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Justine Henin had yet to win her first French Open. Kim Clijsters was still the best player to never win a major title. No Russian had ever won a major. Neither had a woman from Serbia.
All those things were true the last time Serena and Venus Williams held the two top spots in the WTA Tour's ranking. It was the week of May 5, 2003, seven years ago, just a few weeks before everything changed in women's tennis. Henin would win the French Open that year, and not without controversy. In the semifinals, she held up her hand to ask Serena Williams to delay her serve, but wouldn't grant Williams, the defending champion, a let when she faulted. Henin went on to win the U.S. Open and the 2004 Australian Open. Then the Russian Revolution was on, with Anastasia Myskina winning the French Open, Maria Sharapova winning Wimbledon, and Svetlana Kuznetsova winning the U.S. Open. For the first time since 1998, neither Williams sister won a major title.
As soon as next week the sisters could complete an impressive return to the tennis summit. If Venus defeats Francesca Schiavone in Madrid on Wednesday, she is guaranteed to reach the No. 2 spot in the rankings, right behind her sister. It would be their 46th week together at the top.
We all know the Williams sisters changed the direction of the sport. Powerful groundstrokes are now a must. The return of serve trumps the serve. And one weapon, like the Steffi Graf forehand, is no longer good enough for Grand Slam success. Their strokes have inspired much emulation, yet this is the striking reality: After all these years, no one has quite figured out how to keep the Williams sisters from winning. They're not only still playing, but they're still the best, despite a few dips along the way. To set the standard for more than a decade -- well, I don't see a player out there, from the juniors on up to Justine, who could hope to achieve that in the future.
The Williams sisters are often praised today for their longevity and especially their once controversial approach to the tour (prevent burnout by playing a limited schedule). It's deserving praise, but I'm not sure this method would produce results for anyone else over so long of a period. That's what we're going to learn when the Williams sisters do decide to retire. What works for them doesn't work for others. It can't. They're that good.