NZ comeback for Williams
SHE'S won seven grand slam singles titles, more than $US28 million in prizemoney and appeared on Oprah and the David Letterman show.
Now, Venus Williams will appear in Auckland in January for the ASB Classic.
The former world No 1 is the marquee signing for New Zealand's premier women's tournament and is another major coup following the appearance of Maria Sharapova at this year's tournament.
Williams is one of the most recognisable figures in women's sport and, together with her sister, has dominated women's tennis over the past decade. She has won 43 singles titles since her breakthrough win in 1998 and appeared in 27 other finals. She's also won 12 grand slam doubles titles with Serena as well as two Olympic gold medals (2000, in the singles and doubles).
The 31-year-old, however, has endured a difficult 2011 and has seen her ranking slide from No 5 in the world to 104, meaning she will need a wildcard to play at the ASB Classic. She played only four WTA tournaments this year but pulled out of two, including the US Open when she forfeited her second-round match.
She's since been diagnosed with Sjogren's syndrome - a systemic autoimmune disease that causes fatigue - and is receiving treatment. She's due to play some exhibition matches next month but is targeting the ASB Classic as her main foray back into competitive tennis.
It's hoped it will go better than today's announcement, when a planned video hook-up with Williams failed at the refurbished Stanley St.
It didn't dull the enthusiasm of tournament director Richard Palmer, who was pleasantly surprised to field an approach from Williams' agent to play in Auckland. It's unlikely she would have been secured for anything less than $100,000, which is comparable to the amount Sharapova received to play here this year.
"She's one of the iconic sportswomen in the world,'' Palmer said. "There are probably four of them and she's one of them, so to get one two years in a row [after Sharapova played this year's] is fantastic.
"She currently has the best record of an player active on the circuit, and that record speaks for itself.''
Palmer was optimistic Williams would be fit to play, especially as the ASB Classic was the only tournament she would play before the Australian Open.
"There's always a risk [she won't],'' Palmer said. "Every single player you get you wait with bated breath and wonder if they are going to turn up. Yes, it has happened on the odd occasion and it's more likely to happen with her. I would like to think not. The fact they want to have a big 2012 and have chosen one event before the Australian Open, our event, is very positive.''
Palmer has a good record signing top players, and Williams and Sharapova are two of a number who are either former world No 1s or players who went on to become No 1.
Caroline Wozniacki is currently the world's top-ranked player and was a beaten quarter-finalist in Auckland in 2009, Lindsay Davenport won in 2008 and Jelena Jankovic was the 2007 champion. Vera Zvonareva, a former world No 2, was a beaten finalist in both 2006 and 2007.
As well as her playing ability, there will be a fair amount of interest in what outfit Williams wears at the tournament and who will be in her travelling party. She's well known for her colourful clothing and has her own clothing line but it hasn't always hit the mark - there was the burlesque-style negligee for the 2010 French Open, the bright yellow latticed outfit supposedly inspired by Alice in Wonderland (described by England cricketer Graeme Swann as looking like "a cheese and onion slice'') and the white playsuit she donned for this year's Wimbledon.
She's also expected to travel with her outspoken mother, Oracene Price.
Palmer will make further announcements on players in the coming days before the full lineup is revealed on November 23 but he was hopeful of luring as many as four players inside the world's top 25.
New Zealand's Marina Erakovic will qualify for the main draw by right at 62 in the rankings, rather than relying on a wildcard, and fellow Kiwis Sacha Jones is likely to be handed a wildcard.