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May 22nd, 2006, 02:06 AM
End of an Era for Williams Sisters?

ęGetty / C. Brunskill

Thursday, 18 May, 2006

Keen historians, take note: the last time a Wimbledon ladies' final took place without at least one Williams sister in the line-up was so long ago that it was actually in the last century. Indeed, since Lindsay Davenport beat Steffi Graf in 1999, Venus and Serena have largely made the battle for the Rosewater Dish their own private statistical territory.

Venus has made five finals and won three, while younger sibling Serena has taken two titles from three finals, both triumphs emerging when the opponent she faced across the net was a certain close relative. Now that Serena has said her recurring knee injury will rule her out until "the end of the summer", will 2006 be the year when the Williams' spell at Wimbledon is broken?

No doubt Venus - who turns 26 nine days before the start of this year's Championships - would happily point out that precisely the same question was asked twelve months ago when, as nobody's tip for the title, she became the lowest seeded player in history to become Ladies' Champion. With Venus ranked just 14th, not even Maria Sharapova could unburden her of a set en route to the final. There, Williams' epic triumph over Lindsay Davenport became the longest Wimbledon final of all time, and the first in 70 years where a player won after saving match point.

But to date that remains the most recent of Venus' 33 singles titles, while the most recent of Serena's 26 career singles triumphs was the 2005 Australian Open . Neither sister has enjoyed a prosperous 2006. Before May, Venus played just one competitive match (at the Australian where she lost in the first round to Tszvetana Pironkova) after which a right elbow injury kept her out for four months. Serena got as far as the third round in Australia before succumbing to Daniela Hantuchova, but was clearly heavier than her official weight of 9st 9lb (61kg) and her fitness was widely questioned. Despite her pre-tournament insistence that she was "absolutely at a hundred per cent", a chronic knee injury has prevented her competing ever since. As a result she has fallen out of the top 100 for the first time since 1997 when she was 16. She will not be at the French, nor most likely Wimbledon.

Meanwhile Venus has been able to maintain a place in the top 20, but almost all her ranking points came from winning Wimbledon last year. Another early defeat like the one she suffered in Australia would see her ranking plunge disastrously.

Of course, neither sister is short of interests to occupy her time outside tennis, which many observers have long seen as the problem. Both love fashion, and Serena continues to pursue her acting ambitions, most recently with a guest role in the hospital drama 'ER'. It seems fitting that her most recent public appearance was at the Oscar night parties in March. Many wonder if she will play tennis seriously again, although Serena maintains she wants to return to the top of the rankings.

"I will be back on the tennis court," she said. "My doctors say I should be in a position to play again by the end of the summer. I'm more excited than ever to resume my playing career as soon as my body is ready. These past months have been very frustrating. I've never said acting or fashion were more important to me than tennis. For me, tennis has always been number one."

Yet despite having accumulated 12 Grand Slam singles titles between them (along with another half dozen Grand Slam doubles won in tandem), . all the signs are that this will be the first year since 2000 that Serena fails to make at least one Grand Slam final. The burden is on Venus to maintain the Wimbledon family tradition, but just now it would take a brave punter to back her.

Written by Kate Battersby