June 19 (Bloomberg) -- Venus and Serena Williams are headed back to their favorite patch of London lawn, and none too soon for women’s tennis.
Overshadowed by the rivalry of Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer atop the men’s game, and trying to overcome the lack of a dominant player in its own draws, the portion of the sport that produced past stars such as Chris Evert and Steffi Graf again turns to the American sisters for relief at Wimbledon.
The Williamses have been belittled by the former top-ranked Evert, who wrote an open letter in 2006 to Serena in Tennis Magazine, and other players including nine-time Wimbledon champion Martina Navratilova, for spending too much time on acting and interior design, and for following losses with behavior more associated with opera divas.
“I just think they could be better,” Navratilova said in a 2007 interview. “Serena is designing dresses, and I feel she wants to be an actress more than a tennis player.”
Some of those critics also say the sport can’t do without them.
“Women’s tennis right now is in a state of flux,” Mary Carillo, a tennis commentator for ESPN and a former French Open mixed doubles champion, said in an interview. “Any sport, especially tennis, needs a great sustaining rivalry. Women’s tennis doesn’t have that.”
Both No. 1
The only sisters to both have reached the No. 1 ranking on the WTA Tour, Venus and Serena have won a total of 17 Grand Slam singles titles, starting with Serena at the 1999 U.S. Open. Their championship match at that event two years later was switched to prime time on CBS, an unprecedented move to tap their buzz for advertisers.
Evert and Navratilova never saw prime time, even as each won 18 Grand Slam singles titles during Hall of Fame careers. They never drew the questions that the Williamses have, either.
“They do things their own way,” said Pam Shriver, a five- time Wimbledon doubles champion who has known the Williamses for 15 years.
In the last decade, the sisters have taken over the grass courts at the All-England Lawn Tennis Club in London, winning seven championships. They both played in the final a year ago, with Venus winning her fifth Wimbledon title 7-5, 6-4.
Partly because of their lack of play, Venus was seeded seventh and Serena sixth. This year, Serena is second and Venus third, as the field of rivals shrinks through injury and retirement.
Maria Sharapova, the 2004 champion, is just getting into shape after a shoulder injury last year, and is seeded 24th. She is among five women, including Serena, who have held the No. 1 ranking from the WTA Tour since Justine Henin retired in May 2008, at age 25. Two members of the group, current No. 1 Dinara Safina and Serbia’s Jelena Jankovic, never have won a major.
“We’re missing Justine, who could go up against anybody,” Carillo said. “Both Venus and Serena had a shot at the No. 1 position in Paris, but they didn’t play well enough.”
The No. 1 ranking on the men’s ATP World Tour has been held for the last 5 1/2 years by two players --Nadal, the current king and defending Wimbledon champion, and Federer, now No. 2 and looking to make history when the two-week tournament ends on July 5.
Federer is trying for his sixth Wimbledon title and record- breaking 15th Grand Slam championship. He tied Pete Sampras’s record when he won his first French Open title two weeks ago, and Sampras and another former champ, Andre Agassi, declared him the game’s greatest player.
One day after the Williamses battle on Centre Court last July, Nadal ended Federer’s run of five straight Wimbledon titles in a five-set match that stretched over almost five hours and won accolades from former champion John McEnroe as the best he had ever seen. Women’s tennis took a back seat again.
“It’s history and that overshadows everything,” Tracy Austin, a former No. 1 player and U.S. Open champion in 1979 and 1981, said in an interview. “There is the rivalry between Nadal and Federer, and now Andy Murray is in the mix. It makes for a lot of interest.”
The biggest headlines for women’s tennis in Paris were for all the wrong reasons.
Safina lost the championship to Svetlana Kuznetsova, who told reporters afterward that her opponent showed signs of nervousness on the court. Safina ended the match with a double fault, losing a Grand Slam final for the third time in a year.
Shrieks on Court
Portuguese teenager Michelle Larcher de Brito took the spotlight after a French opponent, Aravane Rezai, complained to the chair umpire about her shrieking.
Serena -- who weeks before had declared herself the world’s best player even though Safina was ranked No. 1 -- accused her third-round opponent, Maria Jose Martinez Sanchez, of cheating because the Spaniard won a point after a shot appeared to rebound off her arm. Williams won the match before a quarterfinal loss to Kuznetsova.
“I’m like one of those girls on a reality show that has all the drama, and everyone in the house hates them because no matter what they do. Drama follows them,” Williams, 27, told reporters after the Martinez Sanchez match. “I don’t want to be that girl.”
Serena has dabbled in acting, while Venus, 29, has an interior design company in Florida. Still coached by their parents, they have consistently said that tennis is not the only thing in their lives, even as Navratilova, Evert and others have called for them to dedicate themselves to the sport.
“In the short term you may be happy with the various things going on in your life, but I wonder whether 20 years from now you might reflect on your career and regret not putting 100 percent of yourself into tennis,” Evert wrote to Serena in her magazine letter three years ago. “Because whether you want to admit it or not, these distractions are tarnishing your legacy.”
Sharapova’s return may reignite the women’s game, according to Austin.
“She’s been No. 1 in the world, and has more money then she can ever spend, yet her desire and intensity level are unheard of,” Austin said. “They were really rooting for her in Paris; the fans love her.”
The sisters and Sharapova stand out from the rest of the women’s field because of their mental strength, Carillo said.
“When they step on a tennis court, they are saying to themselves, ‘What will it take for me to win the match?’” Carillo said. “You don’t see that so much with the other women.”
To contact the reporter on this story: Danielle Rossingh in London at email@example.com