Utterly spent Venus vanquished

KEY BISCAYNE, Fla. -- For years, folks have been imploring Venus Williams to come to net more often. Her long limbs make her a natural there. If there is a blessing in the guise of her Sjogren's syndrome -- the chronic condition that leaves her easily fatigued -- it is that she needs to finish points quickly.

The best way to do that is to move forward. Going forward, for however long she wants to continue playing, we now know this represents Venus' best chance to win.

After playing a trio of three-set matches in a span of four days, Venus crashed horribly into the wall Wednesday in the quarterfinals of the Sony Ericsson Open. She was utterly spent, yet pushed Agnieszka Radwanska -- a formidable player ranked No. 4 among WTA players -- before losing 6-4, 6-1.

Afterward, South Florida Sun-Sentinel reporter Harvey Fialkov suggested she looked tired, and wondered if it was a conditioning issue or a product of her disease.

"I don't have a conditioning problem -- let's definitely get that straight," she snapped, leaning forward in her chair. "I'm always fit."

In that moment, she showed more energy than she did the entire second set.

Ambling to her changeover chair in the steaming South Florida heat, she looked ready to curl up and take a nap. A few times, according to photographers on the court, when she closed her eyes and leaned back, it appeared she may have dozed off for a few seconds. If so, a well-deserved rest, indeed.

After disclosing her disease six months ago at last year's U.S. Open, these were her first WTA-level matches. No one expected much, but she knocked out four opponents -- including No. 3-ranked Petra Kvitova -- and proved she can still compete at the highest level. Ultimately, she played five matches and 13 sets in eight days and spent nearly nine hours on court. She lasted longer in the tournament than her sister, Serena, and Andy Roddick.

Did we mention that she turns 32 in June?

Venus' serve, usually her most lethal weapon, was uncharacteristically weak. It was broken twice in the first set and, wonder of wonders, it was the defensive-minded Radwanska who ended the frame with back-to-back aces -- neither above 99 mph on the radar gun. In all, Radwanska broke her six times and served one more ace.

On the last several points, Venus barely moved.

The critical number was 5-for-26. That was Venus' success rate on her second serve, one of the most important factors in predicting success in professional tennis. Perhaps more interesting for those critics of her baseline style, on dead legs Venus won 21 of the 35 points she finished at net.

Venus went out of her way not to make excuses about her physical condition. She blamed herself for not mentally overcoming her physical deficiencies. When someone asked her about Radwanska's game, she sighed.

"I couldn't get myself to do it today," she said. "She's a great player, but she didn't do anything special."

The chief goal in her comeback is competing in the London Olympics later this summer. After she defeated Aleksandra Wozniak in the third round (winning the third set 6-0), Venus was asked if she was calculating the ranking it would take to play.

"Not really," she said, "because that's like such a rookie move to calculate the points. I try not to do that, but secretly I probably am. But more than anything, it's about getting the win, so that's what I'm trying to do."

So let's do the math for you -- and Venus.

There are 56 direct acceptances to the Olympics in singles. The ranking cutoff for Beijing was No. 67 and, four years earlier, No. 68 in Athens. This is because each country can field only four singles players and nations like Russia might have twice that many in the top 56.

The June 11 WTA Tour rankings, which come two days after the women's final at Roland Garros, will be used to select the fields for the Olympics.

Venus, based on those six months of inactivity, is currently ranked at No. 134. According to the WTA, these four wins will move her up into the vicinity of No. 90; a win over Radwanska would have vaulted her to around No. 65 -- not far from the projected cutoff.

Venus is scheduled to play in Charleston next week, an ambitious goal in terms of her recovery. Her next commitment is the following week in Madrid on clay. Based on her performance here, another similar showing in Rome and Paris alone probably would be enough to get her inside the top 50.

The other thing she has to be concerned about is becoming the fourth (and final) American. Currently, Serena is No. 1 (ranked No. 11), followed by Christina McHale (No. 32) and Vania King (No. 54). The fourth U.S. player is Varvara Lepchenko, who is ranked No. 76. And there are five other U.S. players ranked between Lepchenko and Venus.

As far as doubles go, Venus has professed a desire to play with sister Serena. Since each country can nominate only two teams, the first would be the WTA's No. 1-ranked team of Liezel Huber and Lisa Raymond. The second team would have to come from the United States' remaining singles players. According to one USTA official, if Venus makes the team she'd likely play doubles with her sister.

As her postmatch interview wound down, Venus relaxed a little bit and more openly discussed her physical condition. How did she feel before the match?

"Oh, my God," she said. "That's a good question. I woke up in a coma today. I was like, 'Oh, no.'

"There are things I could have done better to prepare, and I learned a lot. I always want more, but this is definitely a start."