Venus Williams spent most of the past year in denial, refusing to accept her vulnerability on the tennis court caused by an energy-sapping autoimmune disease.
Now she’s back to focusing on opponents and plotting her return to the upper echelon of a sport she once ruled.
Williams, 32, advanced to the second round of the U.S. Open yesterday with a 6-3, 6-1 win against fellow American Bethanie Mattek-Sands, a year after she dropped out of the season’s final major tournament because of Sjogren’s syndrome.
“I feel like just this summer I’ve come to acceptance,” Williams said in a news conference. “It takes a long time to come to acceptance, especially when you’re an athlete. You see yourself as this healthy person, that nothing can defeat you.”
Williams, a seven-time Grand Slam singles champion with five Wimbledon titles and two at the U.S. Open, was ranked No. 1 in the world on three separate occasions.
She was still ranked No. 5 at the end of 2010 before slipping out of the top 100. She failed to reach the quarterfinals of any Grand Slam tournament in 2011, and withdrew from the U.S. Open before the second round. By the end of the year, she was ranked No. 103.
“I didn’t even understand what I was going through last year,” she said. “So it takes a while before you can kind of see yourself as someone with flaws and chips in the armor. Now that I have come to accept it, it helps me a lot in how I need to prepare for my matches, the mindset I need to come into it.”
Sjogren’s syndrome is a condition in which a person’s white blood cells attack moisture-producing glands, causing dry eyes and a dry mouth as well as often leading to extreme fatigue and joint pain. The Sjogren’s Syndrome Foundation says on its website that as many as 4 million Americans have the disease, and 90 percent of them are women.
Williams dropped off the tennis circuit after the U.S. Open last year while taking medicine for her condition. She has continued to struggle in 2012, losing her opening-round match at Wimbledon in June and falling in the second round at the French Open in May.
“This summer, I just came to terms with it, I’ve accepted that now I do have an autoimmune disease,” she told reporters. “I think just after time, you still have the same symptoms over and over and over and over again. After a while you start to realize, ‘OK, I’m not making this up, it’s real.’”
The winner of 43 career singles titles, Williams has earned more than $28 million in prize money in a professional career that began in October 1994. She said she has only recently begun to understand how to compete while dealing with her disease.
“There comes a point when you have to start realizing you can’t play through everything,” she said. “I’ve come a long way mentally, emotionally, physically as well. I’m sure this is just the beginning of learning.”
Williams, now ranked 46th and facing a U.S. Open second- round match against sixth-seeded Angelique Kerber of Germany, said she’s “looking forward to the top 10, all that great stuff.”
“I’ve had an unbelievable lot,” Williams said in the news conference. “I’m living my dream every day for the last 15 years, so I can’t complain. For me it’s about living life with no regrets. If I have any small chance to hit the ball, I’m going to go for it.”
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