KEY BISCAYNE, Fla. -- Venus Williams has played professional tennis for the past 14 years, yet now, at age 31, she's not sure of what to expect of herself.
Williams, who is returning to tennis after a six-month layoff due to Sjogren's Syndrome, passed a big test Friday night at the Sony Ericsson Open. It took more than two hours, but Williams' energy level remained high to defeat No. 3-ranked Petra Kvitova, 6-4, 4-6, 6-0.
Williams has discussed how she's dealing with the auto-immune disease, with fatigue being one of the main debilitating symptoms. Every day is different, and Williams can never be assured of her strength levels. She hopes her near-vegan, raw diet and conditioning will allow her to keep the Sjogren's in check and play well.
On this night, she had all the strength she needed; but it's just one match, with more tests to come in Miami. She next plays Aleksandra Wozniak in the third round.
"I was definitely pretty pumped out there -- could you tell?" Williams asked in her post-match press conference. "I really have nothing to lose, literally, nothing to lose. I don't think there is anyone else [like that] on tour, besides me and [Alisa] Kleybanova. Every shot is a victory and a blessing. I am just going for it."
(Kleybanova, who was diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma last May, also returned to play in Miami after successfully completing chemotherapy and radiation treatments.)
Kvitova presented a formidable challenge, as she mirrored Williams' frame and game in many ways. Both women are tall -- Kvitova is 6 feet, Williams 6-foot-1; both serve hard, have flat ground strokes and good movement. And Kvitova is also dealing with health problems, as she withdrew from Dubai due to a right Achilles' injury and Doha with an unspecified issue.
The big difference is Kvitova is a lefty, born a decade after Williams and coming into her own.
"She looks very ready, very fit. I mean, she can play on the tour," Kvitova said. "It's good for us, she is a good motivation."
Williams sees Miami as a status check on her game as she tries to prepare for the Grand Slams and London Olympics. She was given a wild card into the main draw here because her ranking fell to No. 134 heading into the tournament.
Williams described her pre-match thoughts as "going out on a hope and a prayer," but got more than just a fond wish to do well. Her level of play against Kvitova was much closer to a top-10 performance, handling the quick pace and aggressiveness effectively. When Williams got her first serve in, good things tended to follow. When she came to the net, even better things happened (she won 75 percent of the time).
The first set was very tight with no service breaks until Williams did the trick at 5-4 to take the set. Kvitova raised her game in the second, and the service breaks started flowing. Williams stormed back in the third, pressuring Kvitova with her serve, and raced out to a 3-0 lead. Williams said she was surprised she didn't lose a game to Kvitova in the third, adding that she was just trying to "get to six and win the match."
This was another tennis match, another test passed, but Williams viewed it all with a bigger perspective.
"I have a new lease on life," Williams said. "I want to feel good enough to play, and if I don't, I try to be mentally tough."