PARIS -- "Give me a little cheer because I really need it!" Serena Williams said this week after winning her first match in 11 trauma-filled months. "I'm so happy to be back."
So, here it goes, Serena: Hooray!
We, too, are delighted for you that you're back.
But also more than a bit concerned.
Four months ago, Williams was on what she calls her "death bed," laboring to breathe because of potentially life- and career-threatening blood clots on both lungs. Before that, she sliced open her right foot on glass at a restaurant, had double surgery to repair the damage and was locked in a cast and then a protective boot for 20 weeks.To cap it all, in injecting herself twice a day with blood thinners to help combat the clots, she developed a bloody bruise "the size of a grapefruit on my stomach" that also had to be surgically removed.
Yet now, and even though she still puffs heavily after punishing, long rallies, Williams is again one of the favorites to win Wimbledon.
An uplifting personal story if she pulls it off. Champion, back from death's door, and all that.
But how acutely embarrassing for women's tennis.
Doubly so if her opponent on final day is her sister, Venus, also making a mini-comeback from an injured right hip.
What? Williams vs. Williams, again?
Such a scenario would be further proof, as if more proof is needed, of their talents and drive, and push back talk that, at age 29 for Serena and 31 for Venus, they're about due for a precipitous decline.
It also could thrill U.S. television executives. When the sisters played each other in the 2002 French Open final, NBC got a 2.8 rating. That's higher than in any year since for the women's final at Roland Garros -- and double the 1.4 rating for 2010 and 2011.
But what an indictment a Williams win would be for all the other women who, by now, really should be making a far bigger imprint on the game. The 10 top-ranked players have just nine major titles between them. Top-ranked Caroline Wozniacki has none. Serena has 13 and, as a consequence, far more respect.
Where are the fresh young prodigies, the Williamses of tomorrow, the absorbing new rivalries that women's tennis needs to stop looking so insipid compared to the men's game?
Still overshadowed by aging players of today. Maria Sharapova, at 24, was the youngest semifinalist at the French Open, with Marion Bartoli, 26, Li Na, 29, and Francesca Schiavone, 30. Rewind a decade, the semifinalists' ages in 2001 were 17 (Kim Clijsters), 19 (Justine Henin), 20 (Martina Hingis) and 25 (winner Jennifer Capriati). This year's French Open was also the first where none of the top three seeded women reached the quarterfinals. Pathetic, really.
Li's French Open win has WTA officials giddily dreaming of getting rackets into the hands of millions of Chinese girls. The ever-bankable Sharapova's surgically repaired right shoulder can now carry her deep into the second week of a major. Schiavone has the gift of delicate touch and Bartoli is trying to be less flaky.
Yet only the brave or foolhardy would confidently predict that they and other top-ranked players will beat a rusty Williams sister, especially Serena. While her game and match fitness aren't yet what they used to be, she showed in her Wimbledon warmup at Eastbourne this week that she digs as deep as ever, recovering from a dire 1-6 first set to beat Tsvetana Pironkova and then going down fighting, 3-6, 7-6 (5), 7-5, to No. 3-ranked Vera Zvonareva in a much-improved second match.
All of which makes it tough to know what to wish for, who to cheer for, over these next two Wimbledon weeks.
A feel-good but unsettling Williams from-sickness-to-success comeback story? Or, for example, a first major title for top-seeded Wozniacki that would suggest that there is light at the end of the Williams tunnel and perhaps less reason to feel quite so depressed about the women's game? Wozniacki and Serena could meet in the semifinals.
Serena hasn't been an easy champion to warm to over the years, with forehands and backhands wielded like a woodman's ax, her ogre-like hunger for victory, her steamrollering of opponents, and her profanity-laced bullying of a U.S. Open lineswoman in 2009. She has been physically and mentally awesome, she commands respect, is sometimes provocative, charming and cheeky, but appeared too dominant to be deep-down lovable.
Coming back from illness could change that. Although disguised by her mental toughness, there were unmistakable signs of physical vulnerability in her play at Eastbourne, like her gasps for breath, hands on hips, eyes closed, after a 24-shot second-set rally with Zvonareva. The mix of frailty and grit was endearing.
Rather than awe-inspiring, which Williams always is, it would be simply inspiring if she defends her Wimbledon crown in such circumstances.
But how worrisome for women's tennis.
John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jleicester(at)ap.org or http://twitter.com/johnleicester