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On a Mission

Conspicuously absent from the U.S. Open, the sisters are determined to re-conquer tennis

August 28, 2003|Lisa Dillman | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — The often-elusive quality known as buzz, or mojo, was not at the National Tennis Center, home of the U.S. Open, instead residing about 11 miles away in the suite of an exclusive Midtown Manhattan hotel.

You might be able to guess where Venus and Serena Williams were Wednesday morning.

The two women who have won the last four U.S. Opens had been strangely silent since Serena defeated Venus in the Wimbledon final in early July. They've done almost everything in tandem since they were kids, and it's happening again. Venus is injured, so is Serena, and neither is playing in the U.S. Open.

And now, they are making plans to regroup and re-conquer the tennis world. Together.

Venus first met with a group of American reporters and one British journalist for an early-morning session, and putting aside her small pink purse and cellphone, she sounded more direct than ever about her career, offering specifics. Missing in action was the old defense mechanism of vagueness.

"I'm not going away. I like what I do," said the 23-year-old Venus. "I'm not retiring before 33. I've thought about it already. I'm not giving up my great job. I like it. I'm fortunate. I'm blessed, and I love being out there."

How did she hit on 33?

"Because I figured it was like 10 years, and that would be a good time," she said.

Serena, 21, followed her sister on the inquisition sofa, wearing a summer dress with spaghetti straps and balancing on 3-inch-high black heels, information best kept from the orthopedic surgeon who performed her knee surgery on Aug. 1.

"If anything, I'm going to be a better player when I come back," Serena Williams said. "I know that for a fact. My knee is going to be better than it's ever been in my career. Which is really exciting. I'm just going to be a much better player, And I'm going to be mentally relaxed. I'm going to be stronger, and I'm going to be angry." She joked about taking the Mike Tyson approach and started laughing loudly. Of course, she is getting out of prison only in her upcoming role in the Showtime TV series "Street Time."

"I'm going to come back on a mission," she said.

This rescue mission might include women's tennis.

It's a fair bet to say that an all-Belgian final between Kim Clijsters and Justine Henin-Hardenne might send TV ratings plummeting, and the effect of the loss of the sisters has not gone unnoticed on the sisters. Will there be an asterisk attached to the 2003 Open champion?

"Without us, it is a little dry," Serena said. "I'd be dishonest if I said it wasn't. But at the same time, I'd be dishonest to say, it's no fun watching tennis. Not everyone loves me. People like other people."

Said Venus: "I can't say I'm exactly super interested."

Venus and Serena had met in the final of the last two U.S. Opens, and in five of the last six Grand Slams, and they were asked to consider the interesting development that their absence was being lamented by some of the same people who worried about their dominance hurting interest in the game.

"You know how it is," Venus said.

"... It just seems that when you're at the top of what you do, it's always something." Serena said.

"You can't win either way with us," she said. "When we weren't winning, it's like, 'When are they going to start winning? OK, we started winning, 'It's bad for tennis.' It's not really bad for tennis at all because we're always on the cover of all kinds of newspapers, magazines, everything. Now that we're not here, 'It's bad.' "

Although it had been well-known that Venus had been suffering from an abdominal strain since early May, Serena's knee problem was kept quiet. Serena consulted with six specialists before having the surgery in Los Angeles and has not ruled out playing in the WTA's season-ending championships at Staples Center.

Former No. 1 Lindsay Davenport, who knows something about knee surgery, sent Williams flowers after her procedure, and Iroda Tulyaganova called to offer encouragement.

Time away from the game seems to have heightened their desire to return, not to stay away. Venus, it appears, is more likely to come back first. She said she has entered the Kremlin Cup in Moscow, which starts at the end of September.

But ...

"My timetable was a long time ago," Venus said. "That's how I was thinking in the beginning, timetable, but just yesterday I realized I can set a timetable, doesn't mean it's going to happen."

The time off has given Serena the chance to concentrate on her other prominent career, acting. The "Street Time" executives adjusted the shooting schedule and expanded her role, of a wrongfully convicted gang member who has been paroled. Shooting will be next week in Toronto, and the show is scheduled to air Oct. 22.

She didn't cry before or after her surgery, but she has been working on doing so for the TV role.

"That's the best part about me, I can turn it on and off when I want to," Serena said.

Right, almost the same way buzz can turn on and off at a tennis tournament.

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