Tennis still needs the Williams sisters

Venus Ebony Starr Williams, with her barely tamed long limbs and clicking hair beads, introduced herself to the tennis populace at the 1997 U.S. Open.

She was not universally embraced by the polo-shirt-wearing set, but she didn't need that group's approval to make an impact. Williams, just 17 years old, reached the U.S. Open final before losing to Martina Hingis. And although most of the women from that generation have retired, Williams is still in the game.

But for how long?

Venus and her younger sister, Serena, have completely changed the sport that was slow to embrace them. But between health concerns and burnout, it seems both might be close to leaving tennis behind. If their retirements are looming, who will fill the gap?

Venus, 31, has withdrawn from the Australian Open because of Sjogren's syndrome, an autoimmune disorder that can affect energy levels. Serena, 30, recently dispelled the myth that all athletes love their job by saying that, right now, she doesn't love tennis.

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Off the court, Venus, right, has been a major voice in the game, waging a campaign for pay equity between women and men.

Venus was diagnosed during the 2011 U.S. Open, in the same year Serena developed a blood clot in her lungs. Venus said she hopes to return to the game in February. Serena, who hurt an ankle and withdrew from the Brisbane International last week, has not announced whether she will play in the Australian Open.

It's hard to imagine tennis without the Williams sisters.

But try. Tournament purses for women likely would be smaller without the high-profile sisters to woo sponsors to WTA events. Women's tennis would have a lower profile. Without Venus, who won Wimbledon five times and was a vocal proponent of change, the British major might still be resistant to giving equal prize money to its male and female champions. After Venus waged a high-profile campaign in 2005, Wimbledon and the French Open got in line, and all four Grand Slam events now offer women equal prize money.

Without the Williams sisters, fewer athletes would be on the Forbes list of 100 influential celebrities, and fewer women would be on the Forbes list of 100 influential athletes.

And Jay-Z might be less likely to show up at the U.S. Open women's final.

When a female athlete with star power drops out of the game, it's noticeable. And there don't seem to be many, especially in the United States, with the combination of skill and charisma needed to step into the void.

Venus has won seven Grand Slam events and an Olympic gold medal. She redefined what it meant to have a dominant serve. She added whimsy to her tennis outfits and grace to her manner as she grew up before our eyes.

She would never cuss out a chair umpire.

Although Serena soon passed her sister on the court, Venus might be the one who sticks around -- serving the game in an official capacity after playing her last match.

Coming from outside elite tennis circles, Venus has quietly started looking at the big picture. She played in the Fed Cup and Billie Jean King's league, World TeamTennis. In partnership with the WTA, she was named by UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) as a global mentor for gender equality. Venus also is working with the USTA program National Junior Tennis & Learning, has worked with the WTA Tour behind the scenes on sponsorship and was a natural subject for its Strong Is Beautiful campaign.

Look at her. All grown up.

Venus and Serena have taken their rightful place in the record books. They are recognized for opening the gates to other players who don't come to tennis through traditional routes.

Maybe one day when Venus doesn't have to smile politely for the sponsors, she can talk about what it meant to be new to tennis, like the awkward teenager who just moved to a new school who is looking for a seat in the cafeteria -- all the while bearing the legacy of Althea Gibson.

It would be nice to think her retirement is a ways away. But, with her recent health concerns, it is probably closer than we think.

Venus and Serena will not play forever.

But the game still needs them.

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