The reason we as fans love sports so much is because it often times plays as a mirror to life. The ups and downs of an athlete often serve as metaphors for life’s trials and tribulations.
That is no more evident than in the story of American Venus Williams. The seven-time Grand Slam champion is one of the most decorated women’s tennis players of all-time, and has broken down many barriers on her way to the top, but it has not come without hardship.
She often faced criticism when she was coming up on the tour as a teenager. Whether it was because of the braids in her hair, or the idea that their father, Richard Williams, was fixing and predetermining the outcomes of the matches the two played against one another, Venus went through a lot in her early years.
Despite the early criticism, both sisters went on to enjoy fabulous careers and become international superstars. Venus is a seven-time Grand Slam champion and has enjoyed incredible success as a tennis player, but in 2011, she received a diagnosis that would change her life.
She was an unseeded player at the U.S. Open that year, and after defeating Vesna Dolonts in the opening round, was set to take on the 22nd seed Sabine Lisiciki.
But she withdrew from that match, and announced to the world that she had been diagnosed with Sjogrens Syndrome, an auto-immune disease where the white blood cells destroy the exocrine glands, and dries out the mouth and eyes.
“I’m really disappointed to have to withdraw from this year’s U.S. Open,” Venus said in a statement at the time. “I enjoyed playing my first match here and wish I could continue, but right now I am unable to. With proper medical management and treatment, I expect to be in full form once again.”
She said she felt fatigue for more than seven years before her official diagnosis. The disease is often times difficult to pinpoint because the symptoms are wide ranging and associated with a number of other illnesses.
“I would go to the doctor and start crying,” recalled Venus. “I couldn’t help it. I just want a chance to play on the same field as other people, I want to feel normal, but as frightening as the diagnosis was, it was also a relief.”
She struggled for so many years, wondering why she couldn’t play the way she wanted to and why she just didn’t have the same energy she once had. But with the knowledge of what was causing her fatigue and other symptoms, Venus was finally able to start battling through the illness and attempt to return to the form that once made her a world number one.
It wasn’t a quick road back, however. While she was relieved to know what was giving her trouble, she wasn’t quite ready to play at the top level. In 2012, she withdrew from a tournament in Auckland, and then from the Australian Open, resulting in her ranking dropping to 135th in the world.
Her first time back competing came during the Fed Cup as the USA was taking on Belarus in a World Group II tie. She partnered with Liezel Huber for the rubber match, and won in straight sets to lead the United States to victory.
“I’m not sure what my plans are,” Venus said afterwards about when she would play that year. “For me, it’s kind of week-by-week and just see what happens. I try not to put pressure on myself.”
It was a huge victory for Venus because it instilled confidence in her that the disease would not hold her back on the court anymore. And slowly but surely, Venus began playing tournaments again and saw her ranking gradually climb.
Her first title back came at the Luxembourg Open in 2012. It was her first title in over two and a half years, and bolstered her ranking to 24th.
In 2013, adversity struck once again. A back injury hampered her for most of the season, and she even pulled out of Wimbledon because of it, marking the first time in her career she had missed the tournament.
She responded in 2014 with a huge win at the Dubai Tennis Championships, beating five top 40 players on her way to the title, her biggest title since the Mutua Madrid Open in 2010. The victory symbolized Venus’ comeback to the tour, and showed her that she could still compete at the top level of the sport.
But it wasn’t until this past year that Venus began to once again find success at the Grand Slams. She started 2015 by reaching the quarterfinals at the Australian Open, her best showing at a major since the 2010 U.S. Open.
The 2015 U.S. Open was a symbolic tournament for Venus. She showed grit and toughness in outlasting fellow American Irina Falconi in the opening round, and followed that up with a win over a streaking Belinda Bencic, and found herself in the quarterfinals against her younger sister, Serena, who was trying to make history.
While she would lose to Serena in three sets, the match showed that Venus had returned to form. She demonstrated a ton of power and played Serena extremely tough.
“It was great to see her do so well tonight. She was at an unbelievable level today,” Serena said of Venus in her post-match press conference. “Down to the match point, it was just not easy. It’s probably the toughest match I’ve played in a really, really, really long time where I wasn’t actually beating myself. I was out there facing an incredibly tough opponent. Seeing she has that level is so inspiring.”
As of late October, Venus’ ranking was at 11th in the world, a far cry from the days when she wasn’t even in the top 120.
It was a long road back for Venus, but adversity is something that the 35-year-old has dealt with her entire career. The next step for her is to win another Grand Slam title, which would make her the oldest player ever to win a Grand Slam singles title, something she hopes to accomplish in 2016.
Brian Coleman is the Senior Editor for New York Tennis Magazine. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org