Venus Williams finding her strength
FLUSHING MEADOWS, N.Y. -- Venus Williams has not had an easy year. Diagnosed with an autoimmune disease that she announced at last year's U.S. Open, it was tempting to think the 32-year-old might have encountered an obstacle that a few aces wouldn't solve.
"Honestly, I didn't even understand what I was going through at that time last year," Williams said from the safety of the second round at this season's final Grand Slam event. "I feel like just this summer I've come to acceptance. Like it takes a long time to come to acceptance, especially when you're an athlete. You see yourself as this healthy person that nothing can defeat you.
"So it takes a while before you can kind of see yourself as someone with flaws and chips [sic] in the armor."
So a few tentative games in her first-round match against Bethanie Mattek-Sands and it was easy to imagine that Williams wasn't back to her usual force of nature on the court. But she was. Williams soon found her power and a first serve for a 6-3, 6-1 win against her fellow American at Arthur Ashe Stadium.
"You're never surprised with Venus playing well," Mattek-Sands said. "I think she's actually had a better summer than most people are giving her credit for."
Williams has not looked strong in the high-profile events. She lost in the first round of Wimbledon and the second round of the French Open. But Williams did reach a semifinal in Cincinnati leading up to the U.S. Open, where she is unseeded -- mainly because of lack of play.
"Last fall, I didn't play any tournaments and I was at home watching on TV," she said. "So there's a big difference between watching on TV and being in a tournament."
Williams poses a bit of a wrench in her quarter of the draw, which also is populated by some talented young Americans. Although Christina McHale and Irina Falconi played well last year -- both women reached the third round -- there will be no repeat. Both lost in the first round this year.
Sloane Stephens, above the fray of their dense slice of the draw, upset No. 22 Francesca Schiavone to serve as proof that this young crop of Americans is deeper than in years past.
"There's actually a bunch of Americans that are doing well and in the top 100," Mattek-Sands said. "A couple of years ago I was getting that question and there was really nobody, almost. I think it comes in waves."
"I think the American women have done amazing," Williams said. "You know, McHale is in the top 30, Sloane seems to be closing in as well on the top 30."
Williams could have to dispatch a few of those up-and-comers if she wants to reach the second week of the tournament. But her wave is still cresting. When Angelique Kerber, the No. 6 seed set to face Williams in the next round, was asked about her upcoming opponent, there was a flash of nervousness.
Nothing but respect, perhaps a bit of awe for the elder Williams sister.
"I am the favorite," Kerber said. "But for me, she is the favorite."
It's another thing that Williams will have to learn to accept.