- Sandra Harwitt
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DUBAI, United Arab Emirates --Times have been tough for Venus Williams in recent years. That has not been a secret.
The 33-year-old has often looked a painfully sorry shadow of the player she once was, a 6-foot-1 firecracker with a big serve, heavy groundstrokes, and seven Grand Slam singles trophies at home.
Many wondered -- and often questioned her directly -- why she continued on when the results she put up had to be disappointing. When she revealed at the 2011 US Open she'd been diagnosed with an energy-zapping autoimmune disease, Sjogren's Syndrome, the questioning only got louder.
But now it looks like we have our answer.
Williams isn't a quitter. She was raised not to back away from a fight and to believe a challenge met head-on is winnable.
This week at the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships, Williams, with her mojo restored, was the big-time winner. Compliments of a wild card, she looked as fresh and fabulous on court as she did when she first arrived on the tennis scene full time as a teenager 17 years ago.
It was a beautiful Saturday evening, and the tennis stadium was packed. Her sister, world No. 1 Serena Williams was sitting courtside watching. That was the moment when Williams became a star in the Arabian night by winning her 45th career title. The victory came with pride, and a pinch of big-sisterly payback, as she defeated Alize Cornet 6-3, 6-0 just a day after the Frenchwoman spoiled the possibility of an all-Williams final by upsetting Serena 6-4, 6-4 in the semifinals.
"I have had a good week," Venus said. "Everything is falling together; that's pretty much all I can say." More words weren't necessary because she did her talking with her tennis racket.
Reigning over Dubai is not a new experience for Williams. This marks the third time she's taken this title, also winning here in 2009 and 2010. Admiration for how she won the title this week, however, is easy to muster: five matches played, five matches won and not a set lost along the way.
Even Williams made note of her revival in comparison to her former days of glory.
"I feel like I've just gotten so much better since my first round, just feeling comfortable on the court; feeling comfortable when I'm behind, feeling comfortable when I'm in the lead," Williams said. "So it reminds me a lot when I first came on the tour. I feel like I'm learning lessons all over again."
Williams, however, isn't attempting to rekindle the old days. She's looking to be a winner in a new way -- in a fashion that meshes with where she is in life today.
"Winning all those Grand Slam titles and playing deep and getting to the final so many times, those are amazing accomplishments," Williams said. "It takes a lot of nerve, takes a lot of mental prowess, so I'd like to think I'm on that path.
"I'm not looking to do anything I did in the past because I already did that," she added. "I'm looking to improve and be a better, smarter Venus. I think, obviously, this week is a step."
Williams seems to be on the right course since the start of the year. Only two months into the season, she's already been in two finals, losing in Auckland, New Zealand, in the ASB Classic championship match to Ana Ivanovic in three sets in January.
So what did Williams do differently to win her first title since capturing the 2012 Luxembourg trophy nearly 18 months ago?
She's learned to be more efficient, a positive quality for someone who needs to reserve energy. Her serve was a major weapon. She often kept points short. She kept opponents on their heels, pinning them to the baseline with potent groundstrokes and using the angles to her advantage. She also ventured to the net more frequently, a strategy she's underutilized in her career, considering her height and reach.
"When things got tough, I definitely got going this week," Williams said, laughing. "If I was down break point, when push came to shove, I was pushing and shoving, I guess."
For now, the Williams shove will take a break for practice and relaxation, with her next scheduled tournament beginning March 18 at the Sony Open in Miami. And she was wasting no time in getting home, as she had a flight scheduled later Saturday night.
Nevertheless, Williams was confident she wasn't going home without spending some of her paycheck before getting on the plane.
"Oh my gosh, I stop in Dubai Duty Free almost every time that I've been here," said Williams, offering a plug to the tournament sponsor. "I'm almost always missing my flight because I have to get one more present for myself, sadly. I usually look at the watches. I love the watch with the calculator."
And if Williams plans on playing to the level she has this week, that calculator will come in handy for keeping track of her prize money.
Venus Williams rekindled her winning ways with a new, smarter strategy, one that helped her snare her first title in 18 months.