- Johnette Howard, ESPN Staff Writer
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NEW YORK -- It's just a gut feeling. Nothing more. But watching Venus Williams' opening-round win Tuesday at the U.S. Open, it felt like she moved one match closer and one upset win away from becoming one of those rollicking, rolling sentimental favorites who have hijacked this tournament before.
Jimmy Connors did it in his dotage. Sampras and Agassi, Evert and Navratilova all became the storyline in their career twilights, too. And much like them, except for far different reasons, Venus Williams has gotten to the point that she isn't supposed to win the U.S. Open anymore.
Except Venus looked and played like her old self Tuesday despite the fatigue-inducing autoimmune disease she has been grappling with for a year. She routed fellow American Bethanie Mattek-Sands, 6-3, 6-1, and -- again, this is just a gut feeling -- you might want to pay attention Thursday when Williams gets a rematch against sixth-seeded Angelique Kerber, the fast-rising German star who knocked Williams out of the London Olympics 7-6, 7-6 last month in one of the more shocking ways possible.
Kerber rallied twice in tiebreakers that Venus seemed to have won, on the same Wimbledon grass that Venus used to own.
That kind of loss is the new reality for Venus since she was diagnosed with Sjogren's syndrome. Williams admittedly felt uncertain that day and the far less-decorated Kerber played as though she had little to fear. "She had the answers," Venus said after the match.
Given what a great champion Williams has been for long stretches of her career, watching her lose her status as one of the surest things in the draw has been wrenching. Her diagnosis with Sjogren's arrived so out of the blue and her decline still feels premature. Williams is only 32.
But now, even matchups that Williams would have reliably breezed through before are now fraught with danger and mystery and intrigue. You find yourself searching her movements and facial expressions for telltale clues: Is she feeling all right? How about now? Or now?
Not even Williams herself knows which Venus will show up from day to day until a match begins. Will it be the one who wakes up feeling fine, as if she almost doesn't have Sjogren's at all? Or the one who is so chronically fatigued that even finishing a practice, let alone a match, can be a challenge? (When asked earlier this summer if she just skips working out on down days, Venus firmly said, "No. One thing I'm about is living life with no regrets." And so? "I go," she said.)
The disease isn't going to go away.
And yet, look at this: After struggling through much of 2011 and early this year, Williams has been on a little roll since that bitterly disappointing loss to Kerber at the Olympics -- the one tournament Venus had announced she was pointing to all year but barely qualified for, remember, by upsetting Samantha Stosur on clay in Rome. (The same Sam Stosur who is the defending champion at this U.S. Open.)
Venus rallied after her Olympic singles loss to Kerber to win the doubles gold medal with her sister, Serena. Then two weeks ago in Cincinnati, Venus advanced to a final for the first time since 2011 by dropping three more higher-seeded opponents before losing to Li Na.
Even more encouraging for someone with chronic fatigue problems, Williams' record in three-set matches is a stunner: She's a sparkling 8-1.
So what changed? And why now?
Williams thinks she has a few clues.
She said Tuesday that she only recently quit railing against the idea that she has Sjogren's and instead finally accepted -- really accepted -- that the disease was going to be an inextricable part of her life and career, so it was far more useful to try to strategize how to work around it rather than live fighting off the fear and loathing of when it might hit.
In Cincinnati, she told reporters that she literally used to be "afraid" that, even if a match was going well, the disease was about to leap up and grab her in mid-match and suddenly leadened her legs or make her short of breath or leave her arm feeling so weary that serving at all -- let alone serving well -- felt like she was swinging her racket underwater.
"Honestly, I didn't even understand what I was going through at this time last year," Williams explained Tuesday. "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 and 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.
"But now that I have come to accept it, it helps me a lot in how I need to prepare for my matches [and] the mindset I need. It's not as intimidating. I was definitely intimidated in a lot of matches this year [as I was] learning to come back and play with this. So I've come a long way mentally, emotionally, physically."
The physical improvement is the easiest to see, if only because Venus has always rarely shown emotion on court until she wins. During the show she put on against Mattek-Sands, Williams was back to blasting aces and snapping off sizzling groundstrokes. She consistently attacked rather than hold back, racing in to pounce on the short balls Mattek-Sands flared back at her as if she felt she could run all day.
On one standout point, Williams raced to her right, stretched out completely and barely reached the ball in the left corner of the court -- then snapped off a sharply angled crosscourt shot by Mattek-Sands at the net that made the Ashe Stadium crowd roar.
When the 6-foot-1 Williams ended yet another point by leaping, then scissoring her legs out to full length as she hung in mid-air and put away a violent overhead smash, it was like watching a flashback to how she always used to look. Which is to say, unbelievably good.
It was the sort of dynamic performance that used to be routine for Williams. But Kerber will be a far tougher opponent. She has been on a roll of her own this year, notching wins over Maria Sharapova, Petra Kvitova and Serena, too, not just Venus.
But even Kerber confessed with a laugh Tuesday that when she looks ahead to Thursday's rematch against Venus, "I know I am the favorite. But for me, she's the favorite. I need, for sure, to play my best tennis against her. It's not a usual second-round match."
It's far too early to declare Venus "back."
But is she better than eight or 10 months ago? Absolutely. Capable of making a rousing run through the draw that would become more and more of a sentimental journey the longer it goes? Why not?
Stranger things have happened at the U.S. Open.