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Monday, June 25, 2012
Was Olympic push too much for Venus Williams?

By Sandra Harwitt
Special to espnW

Every morning since she told the world at the 2011 U.S. Open that she suffers from the autoimmune disease Sjogren's syndrome, Venus Williams has been motivated by only one goal.

None of the symptoms of her chronic disease -- fatigue, aching muscles, dry mouth -- were going to deter the 32-year-old from fulfilling her desire to play in another Olympics. Adding to her incentive, the tennis at this year's Games, which begin July 27, will be held on the grass at the All England Club, the home of Wimbledon. Williams is considered the most dominant female player on grass of her generation, with five Wimbledon titles (2000, '01, '05, '07, '08).

Nonetheless, making the Olympics was not going to be easy for Williams. She spent nearly seven months sidelined while trying to figure out how to deal with her diagnosis. There is no specific treatment for Sjogren's syndrome -- no pill to take, no shot to administer. There are just theories that certain steps might help patients overcome their symptoms. To that end, Williams changed her eating habits to what she refers to as her "cheagan" diet -- attempting to stay vegan, but admitting to cheating.

Venus Williams
Venus Williams was determined to qualify for another Olympics, but has she put too much of a burden on herself while making that happen?

When she returned to the WTA Tour at the Miami tournament in March, Williams was ranked No. 134. She needed to be in the mid-50s by the time of the Olympic nomination deadline on June 11. While things have not gone all that smoothly, she managed to improve her ranking to 47 by the deadline by reaching three quarterfinals, in Miami, Charleston and Rome.

All Williams needs now is a special dispensation from the ITF. She played in only one Fed Cup during the past four years, rather than the minimum of two required for Olympic eligibility. She did, however, travel to Germany with the 2011 Fed Cup team even though she was injured and couldn't play.

Although it's not official, she is expected to receive Olympic confirmation without issue.

The real question is has Williams, who went out without a whimper to 79th-ranked Elena Vesnina, 6-1, 6-3, in the first round of Wimbledon on Monday, put undue pressure on herself by constantly referring to the Olympics as the object of her desire?

She says no, but what someone says and thinks can often be two very different things.

"Well, that's all I've fought for this whole year, so I hope that I can play well there," Williams said. "For me it will just be an honor to be there, and try to capitalize on that moment."

Williams loves the whole Olympic experience and has played in three Games: Sydney in 2000, Athens in 2004 and Beijing in 2008. She might be one of the more famous athletes in a sea of mostly amateur competitors at the Olympics, but it's hard to distinguish a difference among them all when she's there. Like most other athletes, she embraces the Olympic culture, right down to the traditional collecting and trading of pins, which adorn the credentials hanging around her neck.

And she cherishes her three Olympic medals. She won gold in singles and doubles in 2000, and gold in doubles in 2008. Both doubles medals came in a family affair with sister Serena, and doubles is where she feels she has her best chance in the London Games.

Considering Williams' medical situation and the fact that she never really knows how she's going to feel when she wakes up in the morning -- fatigued or energized -- the prevailing opinion is that she's daydreaming in believing her career can continue for much longer.

She disagrees. p>

"I feel like I am a great player," she said. "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."

And you can hardly fault Williams for wanting another Olympic moment. Win or lose, she always refers to the Olympics as an important highlight of her career.

"They're the time of my life, especially when I got to win," Williams said. "Let's be honest. Being able to get to that point in my career has been amazing for me."