ARE THEY SERIOUS ABOUT TENNIS? WE DON'T KNOW

The Williams sisters talk in riddles. They swear they love the game, yet they love the fact their lives are more than just a game, says Rohit Brijnath.

They've withdrawn. They're not available. They're sorry they can't come. They've hurt a knee, and an elbow, and an abdominal muscle. They're harder to get an interview with than J. D. Salinger. They're sightings less frequent than Greta Garbo in her time.

Venus showed up at the NASDAQ Open only to promote a video game. Serena was glimpsed at an Oscar party, seen in court as she bravely confronted her sister's killer, reported to be appearing on the Tyra Banks show.

Are they tennis players who, umm, well, don't like to play much tennis any more?

We don't know.

Venus lost in the first round of this year's Australian Open to the legendary Tszvetana Pironkova. Serena lost in the third round of the Australian Open to Daniela Hantuchova.

January was the first time they played since September. January is the last time they've played at all.

Since then the tour has hopped from Melbourne to Japan to Dubai to Qatar to Indian Wells to the Nasdaq 100 to the Family Circle Cup and they haven't hit a ball. Not played a point.

Big sister is ranked No. 12. Little sister is No. 106. This used to be the most dominant act in tennis?

Are they on a sabbatical, scarred by the death of their sister, tired of the tennis grind, all done and washed up and gone at 24 and 25?

Is fashion more seductive, interior decorating more appealing, TV serials more compelling?

We don't know.

They talk in riddles. They swear they love the game, yet they love the fact their lives are more than just a game.

Everyone's worried. Chris Evert writes an impassioned letter to Serena in Tennis magazine, saying: "I appreciate that becoming a well-rounded person is important to you, as you've made that desire very clear. Still, a question lingers — do you ever consider your place in history?

"In the short term you may be happy with the various things going on in your life, but I wonder whether 20 years from now you might reflect on your career and regret not putting 100 percent of yourself into tennis. Because whether you want to admit it or not, these distractions are tarnishing your legacy."

Martina Navratilova is worried, saying: "Serena should be in her physical prime, but she is wasting time you cannot ever get back. She had the opportunity to be the greatest in history. Instead, she'll be a supernova who burst on the scene, and then she was gone."

Do they care what these women think, should they?

We don't know.

Venus has won one Slam of 16 she has played since winning the 2000 US Open. It came last year at Wimbledon, from nowhere, like a blistering, sudden, raging reminder that big sister could still fashion victory and then, as abruptly, she faded.

Serena was different. Through 2002-03, wearing a boxer's menace, she won four of five Slams, a lurching, slamming, grunting, desperate talent with a bulldozer's subtlety, and then, almost as if she'd proved a point, she let greatness slip.

She'd miss a couple of Slams, she'd show up for others so overweight it became a comic's ammunition, she'd rally her way to the 2005 Australian title, she'd fall back again.

It didn't make sense to us, did it to them? We don't know.

But maybe that's what is so frustrating and refreshing about the sisters. They've never ridden the conventional road. They hardly played junior tournaments, their father coached them in unorthodox fashion from books, they stuck to themselves on tour, they revived women's tennis, they turned their backs on it.

Everyone laughed at Richard Williams, an eccentric, bumbling, canny man. He proclaimed they would dominate women's tennis before they had played a pro tournament. He was right. When Venus first reigned, he said Serena was better. He was right.

And he said, way back, in the late 1990s, that his girls would be "out of tennis by 23, 24 years old", that they would pursue multi-dimensional lives, that it was fine with him because he didn't want "a couple of gum-chewing illiterates on my hands".

Could he be right again? We don't know.

Part of the dilemma, and fascination, about the Williams sisters is that they don't play by our rules, they don't fit the stereotype of the driven champion, shoving aside distraction, marrying focus, marching inexorably towards titles, history, legend.

Why wouldn't you want to make absolute use of so much talent, bewilders us; why wouldn't you want to express yourself completely as a tennis player, confuses us.

But it's not so simple. As much we celebrate single-mindedness, we also worry about the uni-dimensional lives of athletes, unscarred by education, absent of interests, unable to converse beyond crosscourt forehands and lactic acid, trapped in an insular world. Yet when the Williams open windows to other worlds beyond tennis, we are almost outraged.

Do they want to be accomplished in many things, or all-time greats in one thing? Do they accept themselves as tennis players or only part-time practitioners of a sporting art? Do they have some sense of obligation to the tour, to the fans, or only to themselves?

We still don't know.