Wasn't the younger generation supposed to be taking over? Between Petra Kvitova's ending 2011 as the player of the year, Caroline Wozniacki's long stint at No. 1 and Victoria Azarenka's dominance at the beginning of this year, it was certainly starting to seem like a changing of the guard might be taking place. Not so fast, say the tour's tried and tested champions. Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova look like French Open favorites after cleaning up the big clay titles this spring, and Venus Williams is describing herself as a "wild card" as she goes into the French Open unseeded but extremely dangerous.
There have been injuries, surgeries, forays into fashion, endorsement opportunities, time off, drops in ranking, early defeats and plenty of question marks. And yet, as Sharapova said last week while preparing to face Venus again for the first time in nearly three years, "Here we are again."
Each is trying to recapture past successes after career-threatening setbacks. Serena has had a well-documented series of physical problems that began by cutting her foot on broken glass in July 2010 and culminated in emergency surgery for a pulmonary embolism later that year. As for Venus, after struggling with her health for some time, she was diagnosed last August with Sjogren's syndrome, an autoimmune condition that affects energy levels. Sharapova had shoulder surgery in October 2008 that kept her out of the game for almost a year and raised doubts about whether she would be able to return to her previous level of play.
For Serena and Venus, making comeback after comeback has been a statement about their commitment to the game, which was questioned early in their careers as both professed other career ambitions and developed a reputation for pulling out of tournaments.
"I'm so inspired to be out there. I love tennis and I love playing. This is what I do best," Serena said at the BNL d'Italia International in Rome last week. "A lot of people don't have the opportunity to constantly do that."
Unlike many times in the past, her fitness and focus are evident: "Well, my personal life is done, so I'm just committed to tennis right now," Serena said cryptically, returning to a theme she began last month by announcing that she was not going to date again for the next 10 years.
Her on-court statements are less bombastic but just as bold. Serena's win earlier this month at the Mutua Open in Madrid, where she defeated Azarenka convincingly in the final, showed that when the 30-year-old American is healthy and playing well, she continues to be the player to beat.
Meanwhile, Venus, nearly 32, has made an impressive comeback since returning at the Sony Open in Miami. Unseeded, she has reached three quarterfinals and posted wins over Kvitova, Ana Ivanovic and Samantha Stosur.
And that despite Venus' admitting she wasn't quite ready to come back when she did, but did so only to try to get her ranking up in time to play the Olympics.
She is still learning how to manage her physical condition. "I know that I know how to play tennis," Venus said. "Other than that, everything that is like a wild card. I'm a wild card right now."
"It's certainly great to see her back," Sharapova said, "and playing as the champion that she is. To want to play again and to have the desire is always really good to see, because there are so many other options."
At 25, Sharapova is younger than the Williams sisters but has acquired the experience of a true veteran since winning Wimbledon at 17 and rocketing to fame overnight. It's been a long road back since she first had her surgery, a road filled with double faults and painful defeats. But she stuck it out and began to see the first real signs of reward a year ago when she took the title in Rome. Then followed two humiliating Grand Slam final defeats to Kvitova at Wimbledon and Azarenka at the Australian Open, but Sharapova again showed no sign of discouragement and came back to beat the two back-to-back on her way to victory at the Porsche Tennis Grand Prix in Stuttgart before repeating her win in Rome last week.
Her improvement on what has usually been her worst surface reflects how far Sharapova has come overall. "I've certainly improved, and I'm giving myself much more of a chance than I did previously," she said. "I think most of it comes down to the physical aspect of things, and patience is, of course, very important, something I've never really been good at. But the physical aspect has helped me become more patient on the court.
"Not change my game so much, but now I really believe. Moving and sliding, playing defensively on this surface, and that's helped me extremely."
What all three are chasing now is Grand Slam glory, something that has so far eluded them in their comebacks. Serena's loss to Stosur at the U.S. Open means that Serena and Sharapova have been the losing finalist at the past three Slams, and they can almost taste the feeling of winning another major. They're not ready to make way for anyone just yet.