The tour has missed her, no doubt, in a catty kind of way. It's just not the same when Caroline Wozniacki or Melanie Oudin becomes the big story of a woman's event; they can't summon Serena's brand of drama, to say nothing of her awe-inspiring talent. And if you're gone for that long, especially if you're Serena, you're going to hear the usual complaints about a multi-faceted lifestyle, along with accusations (however vague) that you've found ways to get out of mandatory tournaments by faking an injury.
Nobody really knows for sure what's going on with Serena. We do know that she sounded decidedly humbled in talking about her chances in Rome, indicating it might take her a while to get match-tough. But as you examine the field, you can't help but wonder: Why can't she win the thing?
Going down through the rankings, starting with No. 2 (yes, Serena remains No. 1): Wozniacki has been playing with a sore ankle and clearly isn't 100 percent. Dinara Safina, coming off a serious back injury, lost on Tuesday to Romania's Alexandra Dulgheru. Venus Williams can rise to any occasion, but she's generally the underdog in any matchup with her sister.
Svetlana Kuznetsova? Already out of the tournament. Elena Dementieva? Forever wistful. Jelena Jankovic isn't healthy (big shocker there) or consistent. Samantha Stosur, who had an 11-match winning streak on clay before losing the Stuttgart final to Justine Henin, pulled out of the draw. Agnieszka Radwanska simply isn't in Serena's class, and never will be. Victoria Azarenka, who gave Serena a titanic run before getting driven out of the Australian Open quarterfinals, appeared strangely listless in a 6-3, 6-3 loss to Russia's Anna Lapushchenkova in Stuttgart.
That takes care of the Top 10, although the biggest stories lie beneath. Maria Sharapova and Kim Clijsters, neither of whom fears Serena in the slightest, are out with injuries. Henin, who won Stuttgart despite a broken little finger on her left hand, is taking a break. That leaves Serena with an alluring path to glory, a notion certain to disturb most everyone around the tour. They all know that Serena is the best player, one of the sport's best drawing cards and an all-time great. To see her walk off the street (almost literally) and hoist a trophy would be troubling, to say the least.
Checking in on other fronts:
• Fed Cup captain Mary Joe Fernandez finds herself in an awkward position as she ponders her roster for the finals against Russia in November. She figures it's her obligation to request the services of Venus and Serena; they are by far the best players in the country. But if they accept, doesn't that belittle the hard work of Oudin and Bethanie Mattek-Sands, who got the U.S. past Russia? An outright rejection of the Williams sisters doesn't seem right, either.
Oudin is adamant about the team remaining intact, saying, "I don't know if that will happen, but if we do end up winning [against Italy, led by Francesca Schiavone and Flavia Pennetta], it will be with the people who got us there. Last year we got to the final with the same team that played every single tie. I think that is the fairest thing to do. You should have enough faith in that team to be able to bring them to the finals."
Solution: Venus and Serena do the right thing and tell Fernandez they will pass. Congratulate Oudin, Mattek-Sands and Liezel Huber for a job well done, and let them finish the job. Neither of the Williams sisters has played Fed Cup since 2007, and to jump into the fray now would be terribly inappropriate. And as much as the U.S. wants the title, how many fans remember who won this thing in any given year? The elements of integrity and morale are just as important.
• Those involved with the Serbian team were not thrilled when Ana Ivanovic skipped the Fed Cup tie against Slovakia to train and vacation in Palma de Mallorca with her boyfriend, golfer Adam Scott. Jankovic went out of her way to compete -- sadly, before thousands of empty seats in Belgrade Arena -- and this was the comment from Jelena's mother, Snezana:
"Jelena missed only one match for Serbia in the last 10 years. This time she flew 48 hours across half the world to play, despite a serious wrist injury. At the same time, somebody else had coffee somewhere. I think the organization failed this time. Why were our political elite and tennis officials absent? Those in charge should think: Does anybody care about women's tennis? Do we need a Fed Cup team at all?"
That quaint little Serbian story, all about world-class players emerging from the rubble of a war-torn landscape, seems to have lost a bit of luster.
• It was quite a week for Ernests Gulbis, the Latvian rich kid who always looked the part, in a regrettable way, but has let his hair grow wild and unchecked -- a frizzy, starving-artist kind of look. He seemed fresh and revitalized during his stirring run through Rome, taking Roger Federer to the brink (blowing six match points before wrapping up the third set) and handing Rafael Nadal a serious test with his punishing serves and forehands.
Gulbis' next step is to conquer his nerves. He admitted that he was "shaking" while trying to put away the legendary Federer, and when it came to the final game against Nadal, "I would have preferred him to serve," Gulbis admitted. "It was a little bit of extra pressure for me, and I rushed things, tried to win the points too early or too fast."
Still, Gulbis' progress is duly noted. "I thought two years ago he could be top 10," Nadal said after the match. "Then he started losing to some people and sometimes I didn't understand. But now I think he can do it for sure."
As for Nadal, who shrugged off an annoying rain delay and downed David Ferrer in the Rome final, Fernando Verdasco probably said it best. Nadal on clay, he said, is "one or maybe even two levels above everyone else."