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Tuesday, May 29, 2012
Williams sisters' aura has dimmed

By Joanne C. Gerstner

PARIS -- Venus and Serena Williams were once the two most feared tennis players on the planet. They possessed power, confidence and aggressiveness that no player could match.

But those days seem to be over, as Venus deals with the daily struggle of playing with Sjogren's syndrome and Serena with one of the most stunning first-round losses in Grand Slam history.

Serena Williams, the No. 5 seed at the French Open, lost 6-4, 6-7 (5), 3-6 to No. 111 Virginie Razzano of France on Tuesday. She looked light-years away from her dominating form while suffering her first opening-round Grand Slam loss in 47 appearances.

Venus remains in the French Open, advancing to the second round on Sunday. But she has admitted her level of strength varies from one day to the next.

Serena and Venus Williams
Venus and Serena Williams used to intimidate opponents just by showing up, but those days are long gone.

The Williams sisters are no longer invincible, rendered human by age -- Serena is 30, Venus is 31 -- injury and the inevitable fall from the top.

It is still stunning to see them brought down in different ways.

Venus likely will never regain the form that made her No. 1 in the world. She has fallen to No. 53 and will count this trip to Paris a success if she reaches the second week. She is playing sparingly these days, trying to manage her illness and figure out what is best for her health.

Venus is playing now because she wants to be in a fourth Olympics. Players must qualify for London by rank against their countrymen. Venus is doing her best to be in the top-four mix. The deadline is June 11, and Venus is in right now. Serena is definitely in, as she's the top-ranked American woman.

But Venus said Monday, though in a joking manner, that she could take the rest of the summer off after the London Games. Trying to be a professional athlete while dealing with an incurable autoimmune disease is difficult, and sometimes borders on impossible.

Serena's prospects for remaining a force on the tour are much brighter, provided that tennis is something she still wants to pursue. Serena was playing very well coming into the French Open. She was 17-0 on clay this season, including a win at the Madrid tournament a few weeks ago.

Watching Serena warm up a few hours before her match on Tuesday, it was surprising to see how bored she looked. Warm-ups are not meant to be exciting, but Serena looked like she was just there. Maybe she was conserving physical and emotional energy. She said she felt fine during the match.

Serena's terrible play against Razzano, which included 47 unforced errors and countless lost chances to make her mark, revealed that her famous ability to will herself to win may not always be available. It is hard to maintain such a strong killer instinct. Sometimes wanting it isn't enough -- you must be in control.

Provided she is in shape and motivated, Serena still will be among the favorites at Wimbledon, in the Olympics and at the U.S. Open. Venus and Serena also hope to play doubles together at Wimbledon and in the Olympics, both to be held at the All England Club.

This much is clear: The Williams sisters will no longer be feared. They're now just two very good tennis players with amazing résumés. Serena has 13 Grand Slam singles titles. Venus has seven. They've won 12 Grand Slams and two Olympic gold medals in doubles. They've both been ranked No. 1.

But life is an unstoppable force. Venus has been reduced to simply hoping to compete well. And Serena's aura, which once intimidated her opponents before they stepped onto the court, has dimmed.

The Williams sisters have been something special to watch. Maybe it's time for us to start appreciating the end as it unfolds before us.