I'll have to see what my therapist says."
A day later, Williams withdrew from the tournament.
But here's the funny thing: Heading into the U.S. Open, which begins on Monday, Williams and her older sister Venus are in line to collectively win three of this year's four Grand Slam titles. Serena, ranked No. 7 on the WTA Tour, won the Australian Open back in January and Venus, ranked No. 9, was a surprise winner at Wimbledon.
"They're back -- sort of," ESPN analyst Mary Carillo said. "They do more with less match play than anyone I can think of. Must be nice.
"Still, they both continue to impress with their ability to come good when they're truly committed to winning an event, in spite of recent bad form, injury or absence."
When you break it down, it really is
Since crashing out in the third round at Wimbledon, where she lost to Jill Craybas, Serena has played one tournament, the rusty one-match exhibition in Toronto. She withdrew from three tournaments -- Stanford, San Diego and Los Angeles -- with a left ankle sprain. In Canada, Serena said her ankle sprain had healed, but her left knee -- the same one that required surgery and forced an eight-month layoff in 2004 -- was bothering her.
After winning Wimbledon, Venus Williams also played in only one tournament, losing the Stanford final to Kim Clijsters, before withdrawing from Stockholm and Toronto with the flu.
All of this inactivity underlines the fragile, sometimes fractured state of women's professional tennis. In a three-week span, seven of WTA Tour's top 11 players withdrew from tournaments or retired from matches.
Clijsters, who missed 20 weeks last season with a wrist injury, is the prohibitive favorite at the National Tennis Center -- a testament to her recent run of good health. Justine Henin-Hardenne, Lindsay Davenport and Maria Sharapova, along with the Williams sisters, have all struggled with physical issues.
Since the Spring of 2002, women's tennis has seen eight different No. 1-ranked players -- Jennifer Capriati, Venus Williams, Serena Williams, Clijsters, Henin-Hardenne, Amelie Mauresmo, Davenport and, now, Sharapova.
In the same time frame, men's tennis has seen just four top-ranked players: Lleyton Hewitt, Juan Carlos Ferrero, Andy Roddick and Roger Federer.
The irony? As the U.S. Open unfolds, Sharapova moved to the top of the rankings after withdrawing from the tournament in Toronto with a strained pectoral muscle.
Being a tennis pro has its advantages: fame, fortune and all the free Evian you could possibly want. There is a downside, however. It's tough keeping up with your favorite reality shows.
"It's hard for us," Serena told Miki Turner in an ESPN.com Page 3 interview. "We're always overseas or something and we get really upset when we miss them."
The solution was to create their own "reality" show, "Venus & Serena: For Real," which aired this summer on the ABC Family Channel. It was a six-part series, cobbled together from footage shot earlier this year at home in Florida and at several WTA Tour events.
"We consider ourselves role models," Serena said, "and we always thought that a lot of teenagers and a lot of pre-teens look up to us and say, 'I want to be just like them. They're positive and they're fun.'"
There was some positively funny stuff, if watching Serena recite Shakespeare or driving a golf cart is your idea of a good time. But as some critics pointed out, there was very little footage of the Williams sisters working on the practice court. In fact, the show reinforces what people in tennis have been saying for years: That tennis follows behind fashion and entertainment interests in the food chain that is the Williams' lives.
"Tennis is definitely still No. 1," Serena insisted. "It's our anchor."
Nevertheless, the two sisters have combined for only 64 matches this year, including the Toronto tournament; Patty Schnyder, by comparison, had 57.
That Serena came into the 2005 season cold and won seven straight matches in Melbourne was mildly surprising. She took out Nadia Petrova, ranked No. 11, in the round of 16, then defeated Mauresmo (No. 2), Sharapova (No. 4) and Davenport (No. 1) for the championship. It ended Serena's Grand Slam draught at five, including two in which she didn't play.
The reemergence of Venus as a major champion was far more noteworthy. She, too, defeated the No. 1- and No. 2-ranked players (Sharapova and Davenport in the semifinals and finals, respectively) on her way to the Wimbledon title. Venus' unbridled joy after the win -- she jumped up and down with the enthusiasm of a small child -- underlined her absence at the top.
Venus went 14 Grand Slams (missing only one with injury) without a championship, dating back to the 2001 U.S. Open.
"It's just very satisfying for me in my career because that's the whole goal -- to be successful in pretty much whatever I try," Venus told Page 3. "I think the whole experience was amazing. I played the two top players in the world and I was able to get through that."
Venus' win at the All England Club, Serena said, brought new excitement to her
"I've been like super-motivated and super-charged," she said. "I've just got this great new battery pack that's never going to end. I've got an Energizer battery. I'm working out really hard and looking forward to next summer."
summer? What? Isn't there one more Grand Slam left this year and an entire fall season?
And so, we head into yet another Grand Slam with no effective baseline regarding the Williams sisters' chances. They've played one tournament apiece since Wimbledon and limp into New York with knee and respiratory issues.
Remember Carillo's observation: "They do more with less match play than anyone I can think of."
Must be nice.