By Martyn Herman
LONDON (Reuters) - Serena Williams, the dominant force in women's tennis for the past decade, will return to action after nearly a year's absence at next week's Wimbledon warm-up event in Eastbourne, she said on Tuesday.
Her return to play at the grasscourt event, which begins on Saturday, for the first time since her only appearance on England's south coast in 1998 is a huge boost for the tournament and the women's game which has suffered in comparison to the golden era on the men's side.
"I am so excited to be healthy enough to compete again," the four-times Wimbledon champion said in a statement posted on the Lawn Tennis Association (LTA) website (www.lta.org).
"These past twelve months have been extremely tough and character building. I have so much to be grateful for. I'm thankful to my family, friends, and fans for all of their support. Serena's back!"
World number 25 Serena, whose last competitive match was her victory at Wimbledon last year over Vera Zvonareva, has been handed a wildcard by tournament organizers and will join sister Venus in a strong draw which includes newly-crowned French Open champion Li Na of China.
Venus is also returning just in time for Wimbledon after being out injured since the Australian Open.
"People here will be absolutely thrilled that she's back playing world class tennis, and that she's chosen the grass courts of Devonshire Park as the venue for her return," tournament director Gavin Fletcher, who can expect a surge in ticket sales, said.
"Serena can be guaranteed a huge welcome when she arrives."
'HARD AND SCARY'
Despite a history of injuries, Serena has provided the benchmark in women's tennis since she followed her sister on to the Tour in 1997, winning all of the game's major prizes.
Since she trod on broken glass in a Munich restaurant a week after winning Wimbledon last year, sustaining a cut that required 18 stitches and then surgery to repair a lacerated tendon, the women's game has struggled for top billing.
It looked as though Serena could be forced to hang up the rackets for good earlier this year when she was diagnosed in February with blood clots in her lung and required emergency treatment, an experience she described as "hard and scary."
With Justine Henin retiring for a second time, Maria Sharapova struggling until a recent resurgence and the likes of Serbians Ana Ivanovic and Jelena Jankovic failing to take up the challenge, the WTA has continually batted back criticism that the women's game was in crisis.
Kim Clijsters has proved her class by winning the U.S. Open and Australian Open in the absence of Williams but current world number one Caroline Wozniacki is yet to win a grand slam.
The return of Serena and Venus, therefore, could not be more timely, especially with Wimbledon looming and few would bet against one of them winning again.
Between them they have won nine singles crowns at the All England Club and any champion to lift the Venus Rosewater Dish in the absence of the American siblings would be left with an asterisk next to their name on the honours board.
(Editing by Patrick Johnston)