New York Daily News


Stricken sister defies doubters after early exit


Close your eyes, and you can still see 17-year-old Venus Williams at her very first Wimbledon back in 1997, completely lost out there on Court 1, dropping her debut match in three sets to a young Polish player named Magdalena Gryzbowska. Williams popped a string on a first serve and then, incredibly, proceeded to serve again with the same racket, double faulting. It was all a fascinatin­g display of innocence, ignorance, potential and resolve.

Even then, however, lacking any sophistica­ted tactics or knowledge of the profession­al tour demands, Venus looked far better than she appeared on Monday when she was knocked out of her favorite grass court tournament in the first round by Elena Vesnina of Russia, 6-1, 6-3. This unraveling spectacle was difficult to watch, and would only become more uncomforta­ble when Williams took the long walk back from Court 2 to appear on an Espn-televised press conference.

Venus is struggling bravely with Sjogren’s Syndrome, an energy-sapping disease that forced her to sit out five months before returning to the courts earlier this year. She appeared exhausted from the start Monday, beginning the match with two successive double-faults and never really regaining her equilibriu­m. She converted only 38% of her usually fierce serves, a stat that doomed her to defeat.

But Williams, a five-time Wimbledon champ, is too proud and too good a sister to quit. Maybe i f Serena, her younger and more decorated sibling, were not still playing at a high level, then Venus might consider a quite reasonable, well-earned retirement at age 32. But as it is she is determined to play both singles and doubles, tripling as a protective companion to Serena, and becoming combative at the mere suggestion of a setting sun.

“I feel like I am a great player,” Williams told reporters after the loss. “I am a great player. Unfortunat­ely, I had to deal with circumstan­ces that people don't normally have to deal with in this sport. But I can’t be discourage­d by that, so I’m up for challenges. I have great tennis in me. I just need the opportunit­y. There’s no way I’m just going to sit down and give up just because I have a hard time the first five or six freakin’ tournament­s back. You know, that’s just not me.”

The player out on Court 2 was not quite Venus, either. Williams has been unable to practice with any regularity because of fatigue and entered only five tournament­s this year. She worked very hard, and successful­ly, just to improve her ranking to No. 58 so that she would be eligible to play for the U.S. in the upcoming London Games. The Olympic tennis event also will be held at Wimbledon.

“I’m really proud of my efforts to get my rankings up for the Olympics, that's one of the toughest things I’ve ever done in my life,” Williams said. “That was hard and, yeah, I definitely came back early. Do I think I’m paying for it? I can’t say because I don't really know.”

Venus and Serena have won 14 major doubles titles, and are expected to play together at Wimbledon when that draw begins later this week. After that, there are the Olympics on grass and the U.S. Open on the merciless hardcourts. And after that … nobody can predict, surely not even Venus herself.

Symptoms of Sjogren's Syndrome can flare and subside unpredicta­bly. Venus was clearly hurting on Monday, though we may never know the degree. T he TV camera t r acked her slow, gingerly walk through the crowd after her loss, when those once spry limbs were on stiff auto-pilot.

“I don't really feel like talking about my health now,” Williams said. “You know, life is challengin­g, but I'm always up for a challenge.”

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