Sitting out may be catching up to Serena

In tennis terms, top-ranked Serena Williams has not exactly been a legend of the fall.

Last week she announced that she was unable to return to action for Tokyo’s Pan Pacific Open or October’s mandatory stop at a WTA Premier tournament in Beijing.

That’s not surprising, given that once again, Williams is injured (this time due to a bizarre foot injury she sustained while stepping on glass at a night club she visited following Wimbledon), and once again, she has decided that — for the most part — tournaments in between the U.S. Open and the Australian Open aren’t really worth her time.

However, her status as the world’s best is now in jeopardy and she could lose her No. 1 ranking to either No. 2 Caroline Wozniacki or No. 4 Vera Zvonareva in Beijing, depending on their finishes.

Since 2002 — Serena’s finest year, when she won three majors (the French Open, Wimbledon and the U.S. Open), won fall titles in Tokyo and Leipzig and then reached the final of the WTA Championships where Kim Clijsters stopped her 18-match win streak — Williams’ appearances and quality at fall events have been mediocre at best.

She has won all of two fall tournaments in the past seven years, including the 2009 WTA Championships. While Serena has been, without question, the most dominant player at the majors in that period of time — adding nine Grand Slam titles from 2003-2010 — she has been completely unreliable when it comes to showing up and giving it her all as the season winds down.

This year has been particularly odd and the fact that Serena still sits at No. 1, even though she’s only played six tournaments, shows just how good she’s been when she has played, but it also shows how wildly inconsistent the rest of the WTA ‘s elite players have been.

Be that as it may, according to the WTA Tour, Serena has already incurred 2010 bonus pool losses of $1 million as a result of missing six commitment tournaments (Dubai, Indian Wells, Miami, Cincinnati, the U.S. Open and Beijing). That’s not direct money out of Serena’s large handbag as the bonuses are paid at the end of the year, but only 12 women on the WTA Tour have earned that much in prize money alone to date, so it’s certainly nothing to sniff at.

But given that Williams makes far more off the court than she makes on it (she was estimated by Forbes to have earned $20 million in 2009 and $13.5 million of that was off-court), she can afford to look down her nose at the bonus pool, largely rendering the so-called incentive as ineffective.

While some fans don’t closely follow what occurs in between the majors, many serious fans do, as do the head honchos of the WTA Tour, who are making a huge push into Asia in search of big sponsorship dollars. To not have the tour’s most notable player visibly promoting the sport does have an affect on attendance, as well as the amount of attention that’s paid overall to the sport.

Over the years, Serena has been better about playing Beijing than anywhere else, but a quick look at her fall record from 2003 to present reveals that in many ways, she may well have skipped the fall season entirely:

— She didn’t play at all following Wimbledon in 2003 after she injured her knee.

— In 2004, after falling to Jennifer Capriati at the U.S. Open, she was fairly active, winning Beijing, suffering a first-round loss in Linz and then falling to Maria Sharapova in a hard-fought WTA Championships final.

— In 2005, after losing to her sister Venus at the U.S. Open, she played just one match, an opening-round loss to Tian-Tian Sun in Beijing.

— In 2006, after losing to Amelie Mauresmo at the U.S. Open, she missed the rest of the fall tournaments.

— In 2007, after losing to Justine Henin at the U.S. Open, she seemed to be on a bit of a mission, playing Stuttgart, Moscow and Zurich (none of which were title runs) before retiring in the first round of the WTA Championships.

— In 2008, she won her first U.S. Open since 2002 over Jelena Jankovic, fell in the first round of Stuttgart and after playing two matches at the WTA Championships, pulled out with an injury.

— Last year, she lost in the third round of Beijing but did win the WTA Championships.

Without a doubt, Serena has suffered a series of knee and foot injuries over the years, but really, even she’ll admit that as important as tennis is to her, her pursuits off court are of huge importance and playing week in, week out is not her forte. That’s why in the past month, even when she was supposed to be rehabbing her foot, she was shooting commercials, doing appearances on the Home Shopping Network, going to London’s Fashion Week (allegedly wearing 6-inch heels with a bad foot) and sitting in for a taping of The Oprah Winfrey Show.

But when recently asked on Twitter whether her "commercialization ever distracts you from tennis," Williams replied: “Never. It keeps me INTO tennis."

Serena just turned 29, so she at least has one excellent year and maybe another good year left before she begins a natural decline. Whether she plays at all for the rest of the year is up in the air, but according to the tournament in Moscow, which begins on Oct. 18, she has asked for a visa, so it’s possible that she will get back into action for the first time since Wimbledon and then play the Championships again the week after Moscow.

The WTA is hoping she’s going to at least make an effort, but when not playing, she isn’t very forthcoming with tour officials, who had no idea the extent of her recent injury before she revealed it during an interview given the first week of the U.S. Open.

"The Tour has been in contact with Serena and her team, and our understanding is that she is hopeful to play a tournament, health permitting, in advance of the year-end WTA Championships and then to participate in the WTA Championships themselves," said WTA Senior Vice President of Global Marketing and Communications Andrew Walker.

Whatever the case, Serena’s competitive fire and technical skill have been sorely missed. With U.S. Open champion Kim Clijsters now pulling out of Beijing after having a mole removed from her foot, seven-time major winner Justine Henin out the rest of the year with an elbow injury, three-time Grand Slam champion Maria Sharapova and former French Open champion Ana Ivanovic struggling, the tour is missing some of its most attractive personalities.

Serena may be the tour’s biggest drama queen, but it’s thrilling, high-level productions that the tour needs right now and they have been sorely lacking as of late.

If she deems herself fit to play, Williams’ re-appearance on the WTA’s red carpet of tennis courts is exactly what the doctor ordered for the good of the sport.