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Williams sisters back on top

| Sunday, May 23, 2010

PARIS -- Serena and Venus Williams are the French Open's two top-seeded women, and if it seems as though it's been awhile since that was the case at a Grand Slam tournament, that's because it has.

This is the first time the American sisters are seeded 1-2 at a major championship since the Australian Open in January 2003.

Plenty has transpired in their lives during the intervening years. Each Williams has dealt with injuries, absences from the tour and drops in the rankings, as well as the far-more-serious matter of the shooting death of half-sister Yetunde Price in September 2003.

Yet Venus and Serena keep returning to the heights of their sport.

"You know," Serena noted, "people have said we would never be No. 1 and No. 2 in the world again. You look, I don't know, 10 years later and ... we're still doing the best."

When the French Open begins today, second-ranked Venus will play former top-10 player Patty Schnyder of Switzerland to start a bid for her eighth Grand Slam singles title.

Among active women, only top-ranked Serena, with 12, owns more major trophies than her older sister.

"We feel like we deserve to be here," Serena said. "We've worked so hard for so many years, and, you know, ups and downs, and, you know, all kinds of problems and everything. And to be back is cool."

Having won this season's Australian Open, Serena will be trying to become the first woman since Jennifer Capriati in 2001 to get halfway to a calendar-year Grand Slam. She also aims to win the French Open for the second time; Serena beat Venus in the 2002 final at Roland Garros.

Still, this season hardly has been perfect for the 28-year-old Serena, who is 15 months younger than Venus.

After Australia, Serena was off the tour for all of February, March and April because of a bothersome left knee. Since returning, she is only 4-2 on clay, losing two of her past three matches.

Venus, meanwhile, is 26-4 in 2010, a tour-leading .867 winning percentage, and is coming off a run to the final on clay at Madrid, where she lost to Aravane Rezai of France. Only one woman could overtake Serena at No. 1 in the rankings by the end of the French Open: Venus.

"I mean, in essence, I'm still the same player, but I just think that I understand the game more ... and how to play the point better and situations," Venus said earlier this season. "I think when you're younger, you just kind of go through it, especially someone with a game like mine. I guess sometimes you take more chances -- sometimes for the best and sometimes not for the best. I guess at this point, I feel like I'm at that balance of knowing when to hit which shot."

The slow, red clay used in Europe has never been either sister's preferred surface, mostly because it tends to dull their powerful serves and groundstrokes.

This is the 14th consecutive French Open for Venus, and she has made it past the quarterfinals only once, in 2002.

For Serena, the French Open is the only major championship she hasn't won at least three times. She last reached the semifinals in Paris in 2003.

"It's not her favorite surface, but she's been talking all year about, 'This is really the one that has been elusive to me. I haven't been able to get my hands around this title. It's clay, it goes against my grain,"' seven-time French Open champion Chris Evert said. "Yes, it does -- it challenges her patience. She's so aggressive all the time. She's going to have to change, not only her style of play, but mentally, she's going to have to change a little bit if she wants to win the tournament."

While most everyone anticipates Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal to meet in the French Open men's final for the fourth time in five years, the women's event is expected to be far more competitive, with several players considered to be potential contenders around two weeks from now.

Justine Henin, a four-time champion, is back after missing the French Open in 2008 and 2009 while taking a break from tennis, and she brings with her a 21-match winning streak at Roland Garros that covers her 2005-07 titles. Rezai proved in Madrid she could be a factor. Jelena Jankovic beat both Williams sisters en route to the final at Rome on clay. Three-time major champion Maria Sharapova won a clay-court title at Strasbourg on Saturday.

"Serena has always stepped up in the big events. Except when she had health issues, she showed she could dominate," said Henin, who could face Sharapova in the third round and the younger Williams in the quarterfinals. "But I believe here, in the French Open, anything can happen."

Henin, Sharapova and Serena will play their opening matches Monday or Tuesday, and here is one daunting statistic for the American's opponent, Stefanie Voegele of Switzerland, to ponder: Serena is 41-0 for her career in first-round matches at Grand Slam tournaments.

Looking ahead a bit, Serena only once has lost in the second round of a major -- at the 1998 Australian Open.

Who beat her way back then?

Venus.

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