Venus Williams: 'Great to be back'
KEY BISCAYNE, Fla. -- If you closed your eyes and just listened to Venus Williams play on Wednesday, you would have never known it had been more than six months since she last competed in a tournament.
The grunts, punctuating her hard serves and groundstrokes, were in full effect. And then came the cheers from the stadium court crowd at the Crandon Park Tennis Center whenever she hit a dazzling forehand or serve.
But this was far from business as usual for Williams, and everybody was watching her carefully as she made her return at the Sony Ericsson Open.
How would she look? Would the power that helped her win this tournament three times still be there?
The questions were all valid, as Williams was bothered most of last summer with flu-like symptoms, forcing her to withdraw from U.S. Open series tournaments. More tests revealed the source of Williams' unrelenting fatigue to be a chronic, autoimmune condition called Sjogren's Syndrome.
Williams went from being a strong U.S. Open contender to out of the tournament. She has been working since to regain her health and the Sony Ericsson is her first singles event of 2012. She played doubles in the Fed Cup during the U.S.'s 5-0 win over Belarus in early February.
Wednesday was a big step on the road to re-establishing Williams' career, as she showed little rust, fatigue -- or mercy for that matter -- in taking out Kimiko Date-Krumm, 6-0, 6-3. Williams received a wild card to play in the main draw in Miami, as she is now ranked No. 134 in the world due to her hiatus.
Williams' next opponent will be much taller and hard-hitting: Petra Kvitova, the No. 3 player in the world.
"Just to be in this tournament is big win for me," Williams said after the match. "Just being here is a win; told myself going into this: this is a win. Just to train and get back at this level."
Williams said she changed her life to cope with her autoimmune disorder, trying to stick to a raw and vegan food diet. Sugar is out, as are processed foods. She admits she hasn't fully mastered her new diet yet, calling herself a "chea-gan," her self-made term for being a cheating vegan.
She is still learning about how her body responds to Sjogren's, and what she can to do best maintain her health. Williams' goal is to peak for the 2012 London Olympics, provided she can play well enough in the coming months to qualify for the team.
"I never considered retirement," Williams said, when asked what her thoughts were after learning of her diagnosis. "It's been a journey to understand what is going on. I feel like I have a grasp on it better. Autoimmune means different challenges than other people, but that doesn't mean you can't be successful."
This match was Williams' for the taking, as she used her 6-foot-1 frame and power to overwhelm her 5-4 opponent. Date-Krumm gave Williams a battle in 2011 Wimbledon, on slippery grass, before losing 8-6 in the third set.
Miami's hard courts favored Williams' power, and she showed that on the first point of the match. She opened with a big statement, blasting a first serve, 121-mph ace down the T, far from Date-Krumm's reach. The rest was relatively simple, as Williams' power, serve and overall superiority took No. 78-ranked Date-Krumm out. Williams' game flowed freely, and she frequently came to the net to deliver even more pressure on her opponent.
Date-Krumm, one of the toughest counterpunchers on the tour given her size, put up as much fight as she could. Knowing she'd never be able to overpower Williams, went for "100 percent risk," as she landed perfect, on-the-line placements of her groundstrokes. Anything short of perfection was sharply answered by Williams, through devastatingly ripped winners.
"She is strong, still strong," Date-Krumm said after the match.
Williams looked calm and composed throughout the match. But at the end, Williams revealed her emotions as she happily skipped to the net to shake Date-Krumm's hand. There was a huge smile across Williams' face, and she added a few shimmies and dance moves to the celebratory music following her win. The crowd cheered, she blew kisses and friendly waves, and it appeared all was right with Williams.
She was once again an elite tennis player, doing what she does best. She wasn't sick, looking for answers, hoping to understand why her body was betraying her.
Williams is playing tennis, living her life on her terms, with hope for a healthy future.
"It just feels great to be back," she said.