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Wednesday, August 8, 2007
Wide (U.S.) open

Here we are, three-quarters of the way through the decade, and it's still not clear who will end up owning it in women's tennis.

A couple of years in, few would have bet against it being Venus Williams. Going back-to-back at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open in 2000 and 2001, her athletic blend of power, speed and height made her formidable on faster courts.

But less than a year later, it was younger sister Serena in the ascendancy. Having already beaten Venus to a maiden Grand Slam win with the 1999 U.S. Open title, Serena proceeded to then beat Venus in four straight Grand Slam finals between 2002 and 2003. On court, she seemed unstoppable -- but not so off-court. Injuries, waning interest and the personal impact of the fatal shooting of the Williamses' half-sister Yetunde in late 2003 all contributed to a rapid drop-off.

Into the breach stepped the lithe but deceptively powerful Justine Henin, who won her first Grand Slam title at the French Open in 2003 after controversially toppling Serena in the semifinals. She would capture five more over the next four years and reach three other Grand Slam finals, enough to make her the highest achiever during a period of relative parity on the women's tour.

Were the fluctuating fortunes an exceptional chain of events? Not entirely -- it's rare for a tennis player to be utterly dominant for more than two years at a stretch. What sets the great players apart is their ability to recapture their perches time after time.

Now, for the first time in years, all three are back threatening for the majors. In fact, they've taken each of the three so far this year -- Serena winning Australia, Henin the French, and Venus Wimbledon.

But none of the three currently has a strong foothold at the top of the women's game, which means there's still all to play for.

Their current Grand Slam tallies stand at eight for Serena, six for Venus and six for Henin. With nine more opportunities available before the Naughty Noughties draw to a close, who will end up with the most?

Bill the upcoming U.S. Open as the throwdown. Each can only play sparingly, which raises constant questions about how long they'll manage to last before their bodies or desire for competition finally give out. None of the three is likely to take part in more than one warm-up WTA event (Venus just pulled out of Toronto, Justine pulled out of San Diego, and Serena has pulled out of everything so far).

So if one still proves tough enough to make it through two gruelling weeks in New York this summer, chances are she's also got enough -- physically and mentally -- to keep sneaking in Grand Slam wins over the next couple of years.