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Major Letdown

ANNOUNCED 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

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.

COLOR PHOTO: MITCHELL ZACHS/AP (WILLIAMS AT NASCAR) OVERDRIVE After knee surgery, Serena has been everywhere--excepton the court.