By Erin Bruehl, USTA.com
NEW YORK -- Last summer, Venus Williams was not feeling like herself. She was planning to play during the Emirates Airline US Open Series, but she just could not do it, having to withdraw from multiple tournaments because she did not feel well.
Venus then withdrew prior to her second-round match at the 2011 US Open – her first tournament of the summer since Wimbledon – and announced that she had been diagnosed with Sjogren’s Syndrome, an autoimmune disease that can zap a person’s energy, a big reason as to why she had been unable to compete all summer, along with a few nagging injuries.
Now a year later, Venus, 32, is still dealing with the effects of Sjogren’s and working her way back into the top championship form that won her seven Grand Slam singles titles. She is feeling better, as she has made adjustments in her life because of the disease, including becoming a vegan, and she is excited about the summer ahead, with the Olympics, Emirates Airline US Open Series and the US Open.
After a disappointing first-round singles exit at Wimbledon, where she has won five times, Venus left London this week on a positive note, winning her 13th career Grand Slam doubles title with sister Serena and watching her little sis win the singles crown for her 14th major title.
"Winning the doubles was amazing. I am so excited about that and Serena winning singles. I am very, very happy," Venus said while at NBC’s "The Today Show" in New York City. "I am always learning and continuing to learn with my new life here. I am not impatient. I know I can play great tennis, and I just need some time to pull everything together to where I want it."
After playing just four tournaments last year because of her illness and various injuries, Venus returned to the tennis court for the first time since the 2011 US Open during the U.S. Fed Cup Team’s World Group II tie against Belarus in Worcester, Mass., in February, winning the doubles rubber with Liezel Huber. She then made her singles return at the Sony Ericsson Open in Miami, where she reached the quarterfinals.
While her singles results may not have been what she has been accustomed to – winning titles – Venus did push herself hard to meet one very important goal of hers this year: She won enough matches to move her world ranking back inside the top 60 and be one of the four highest-ranked American women to qualify for her fourth Olympic Games in London, starting July 28, at the All England Club.
Part of a very strong U.S. Olympic women’s tennis team that also includes Serena, Christina McHale, Varvara Lepchenko, Liezel Huber and Lisa Raymond, Venus is expected to compete in singles and doubles. Now that Wimbledon has concluded, the Olympics are next on her list of special events this year, as she hopes to add to the three Olympic gold medals she already owns – one in singles from 2000 and two in doubles from 2000 and 2008, both with Serena.
"I did meet my goal this year to qualify for the Olympics," she said. "That was easier said than done, and I only had a few months to do it. It was a mad race. It was crazy and exciting, and I am just so happy it happened. Every day I wake up and say, ‘I am going to the Olympics. Yes!’
"There is no downtime here. I am training and preparing. After Wimbledon, the next day, I started to realize I am going to the Olympics, and I got so excited," she added. "During Wimbledon, you are so focused. Every day you are training and getting ready to play, so afterwards I was able to appreciate that it was time to go, so now it is a countdown for me."
From the Olympics, Venus plans to play the Emirates Airline US Open Series events in Cincinnati and Montreal and then head back to New York for the US Open, where she won titles in 2000 and 2001.
As part of adjusting to her new life as a vegan and to life with Sjogren’s, Venus also has a new partnership with Jamba Juice. She is now the owner of three chains of the very popular company, known for its healthy and tasty beverages and foods, all in the Washington, D.C. area. The first opened last year in Bethesda, Md., and two others opened this week. Eventually, Williams has plans to own up to five locations.
With the nutrient demands of her intense training and playing schedules, Jamba Juice has really helped, and Venus enjoys having shake options that she can grab quickly after training or while she is on the go.
"To be able to have healthy options is great for me, especially healthy options on the go," she said of her new vegan diet. "I have wheatgrass twice a day. It makes it easy that I can have things waiting in the fridge for me so after training I can grab something and can go. Especially with my training schedule, I have to eat all the time. I have to drink all the time, and shakes have become a big part of my life, so it has really helped my transition."
Her whole family has been very supportive of her new diet, and Serena, with whom she lives, has changed her diet a lot, as well, so there are no tempting foods around the house for her to eat. Although if anyone was doing the tempting, she thinks it was probably her to Serena, as she says she is the one with a bit of a sweet tooth. But importantly, Venus is feeling good.
"It is definitely an adjustment, but from a year ago to now is a huge difference," she said in terms of her health. "Now I am playing matches, while last year, it was not an option for me. I was not sure what was going on. I was going through a lot last summer. I was going to tournaments, and I had to leave and withdraw, so definitely a lot has changed since that time. I feel confident that I can play tournaments and do my best.
"I have nothing but game for the US Open," she added. "I landed in New York yesterday, and we passed the (USTA Billie Jean King) National Tennis Center, and it is just filled with so many amazing memories, and I was getting excited about playing the Open. I said, ‘Olympics first, then the US Open.’ I have so many exciting things coming up this summer."