That she will not defend her title at the 2004 Australian Open, which starts on Monday, Serena Williams. Provided you haven't been looking for her on a tennis court, the most luminous star in the cosmos of women's tennis has been hard to miss these days. What with last week's guest spot on Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, her recent appearance at a rally for Michael Jackson, gambols down assorted catwalks and sightings at choice sporting events, she's been nearly as ubiquitous as a certain Shizzalator.
But Williams hasn't played a match since winning Wimbledon last July, and on Aug. 1 she underwent surgery to repair a partially torn tendon in her left knee. While the surgery was described as minor—she was walking in high heels three weeks later—in a release issued last Friday, Williams said that her rehabilitation is ongoing. "After conferring with my trainers and coaches," she said, "we really don't think I've had sufficient time to prepare and train for [the Australian Open]."
For all their peerless play, Serena and her older sister Venus have a rich and lengthy history of eyebrow-raising, last-minute withdrawals. Last year they played in fewer tournaments combined (13) than any single player ranked in the top 50 of the WTA tour. Serena's latest pull-out, however, is particularly perplexing. Last month Nike signed her to a reported five-year, $40 million contract, equaling Venus's deal with Reebok as the largest endorsement package ever conferred on a female athlete. Nike executives say they support Serena, but they are surely not thrilled that their new star will be absent from the year's first major.
While the sisters' sparse schedules have long been a sore spot among promoters and WTA executives, it's clear who calls the shots in the relationship. After Serena's withdrawal the WTA, seeking to maximize its star power, took the highly unusual step of persuading Australian Open officials to upgrade Venus's seeding to No. 3 from her current ranking of No. 11. "It's not fair or consistent," says No. 4 Amelie Mauresmo, one of the players Venus leapfrogged. Maybe the Williamses' father, Richard, was on to something when he declared years ago that WTA stood for the Williams Tennis Association.