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When I first looked up the WTA rankings this week, I thought I had pulled up an old link.
After all, it's 2010. How could Serena and Venus Williams be ranked No. 1 and No. 2 in the world? I thought that shipped sailed a long time ago.
And yet, through all of the off-court difficulties, the injuries and simply growing older in a young person's sport, heading into the French Open, once again, the Williams sisters are the top two seeds. Déjà vu all over again? Well, not really.
|Serena Williams will be trying to add to the Slam hardware she won in Australia earlier this year.|
The last time the Williams sisters were 1-2 heading into a Grand Slam was at Roland Garros seven years ago, when the two had played each other in the previous four Slam finals. Back then there was no question they were the top two players in the world. This go-round there ain't nothing but questions. The small cracks we saw in their armor back when they routinely entered Slams as the top two seeds are now gaping holes, and though they have won nine Slams between them since the 2003 French, no one has thought of them as dominant in some time.
True, they are on top of the season's leaderboard in prize money and fastest serves, and they are a combined 50-7 in singles and doubles. But they have only three singles titles between them, and Serena hasn't played in a singles final since winning the Australian Open in January.
So even though they had a strong showing in Madrid (Venus made it to the finals and the two won doubles), would it be that big of an upset if neither makes it to the second week in Paris? Given their current rankings, have they climbed back or has the field simply fallen behind?
"It's a combination of both," suggested tennis analyst Mary Carillo. "So many top players have been absent from the tour of late or they've been slumping. Ana Ivanovic seems to be picking her way back slowly, Jelena Jankovic too but Maria Sharapova's injuries have really hurt, and Kim Clijsters going out is a blow. It's hard to think of Svetlana Kuznetsova as the defending French Open champion when she's only won a fistful of matches all year. So even though Serena hasn't played much, her No. 1 spot makes sense and Venus' ranking, especially these days, is appropriate as well."
In addition to Sharapova, Kuznetsova and Clijsters, former top-ranked players battling injuries this season include Dinara Safina and four-time French champ Justine Henin. If the field is healthy, are the Williams sisters sitting on top again?
"You can only beat who you play," said ESPN tennis analyst Patrick McEnroe. "Certainly not having to face some of the better talent out there helps anyone, but when you look at how much they are winning again, you have to think they are getting back to the Williams sisters of old, which is good to see.
"And it's a testament to their talent and commitment to tennis. They are often criticized for not being as focused or playing in as many tournaments as some people would like. But at this point in their career, to climb back to the top of the rankings that's impressive."
|Venus Williams lost to Aravane Rezai in the final of the Madrid Masters.|
Certainly the Tennis Channel's Justin Gimelstob is convinced of their return.
"They are definitely back," said Gimelstob. "They are the most talented and dominating women in the world when healthy."
I've always loved the Williams sisters' story, and the coming weeks certainly have the makings of another historic chapter.
And while clay is not their best surface (neither has been back to the French final since they met in 2002), I hope they have a deep run to prove their ascension back to the top is not courtesy of a point system the world mocked when someone other than a Williams was No. 1 back in their heyday. Their place in history is secure. Still, these next two weeks will show whether their place in the present is as well, whether the current rankings are more about their strength or a weakened field.
The top two seeds should be favorites, not byproducts of a point system. I don't want a champion who quietly sneaks in through the back. I want one who kicks down the front door and belts "I am here," daring someone to try to take her place.
I'd especially like to see a statement from Venus, who has been bounced in the third round of the French four of the past five years and hasn't won a Slam since 2008. Depending on Serena's results, a win in Paris could move Venus up to No. 1 for the first time in eight years.
And it would quiet whispers.
"It's almost as if she's gotten to No. 2 by default," McEnroe said. "Serena's winning Slams again, but Venus hasn't moved that far away from the pack. A good run from her here will make the rest of the year very, very interesting."
LZ Granderson is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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