What remains of Venus' career?
TORONTO -- Venus Williams played the opening round of the Rogers Cup in Toronto on Tuesday, a match that was expected to provide some valuable insight into her increasingly uncertain playing future.
It was the 33-year-old's first competitive appearance since losing in the first round of the French Open in May, an absence caused by a persistent back problem that flared up almost a year ago. On a day-to-day basis, Williams is also dealing with the fatigue-causing effects of Sjogren's syndrome, an autoimmune condition she was diagnosed with two years ago.
But as the score line suggested, Williams' 0-6, 6-4, 6-2 loss to Kirsten Flipkens sent mixed signals about her prospects. After winning the first set to love with an impressive start, Williams fell behind repeatedly in the second as her level dropped, and was a game away from being bageled herself in the third set.
"I wasn't expecting to play that well in the first set, so I think in the second I just didn't handle it well. But, you know, I was pretty close there to closing that match out," Williams said afterward. "Then I got down in the third. I think I just sprayed a few balls early in the second and got a little tentative. I just hadn't played a lot, really very sporadically in the last few months."
Had Flipkens not been coming back from a knee injury herself, the match may not have been as close. The Belgian has been having a breakthrough year and reached the Wimbledon semifinals last month.
As the match wore on, Williams' movement was frequently sluggish and batches of unforced errors were commonplace, particularly off her more fragile forehand side. But the most noticeable aspect of her performance was on serve. The motion that once delivered the fastest women's serve in main draw competition (127 mph) looked restricted and hesitant, rarely cracking the 100 mph mark and producing several double faults.
"I just really started serving a lot more in the last week, so I'm not really 100 percent on the serve yet," said Williams, who has had to restrict her training because of her back injury. "So, to me, it was better not to take too many risks and just do something I felt more comfortable with. This week I will definitely be practicing my serve a lot more and getting more confident in it and more comfortable with serving out there."
But Williams' longtime hitting partner and adviser, David Witt, said that pain was not the reason she was holding back on her serve, which allows the possibility of improvement.
"The back's fine," Witt told ESPN.com. "That's not necessarily the back. She's just got to push up; use her legs more. Combination of a couple of things."
Williams' uneven performance could largely be attributed to the layoff, he added.
"She needs some more matches under her belt," he said. "I don't know how comfortable she felt out there.
"Flipkens started playing a little better; the points started getting longer. There are things she could have done better here and there but that is just being comfortable out there.
"We'll just get back on a practice court and just keep working on the things she needs to work on so she doesn't have unforced errors and matches like that don't slip away."
The incongruity of watching the seven-time Grand Slam champion struggle with the basics of her game was matched only by her reaction afterward. Despite the loss and her error-filled performance, Williams was smiling and upbeat when speaking with reporters, even describing the match as "fun."
"In the past I have been able to win when I haven't played a lot of matches, but in general I just haven't played hardly any matches for a set period of time and that's the different set of circumstances," Williams said. "So my expectations coming to this tournament maybe weren't as much as going to other tournaments.
"For me, the best thing I can do is to be positive and to realize that maybe I'm not going to be at my best at this point but I can, you know, just work to that."
Williams plans to play next week in Cincinnati before heading to the US Open. For all her emphasis on needing more matches to improve her form, the main question surrounding the former No. 1 is whether she can actually play enough to achieve anything substantial in what remains of her career. As she showed by dominating a top-20 player for a short period Tuesday, when her game is clicking Williams remains very competitive against all but perhaps the top handful of players, such as younger sister Serena. But whether she can maintain that form over a stretch of several matches is a different issue. Her singles title in Luxembourg last year has been her only tournament victory in over three years, and she is currently ranked No. 38.
Given all her physical challenges and the training involved in maintaining a competitive level, there are also often questions about why Williams continues to persevere in her comeback. Earlier in the week, for example, she mentioned that she had to tape Serena's matches during Wimbledon because most of her day was spent rehabbing.
But while the chance of recapturing former glories looks more and more distant, Williams seems particularly motivated to continue in order to show she can compete despite having Sjogren's and serve as an example to others with the same condition.
There is also the opportunity of grabbing more doubles hardware with Serena -- the two won Wimbledon and the Olympics last year, though Venus' back problems and scheduling difficulties have prevented them from playing together recently.
One thing that is improving for Williams, however, is the amount of support she receives during matches. She was enthusiastically backed by a small but noisy crowd toward the end of Tuesday's match in Toronto, and last year at the US Open she said it was the first time she had "felt like an American" at her national Grand Slam.
"It will be wonderful to feel that same support as last year, would be great," Williams said Tuesday.
Williams is facing a daunting climb back, but that's what makes the attempt so compelling.