- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 23, 2003

NEW YORK — Forget an all-Williams final. The U.S. Open will be a no-Williams affair.

Venus Williams joined younger sister Serena on the sideline for the year’s last Grand Slam tournament, withdrawing yesterday because of the abdominal injury that has bothered her since May. The U.S. Open, which starts Monday, will be the first major without a Williams since the 1997 Australian Open.

It also will be a test for a sport that has benefited from the sisters’ on-court skills and off-court popularity.

“It’s a shame for the fans. Serena and Venus have been the ones dominating the Slams the last few years,” 1998 Open champion Lindsay Davenport said. “It’s always exciting, especially for the New York crowd, to have at least one of them there. Now both of them are gone.”

Neither has played since Serena beat Venus for the Wimbledon title July5, the fifth Williams vs. Williams championship match in the past six Slams, all won by Serena. She pulled out of the U.S. Open on Aug.1, after left knee surgery, leaving the tournament without either defending singles champion (Pete Sampras is retiring).

Venus, 23, has been in New York, practicing and testing her condition.

“I kept thinking I would be able to compete,” she said. “Unfortunately, it just wasn’t meant to be. So, with regret, I have to pull out of this tournament and continue my recovery. I’m looking forward to playing again in the fall.”

A Williams has won the past four U.S. Opens, with Venus lifting the trophy in 2000-01. When she beat little sis in the 2001 final, it was the first time in 117 years that siblings played for a Grand Slam title and the first time two black players stood at opposite sides of a net to decide a major singles title.

That match also was the first women’s Grand Slam final televised at night — and it drew higher ratings than a Top 25 college football game on another network.

“The Williams sisters, not the women’s game, are the reason the women’s final is in prime time,” said four-time U.S. Open champion John McEnroe, now a TV analyst.

Now the question is: Can the sisters withstand the grind of the tour?

Kim Clijsters of Belgium recently replaced Serena at No.1 in the WTA Tour rankings, despite never having won a major. Clijsters benefits from having played 15 events in 2003, reaching the semifinals at all but one.

In contrast, Serena has played in seven tournaments, Venus six.

So Serena dropped to second in the rankings, while Venus — also a former No.1 — fell to No.5, her lowest spot since July 2000.

“Obviously, the tour is very disappointed that neither Venus nor Serena is going to play in this year’s U.S. Open,” WTA Tour spokesman Darrell Fry said. “But from our perspective, Venus and Serena’s health comes first, and we want both of them to take as much time as they need to recover from their injuries so they can get back to the tour and play as long as they want to play.”

Venus first showed signs of her stomach muscle injury during a clay-court tournament in Warsaw, where she quit during the May4 final. She curtailed her preparations for the French Open and was upset by Russian teenager Vera Zvonareva in the fourth round — her earliest exit at a major in two years.

Serena, who’s 21, also faltered in France, her 33-match Grand Slam winning streak ending in the semifinals against eventual champion Justine Henin-Hardenne.

At Wimbledon, which she also won in 2000-01, Venus looked dominant until the strain flared up during her semifinal against Clijsters. Wincing after serves and doubling over between points, Venus managed to win in three sets.

“As a rule, I never play with pain,” she said at the time. “I generally retire immediately. I’ve never been taught to play with pain. My parents always told us to put the racket in the bag, go off the court.”

Bothered by that injury and a bad left leg, Venus was far from top shape for the Wimbledon final. After, she said she felt she had to play because, “Serena and I, we’ve been blamed for a lot of things.” The family drew jeers at a 2001 tournament in California after an injured Venus withdrew before a semifinal against Serena.

So the top-seeded Clijsters and No.2 Henin-Hardenne move into the roles of U.S. Open favorites, in part because others had recent injuries, too: Davenport (foot), Jennifer Capriati (shoulder), Chanda Rubin (shoulder), Amelie Mauresmo (back).

“The Belgians are still the favorites, but you’ve got to count on the Americans. We’re excited, we want to do well, Jennifer and myself,” Davenport said in New Haven, Conn., where she’s playing a tuneup tournament. “It’s definitely a lot more wide open.”

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