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KEY BISCAYNE, Fla. -- Before her self-imposed, non-negotiable annual Indian Wells hiatus, Venus Williams had more momentum than anyone else on the women's tour. She's 14-1 this season going into the Sony Ericsson Open, with two titles and a fat check from an exhibition in Madison Square Garden.
Last time Ashley Harkleroad left this tournament, she was in excruciating pain from a cyst on her ovary that had burst, requiring emergency surgery to remove it. Doctors assured her she could still conceive a child, and sure enough, just weeks after shooting a Playboy spread, she learned she was pregnant. This week, she returned to Miami as the married mom of a 1-year-old baby boy.
There's some ambivalence about this comeback.
"I had to get that clock started,'' Harkleroad said. Under WTA rules, she had a year from the birth of her son Charlie to come back with a protected ranking (No. 70, for tournament entry purposes only; she doesn't appear in the official WTA rankings) and can now play seven more tournaments and one Grand Slam event over the next year.
Ever honest, Harkleroad said she is content being a full-time mother and would like to have more children. But she also knew that she might look back with regret if she didn't give herself the best chance to have more productive years on the tour. She's only 24.
Harkleroad has been practicing for only a month and is self-admittedly too thin, in need of gaining muscle mass. Australia's Alicia Molik hit with power and confidence to dispatch her 6-1, 6-1 in their first-round match Tuesday.
"She played some good points, but clearly was rusty,'' said Harkleroad's husband and coach, Chuck Adams. "She was hesitant to even play here because of the preparation, but she had to play to give herself a chance in the summertime. It was a little soon, but now she really knows where she stands and what she needs to do to get back. She by no means embarrassed herself, which is what she was afraid of.''
Harkleroad is not in a hurry. She'll ease into things by playing World Team Tennis with the New York Sportimes this summer, then probably enter some U.S. hard-court events before the U.S. Open.
"I came here to see how I felt,'' she said, spooning organic oatmeal into her son's mouth. "And I felt good.''
-- Bonnie D. Ford
Williams' sole loss thus far has come in the quarterfinals of the Australian Open, and she had to beat only one top-10 player en route to defending her titles in Dubai and Acapulco, but this has been an auspicious start for a player who would like to add to her haul of seven Grand Slam singles trophies.
"Win, win, win, win,'' she sang pleasantly when a reporter asked her about her 2010 goals. She'll try to pick up where she left off Thursday, when she takes the court for the night's featured match -- a slot originally occupied by her injured sister, whose knee problem has sidelined her since she stormed to another Australian Open championship.
This event used to be Venus' cup of tea, starting back when Lipton sponsored it. She won three championships and reeled off 22 straight wins in Key Biscayne between 1998 and 2002 but hasn't been back to the final since 2001. The years since haven't exactly been fallow, especially on the lawns of Wimbledon, but it does seem puzzling that Williams hasn't made more of an impact recently in a venue that's a quick drive down I-95 from her own backyard. Just don't suggest that the world No. 5 has a better chance in this edition because the world No. 1 and five-time champion, Serena Williams, happens to be missing.
"I don't base my confidence on who's in the draw,'' Venus said. She wouldn't be baited into discussing her sister's plight, either: "I don't answer questions about my own injuries, let alone someone else's. Hopefully you'll be able to track her down in one of these hallways if you can see her, spy her out.''
Venus radiated good humor in her pre-tournament sit-down with reporters, and why not? She may not always win-win-win, but she's managed over the long haul to conquer perhaps the most insidious opponent of all: burnout.
"Serena and I have done some great career planning, and we're playing really at the peak of our tennis right now,'' the 29-year-old Venus said, echoing what her parents were predicting when her hair was still in braids. "I think tennis has been a sport where people play this insane schedule from 14 years old, so of course at 26, it's over. We've really paced ourselves in order to play great tennis as long as we want and as long as we're healthy and obviously we still have the talent in our bodies. It's working out well for us.''
The sisters have the key to yet another exclusive club as minority owners of the Miami Dolphins. "I don't think it really set in until we went to one of the owners' meetings at the Super Bowl and were like, 'OK, hey, we're in the door,''' Venus said.But their off-court paths continue to diverge in interesting ways. "No TV, no acting for me,'' she said. "I'm kind of a more behind-the-scenes kind of woman even though what I do is very public. I'm really low-key and I don't need to be the center of attention.''
She's hosting, rather than hitting in, a high-firepower exhibition in Atlantic City, N.J., next month that features Ivan Lendl versus Mats Wilander in Lendl's first match of any kind since his retirement, along with appearances by Pete Sampras, Andy Roddick, Marat Safin and James Blake.
And rather than bare her own soul, as Serena did in an autobiography last year, Venus turned to USA Today's Kelly Carter to help her conduct and compile interviews with famous people about how sports shaped them. The resulting book, "Come to Win,'' will be released in June -- the same month Williams turns 30 -- and includes chats with former President Bill Clinton, ex-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Nike chief Phil Knight, designer Vera Wang and actor Denzel Washington. Serena didn't make the list. "She wants to know why she's not in it,'' Venus said, tongue-in-cheek. "I said, 'People know your story already.'"
The process put Venus on the other side of the microphone. She admitted it was daunting at times, making her feel "Like you guys,'' she said, looking at the reporters clustered around her. "Am I going to get in all the questions I need? I hope we can get through the material. Are they going to hang up after five minutes?"
Williams' willingness to keep learning, breaking up the tedium of tour play, may be the key factor in what has kept her in the game long enough to play opponents who are a decade younger. "I grew up with Venus,'' said Romania's Sorana Cirstea, who will play Williams for the first time. In some ways, watching the well-rounded, supremely grown-up Williams play kids now is more interesting than watching her beat older players when she was a kid herself.
Bonnie D. Ford covers tennis and Olympic sports for ESPN.com. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.