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Venus Williams shows old flash as she copes with disease

Venus Williams returns a shot to Bethanie Mattek-Sands

Venus Williams returns a shot to Bethanie Mattek-Sands during the first round of play at the 2012 US Open tennis tournament. (Aug. 28, 2012) Credit: AP

At 32 years old, two-time U.S. Open champion Venus Williams finds herself battling two opponents -- one on the other side of the net, the other inside her.

She withdrew from the Open last year after an opening victory and announced she had been diagnosed with Sjogren's syndrome, an autoimmune disorder that affects the tear and saliva glands and can cause fatigue and joint pain. Her career was in doubt.

There is no cure for the disorder -- it's one opponent she likely will not defeat -- but she's keeping it at bay. And Tuesday she beat her opponent on the other side of the net, fellow American Bethanie Mattek-Sands, 6-3, 6-1.

She didn't start her season until late March at Miami and won three straight three-set matches before a quarterfinal loss to Agniezska Radwanska, one of three quarterfinals she has reached. Her best effort was a semifinal loss at Cincinnati to Samantha Stosur. She lost in the first round at Wimbledon, the site of her last major singles victory in 2008, then returned to Centre Court to win the Olympic doubles with sister Serena.

From the start of the year, her goal was to get to the Olympics and start climbing the tour's ranking ladder. She's unseeded for the second straight year at the Open, a situation she hopes to resolve by her improved play and her relative good health.

"For me, it's very rewarding, very exciting . . . just to come full circle to be back out here, winning matches, moving forward and getting better . . . I was expecting to be a little better. But then at the same time, I'm proud of my results this year. I don't know too many other athletes that played under these circumstances."

The fight against Sjogren's will be perpetual, but the biggest step was admitting that there was something perpetually wrong with her.

"Honestly, I didn't even understand what I was going through at that time last year," she said. "I feel like it takes a long time to come to acceptance. You see yourself as a healthy person, that nothing can defeat you. So it takes a while before you kind of see yourself as someone with flaws and chips in the armor . . . This summer, I just came to terms with it. I'm getting used to this stuff. I've accepted that now I do have an autoimmune disease. I think acceptance is good."

And she's still capable of flashes of brilliance, of physical dominance. She launched several serves of more than 120 mph and had an average first-serve speed of 114. She served five aces and 22 of her 39 serves weren't returned. Granted, she was playing against a player returning from injury herself and one who was never in Williams' league, but there was still enough of the old Venus on display to believe she could win a few matches here. A big test comes when she plays sixth-seeded Angelique Kerber in the second round.

"For me, it's about living life with no regrets," Williams said. "If I have any small chance to hit the ball, I'm going to go for it."

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