By Matt Cronin
PARIS- If any player has ever won a major withan auto-immune disease, it has not been widely publicized, so if Venus Williams happens to hold up the Roland Garros trophy while battling Sjorden's Syndrome, it would be a near miracle.
Whether or not she is contending with illness or not, at the age of 31 and not having even a decent Roland Garros since 2006, and not a very good one since she reached the 2002 final and lost to her sister Serena, Venus would not be seen as a top 5 favorite anyway.
But she is actually playing very well since she came back to the tour at Miami in March, and because of that, she cannot be counted out of reaching the second week. Given her glittering resume, she cannot be said to have a chance of beating any player on any given day.
That Venus has beaten reigning Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova, two former No. 1s in Jelena Jankovic and Ana Ivanovic, and US Open champ Sam Stosur in the past two months is reason to get up and applaud.
It's hard to compare one illness to another, but she's already cracked the top 55 again and if she can win another Slam, or the Olympics, or even reach the top 5 again, the seven-time Slam champ's feat will be talked about with other epic comebacks: think cyclist Lance Armstrong fighting off cancer to win the Tour de France seven times, or NHL player Mario Lemieux, who suffered from Hodgkin's lymphoma, becoming one of hockey's greatest players ever.
"It's a big accomplishment for me to be here right now," Venus said after her 4-6, 6-1, 6-3 victory over Argentine teen Paula Ormaechea at Roland Garros. "I tell myself just to try to have fun."
Even before she played her first WTA match as a wafer thin, lanky teenager in 1994, Venus has been an inquisitive sort who enjoys learning. She admittedly hasn’t always been in tune with her body -- but that’s the case with most players until they mature. Now she's attempting to gain deep knowledge as to how her body functions. She doesn’t always feel spry, nor does she always feel tired. She’s become a Vegan, which has kept a number of potentially negative foods out of her body, but is also not easy as vegans have to work to get enough protein, which is necessary for high-level athletics. As 18-time Slam champ and Tennis Channel's Martina Navratilova has shown, it can be done, but it's even more difficult when you are trying to play with an energy-sapping disease. As Venus admitted, she faces big challenges.
"It's different. I have a lot to learn still," she said. "I learn a lot every week, especially having to play a professional sport. So that's a challenge, just learning to live. It's physical and emotional and all kinds of different things, mental. So it's just something that you can only get if you live it. So I get it. So I have to learn to laugh."
Venus has a hearty laugh that will come from deep in her throat when she is happy. She could also chase away a pack of wild dogs with her scowl after a bad loss.
Like her mother Oracene, she's a bit flighty. She does not have her sister's Serena consistent on- court focus, which is likely why she has only won seven Slams to her little sisters 13 (that and because Serena has a more consistent and effective second serve and forehand). She says that her outlook on her career is like a revolving door, but that has pretty much been the case since her second WTA match back at the Oakland Coliseum in 1994 against Arantxa-Sanchez-Vicario, when she could not decide whether she should sit down on change overs and finally decided to stand the whole time in her three-set loss.
"[My perspective] changes every week, "she said." I just want to do my best and not be overwhelmed. I just try my best out there and see what happens. I do try my best to be ready -- I guess the key word is just "try" my best.
It's hard to believe that one of the greatest warriors of the past two decades is only satisfied when she tries her best and then lets the chips fall where they may. She has always hated losing, but maybe because since she found out she has Sjorden’s Syndrome, she isn’t as hard on herself after defeats. She is a strong woman, but admitted that there were times recently when she didn’t feel like she could hold the weight of the world on her shoulders.
"Sometimes I wonder if it's something that I'm doing: Did I do something wrong?" she asked. "Then I snap out of that pretty quick nowadays. But sometimes I wonder if this is my fault. It's a lot of things you have to go through mentally. But I always want to do more. But the key words: I'm doing the best I can. Some losses I don't like to take, but I have to take them. And then I just move on. My main goal is the Olympics this year, so if I reach that, I'll be home free."
Venus is virtual lock to make the Olympic team now and go for anther gold medal as even if she loses to fourth seed Agnieszka Radwanska in the second round of Roland Garros, she'll end the tournament ranked somewhere in the top 52, which will get her into the Games unless both her compatriots who are ranked behind here, Vania King and Varvara Lepchenko, advance a couple of rounds further than she does.
She last faced Radwanska in Miami, where the creative Pole spun her around, but Venus has beaten her before and is fresher. Radwanska is coming off a title run in Brussels and will be favored in the match, but Venus is striking the ball beautifully from the baseline and if she plays her best, she can certainly come off the court the winner.
"That day I panicked," Venus said of Miami. "I wasn't feeling my best and I didn't know how to handle it. Since that time I've gotten a little better. I can't say that I'll do better or I'll do worse, but at least I won't panic."
Venus has never been surprised by her victories, but occasionally by her losses. She has scored some quality victories in her mini comeback. What she doesn’t know if she'll be able to show up in every match in sound body and mind.
Let's hope that before she retires, that the woman who helped change the course of the WTA with her special brand of powerball will be able to show off her best in a two-week period.
"Oh, I already know I can play," she said. "That's not a doubt. Like I know how to play tennis. Everything else is up in the air."