EASTBOURNE, England – The return of Venus and Serena Williams has been widely welcomed by tennis fans, and with Wimbledon just around the corner, their fellow players say they feel the same way.
The sisters have won nine of the last 11 Wimbledon titles. Their arrival in Eastbourne this week after injuries is understandably the talk of the town. Serena, the 13-time Grand Slam champion, is playing for the first time in nearly a year, and Venus returns after a five-month layoff.
Seven of the top 10 players are at Eastbourne, a traditional warmup tournament before Wimbledon. Top-seeded Vera Zvonareva was asked if she was happy the focus was off her.
"I think Serena and Venus, they deserve the attention they get, because they're great champions," said Zvonareva of the Williams sisters, who have combined for 20 major titles. "They have done a lot for women's tennis. They have done a lot not only for tennis, for women's sport in general."
Zvonareva lost to Serena Williams in the Wimbledon final last year, a match which turned out to be Williams' last for almost a year. Shortly after Wimbledon, Serena cut her foot on glass at a restaurant. The injury required two foot surgeries that sidelined her for months, and she later had blood clots in her lung.
Third-ranked Zvonareva has reached two Grand Slam finals but hasn't won. Top-ranked Caroline Wozniacki also is without a major and recently lost in the third round of the French Open.
Li Na's win at Roland Garros hinted at a future Chinese boom for women's tennis. But for now, the expectation appears to be that Serena will reclaim her throne.
The 29-year-old American's record backs up that expectation. Kim Clijsters has won the other two Grand Slam tournaments since Serena's injury. Serena has a 7-2 record against Clijsters, and 5-1 against Li.
Serena returned to practice in April. Her statement last week confirming her long-awaited return ended with the words: "Serena's back!"
However, nine-time Wimbledon champion Martina Navratilova believes it is too much to expect Serena to lift the trophy this year.
"Both the Williams sisters are such an unknown at Wimbledon this year, they could be in the finals or they could go out in the second round," Navratilova said. "I don't see them winning."
Navratilova also backed Li to prosper at Wimbledon. Like Zvonareva, Li says she is delighted to see Venus and Serena back.
"Of course (it's) good for the fans," she said. "I think many fans missed them already. You have to be mentally so strong (playing them). So I was happy they are coming back now."
Francesca Schiavone acknowledged that the sisters' return "makes it tough for everybody," but the 2010 French Open champion said it could motivate players.
"It's great to have them back, I think not just for tennis but for us," she said. "They are champions, they are great athletes. They come back, it's tough, it's tough for everybody but it's interesting because when you play with the big athletes, personally I like the fight, to give the best to win. It's great."
During a packed news conference on Monday, Serena described how the blood clots in her lung threatened her career and possibly her life.
She added she was glad her physiotherapist persuaded her to go to hospital to investigate her breathing problems instead of the party she planned to attend that night.
Andy Roddick believes Serena's return is not just a boost for women's tennis, but the game as a whole.
"I think I speak for most people in tennis in saying you want her in the game for so many reasons," he said at Queen's last week. "Not only because she wins and she's a great champion, but because she brings pop culture to tennis.
"I think women's tennis needs that dominating figure."