By Pritha Sarkar

EASTBOURNE, England (Reuters) - For more than a decade the Williams sisters viewed Wimbledon warm-up tournaments as surplus to requirements and they were right as they lifted the Rosewater Dish nine times in 11 years between them.

But health problems, freak accidents and lengthy injury layoffs forced Venus and Serena to cook up a new gameplan this year and they have flown to Britain a week early to make their long-awaited return to tennis at the Eastbourne International.

"...Serena hasn't played in a year and I have played three or four tournaments in a 12 month period so it's crucial for us to play these key matches at this tournament and do this leading to Wimbledon," Venus, who has been out of action with an abdominal strain since January, told reporters Saturday.

"Normally after the French Open we go home to rest and train and that's been the best for us. But this year the best preparation is to be here. As soon as I missed the French Open, I set my sights on being here," she added.

While injuries have restricted Venus to playing only the majors for over a year, Serena has been sidelined since winning Wimbledon almost 12 months ago after she badly cut her foot on some broken glass in a restaurant. A life-threatening blood clot in one of her lungs further delayed her comeback.

With both sisters now fighting fit, Venus is delighted she can again terrorize opponents with her silky grasscourt game.


Saturday, she arrived fashionably late for a news conference with a large green handbag slung over her shoulder and then declared how exciting it was to be back in the idyllic settings of Devonshire Park in the seaside town of Eastbourne.

"I can't believe I finally made it back. It has been a very long road. I can't tell you how excited I am to be playing any first round match, anywhere," she said.

Coincidentally, Venus faces Andrea Petkovic of Germany in the first round -- her opponent when she retired injured at the Australian Open.

The women's game has clearly suffered without the razzle-dazzle of the Williams sister act but Venus is at last ready to make up for lost time.

"I missed tennis, tennis has been so kind to me. I love this sport, I love my job, it's good to me and it's an honor to be a professional athlete," she said.

"I do hope I've given enough to my sport that it means something when I'm not here and hopefully it means more when I am here."

"Initially my goal was to return in Miami (in March) but I was not even close. It took me a good 2-1/2 months to build up and get here now.

"It was a slow process and I wasn't sure I was going to be here till two weeks ago and that was very stressful because I really wanted to be here.

"I did my best to stay fit even when I couldn't be on court. I was doing some arm exercises and listened to doctors' advice, for the most part.

"It's hard as an athlete to accept limits and for me it was definitely about accepting limits. I don't want to be in the situation I was in Australia as that was very painful and it limited me."

(Editing by Ken Ferris)