The hip injury at the first Grand Slam event of 2011 was a setback, and it only got worse from there for Venus Williams. There was the abdominal thing at the French Open, and then Venus learned she had an autoimmune disease called Sjogren's syndrome.
The last thing Venus needs is another sickness, but it seems she's contracted a severe case of Five-Ring Fever. The symptoms include an inability to focus for any significant length of time at a tennis tournament on anything other than a pending Olympic Games.
Other markers include an inability to answer three or four consecutive questions without referring to the Olympics. And in its advanced stages, those afflicted with Five-Ring Fever are prone to trade and even obsess over shiny lapel pins gathered at the Games.
Venus has the fever so badly that it's lifted her game to new heights in a year when few pundits expected anything of her. A miracle? Venus' sister, Serena, had become the go-to girl for that. Or so everyone seemed to think as Venus, out of tournament play for six months, fell off the radar and down to No. 134 in the WTA rankings.
But Sunday at the Sony Ericsson Open in Miami, a tournament she only got into via a wild card, she won her second three-set match. In the first one, she battered WTA No. 3 and Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova, winning the third set going away, at love.
Venus then outlasted Aleksandra Wozniak of Canada, 4-6, 6-4, 7-6 (5), staring down a third-set match point with Wozniak serving at 5-4, 40-30. Wozniak drilled a forehand into the net, and Venus, riding a wave of crowd support (she lives just up Interstate 95 in Palm Beach Gardens), rolled on and eventually won a dramatic tiebreaker.
"I just kept coming back," Venus said afterward. "I tried not to let anything discourage me today. I kept thinking about how I really need this match and I need these points. I keep thinking about the Olympics and [how] I need my points [in order to qualify for a place on the team]. Whenever things look bleak, I think about the Olympics and that keeps me motivated."
Venus called the Olympic Games, which will be held in London in early August, the "ultimate experience" in sports. She didn't even say winning was crucial to that experience, although she knows a lot about that, too.
Venus won gold in Sydney in 2000, in singles and doubles (with sister Serena), and the Williamses won the doubles in Beijing (2008) as well. She's 31 now, and the luster of gold is undimmed in her eyes.
"It's a lot of hard work to come back to this level, especially, you know, with the time constraints," she said. "I need to play now so I can play the Olympics. It's like I have to get back. Something's gotta give."
But Venus also remains adamant that the real narcotic is the "experience." She added that it's "about participating." And it's also about the "honor" of being good enough to get into the tournament. Is it any wonder she's into -- really into -- the pins as well?
Venus got to that part, too, after managing to turn every question having to do with the match, her physical condition, her emotional state, her family life -- into a paean to the Olympics. I was tempted to ask her about the threat powerboats pose to the docile manatee in the Intracoastal Waterway, just to see if she could work the Olympics into her response.
Oh, about those pins. She told us she hides them around the house and sometimes loses track of them and spends months figuring out where she hid them.
"They're my pride and joy," she said. "I have a pin holder set, Olympic pin holder set. You unzip it and you open it, and I have 2000 and 2004 in there. Strange enough, I haven't put 2008 in there. I need to get cracking, spend a few hours arranging it perfectly. It's crazy, but, you know, it's all the memories there."
At 31, those memories must take up a lot of shelf space in the house and in Venus' mind. But not so much that she can't think of adding a few more.
Incidentally, did I mention that the tennis event in London will be held at Wimbledon, where Venus has been champion five times -- the most by any woman since Steffi Graf?
Another gold medal may cure Venus' Five-Ring Fever, but I wouldn't count on it.