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May 11th, 2006, 01:57 AM
Venus returns while Serena remains sidelined

By Bonnie DeSimone
Special to ESPN.com

The Williams sisters resurfaced last week, thousands of miles apart, four months after their appearance at the Australian Open. For the first time in a while, the siblings' competitive paths, so often parallel or intertwined, diverged sharply.

Amid growing speculation, Serena appeared via a statement distributed by the WTA Tour, while Venus, with absolutely no advance fanfare, walked on court in Warsaw, Poland, and won her first two matches at the J&S Cup.

Serena's paragraph-long declaration countered persistent rumors that she's done for the season, saying, "I fully intend to be competing … in the coming months." Her doctors, she said, have advised her to let a chronic knee injury heal until at least the end of the summer.

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Sean Garnsworthy/Getty Images
Serena Williams, who has played in only one tournament in 2006, is currently ranked 105th in the world.

Ready to wager on that? If so, you might be more of a betting person than Serena. The Louisville Courier-Journal photographed her at the Kentucky Derby last Saturday, wearing a white sundress and a broad-brimmed black straw hat trimmed with black and white feathers. She admitted she knows nothing about picking horses and accurately observed that the Derby "is all about the outfits."

Serena is still a force to contend with in any fashion sweepstakes, but she is currently No. 105 on the WTA rankings and will drop farther in the coming months. If she sticks to the timetable she's suggested and comes back, say, late in the U.S. hardcourt season, she will need wild card invitations to enter tournaments -- which she'll surely get. However, she'll receive no special seeding, a perk the WTA did away with last year.

The layoff will cost Serena, though her potential losses aren't terribly significant compared with her career winnings of $15.9 million and estimated annual endorsement income of $8 million.

She's been fined twice (at $2,500 each time) for missing tournaments she committed to without providing a proper medical excuse. She will forego her cut of the bonus money pool at season's end, which could have amounted to anywhere between $100,000 and $500,000, depending on if she had finished in the top 10.

A continent away, Venus Williams, now ranked 12th, beat No. 23 Martina Hingis in Warsaw in the second round and stirred the pot of recent history.

Venus versus Martina embodied power versus finesse at the very same time the women's game was in flux, oscillating between one style and the other in the late '90s. Seeing their names paired in the bracket brought to mind the 1997 U.S. Open final, when both were 17 years old.

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AP
Venus Williams (right) had a come-from-behind win over Martina Hingis in the second round at the J&S Cup in Poland.

Born only a few months apart, one was the world No. 1 and the other untried, unseeded, ranked 66th, the first African-American woman to make the final since Althea Gibson in 1958.

Venus wore beaded braids and before the match did her best to stave off questions about her father's racially tinged comments after the semifinals, when Irina Spirlea belligerently bumped shoulders with her during a crossover. She talked, instead, about how much she'd learned in her march to the final.

Hingis wore a disarming lack of guile. "What can I improve? Sometimes I ask myself," she said after demolishing Venus in a match that took just over an hour.

Yet the balance would tip after that encounter, which was Hingis' seventh win in her first 11 matches with Venus. Hingis would lose seven of the next eight -- the last in Hamburg in 2002 -- before her premature retirement.

The two picked up where they left off last week, on clay, taking their best whacks at each other. Venus came back from a set and 3-1 down in the second and battled cramps in the last set. "There are people who give up and people who do something about it," Hingis said, referring, whether she knew it or not, to both of them.

A rivalry renewed means an opportunity to look at both players the way you might look at pencil marks on the wall where kids have been measured. Tennis is uniquely suited to an isolation camera, the intense scrutiny of two personalities over time, prompting the "remember whens?" spectators exchange between points.

That's why fans frequently root for longevity over consistent results. It's more fun to see greatness grow, ebb and gather again like a swirling weather front than to see it blow through and be gone.

That's why people don't like having Serena out of the game, whether they care for her or not.

News and notes
Land of opportunity: For the first time, the men's and women's NCAA tennis championships will be held at the same time in one venue, at Stanford University from May 18-29. The first and second rounds will be contested this weekend at various sites, although not at the University of Illinois, which is barred from playing host because of the NCAA's prohibition on the use of certain Native American symbols and mascots.

Not much has changed where the composition of the field is concerned, however. Of 64 men's singles competitors, 44 come from foreign countries, up from 38 last year; 31 of the 64 women come from outside the United States, down slightly from 33 in 2005. Roughly one-quarter of Division I players overall are foreigners.

Those numbers have been examined and questioned before, most recently last month in several stories by New York Times writer Joe Drape. At least one prominent administrator, Vanderbilt University Chancellor Gordon Gee, has called for a review of the situation -- not because of the players' passports alone, but the fact that some of them have earned money on the professional tours, which would make a U.S. player ineligible.

Miscellany: Two nationalistic milestones were achieved last week. Belgium might be spoiled where its women are concerned, but until No. 29 Olivier Rochus defeated 37th-ranked countryman Kristof Vliegen in Munich, there hadn't been an all-Belgian ATP final in the Open era … In another first, two Chinese women, No. 44 Zheng Jie and No. 61 Li Na, squared off in the WTA final in Estoril, Portugal, where Zheng prevailed. The Chinese team of Li Ting and Sun Tiantian also won the doubles title there … No. 2 Kim Clijsters might not want to play on clay in the Fed Cup semifinals against the U.S. in July, but she handled the surface well in Warsaw, winning her first tournament of 2006 and first on clay in three years.

On the men's side in Estoril, No. 90 Justin Gimelstob had his most encouraging result in some time when he beat tough 31st-ranked Chilean Nicolas Massu in three sets in the second round … Third ranked David Nalbandian's title was his fifth in 12 ATP final appearances.

Freelance writer Bonnie DeSimone is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.