* Champion Williams returns in time for Wimbledon
* She has not played competitively since last July
By Martyn Herman
LONDON, June 7 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.
The 29-year-old American won the last of her 13 grand slam
singles titles at Wimbledon last year before a freak foot injury
and complications including life-threatening blood clots cast
doubt over her career.
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 organisers 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. To comment on this story:
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