NEW YORK – The illness did not creep up on Venus Williams all of a sudden. As far back as 2007, she remembers being overcome by fatigue and wondering what the heck was going on.
One doctor told her it might be asthma. Another said it was all in her mind — that she should go see a psychiatrist.
It took four years to figure out the real diagnosis, Sjogren's syndrome, and it all came to a head last year at the U.S. Open, when she pulled out hours before her second-round match.
"Everything was hard. I didn't understand why," she said Saturday, as she prepared for her return to Flushing Meadows, a year after that upsetting departure. "And then just being at the tournament, every day, I just wanted to quit at practice. I would tell myself, 'Maybe tomorrow I'll feel better. Just keep going.'"
But she couldn't.
The exhaustion and joint pain that are trademarks of her hard-to-diagnose autoimmune disease overtook her. She went public with her illness, left New York and finally, she found a doctor who identified the ailment and started working on solutions.
It took about six months to get the medicine right. As much as medication, Williams had to change her lifestyle, get more rest and stop being "such a busybody or control freak," as she puts it, when it came to her outside business pursuits.
The weekend of the 15th anniversary of her first appearance at the U.S. Open — when she took the tennis world by storm on her electric run to the final — the 32-year-old Williams was all smiles, long braids of hair flowing over her shoulders, looking anything like the sick, weakened player she was when she left last year.
"I focus a lot on my tennis and I try to get a lot of rest," Williams said. "My life is changed, so I just try to focus a lot more on saving energy for tennis. I'm not trying to conquer anything else. I'm tired."
While she cannot be ignored in any tournament she enters, Williams does not have the results of late to match her star power. She has won a total of one Grand Slam match this season. She hasn't made it past the fourth round of a Grand Slam since the 2010 U.S. Open. And despite overcoming some back problems to make a run to the semifinals in Cincinnati earlier this month, she comes in unseeded and ranked 47th.
Yet she is on the short list of active women — Sam Stosur, Kim Clijsters, Maria Sharapova and, of course, her sister, Serena — who know how to close the deal at the loudest, most distraction-filled, biggest grind of a major there is. Venus Williams won back-to-back at Flushing Meadows in 2000 and 2001. Asking her about it now almost feels like a trip through a time machine.
"I think those were definitely years where the game was growing and changing," she said.
It did change, in large part thanks to the Williams sisters. As much as their power games, they brought their powerful personalities to the sport, as well, and the world took notice.
Venus Williams, 15 months older than Serena, got a bit of a head start when she burst her way into that final in 1997 at 17 years old. Since then, Serena has won 14 Grand Slam tournaments — double Venus' haul — and while Serena was asked Saturday if she might be the greatest player ever, Venus was asked if she'd wait to retire until her sister does.
"Maybe we'll retire together," Venus Williams said. "Hopefully she feels the same way."
But even at 32, she's sounding as if that's still at least a few years off.
"I really love tennis," she said. "And I feel like I have so much to give, especially since I have had my health problems. I feel like I can't let anything take me down. I have to beat this."