Tuesday March 27th, 2012

Venus Williams has won three straight three-set matches at the Sony Ericsson Open. (Andrew Gombert/EPA)

It's a funny thing about Champions. I don't mean "champions" with a lowercase "c." The capitalization is intentional and just as important as the titles themselves. True Champions are a different breed. You can take away their forehands, serves, bodies and youth, but their will and desire remain. Their self-belief can border on narcissism or pure delusion, but they cling to it as tightly as they held on to their first trophies. They distinguish themselves by consistently confounding with their feats of mental strength.

Venus Williams is part of that exclusive group. Often overshadowed by the rambunctious Serena, the quiet big sister has rarely demanded the spotlight. Her triumphs are public and her tragedies relatively private, and her dignity and class in handling both have been well-documented. But when Venus announced that she had been diagnosed with the autoimmune disease Sjogren's Syndrome last August, things felt different. At 31, Venus was already on the tail end of her career, suffering from injuries and fighting to get back to the top -- not that rankings and titles were ever the end-all for her. The question was: Would she even get another day in the sun?

Boy, do I feel stupid ever doubting her.

It's hard to pick which of Venus' four matches at the Sony Ericsson Open, her first tournament in nearly seven months, has been her signature one. Was it her 6-0, 6-3 destruction of Kimiko Date-Krumm in the first round, a player who took her to 8-6 in the third set at Wimbledon less than a year ago? Or was it her 6-4, 4-6, 6-0 upset of reigning Wimbledon champion and No. 3 Petra Kvitova in the second round? Or perhaps it was her gritty effort in the third round when, clearly not at her best, she saved a match point and edged Aleksandra Wozniak 4-6, 6-4, 7-6 (5)? Or maybe it was her 6-7 (4), 6-2, 6-2 win over an in-form Ana Ivanovic in a terrific display of high-quality tennis?

The reality is -- and yes, this is a complete cop-out -- they are all Venus Williams. And the one common theme through each performance? Her mental fortitude. When her body was holding her back or rust was impeding her, Williams repeatedly wore down her opponents with her drive.

It hasn't been an easy road for Venus in Miami. She has played three straight three-set matches to make the quarterfinals, where she'll face No. 4 Agnieszka Radwanska on Wednesday. While she initially told reporters that she was just happy to be able to compete, Venus admitted as the tournament progressed that she is focused on one thing right now: qualifying for the Summer Olympics.

The top 56 women in the June 11 rankings, with a maximum of four per country, receive direct acceptance into the singles tournament in London. Williams, who entered the Sony Ericsson Open ranked No. 134, is poised to return to the top 100 next week thanks to her run in Miami. She still has a ways to go to qualify for the 64-player draw without the help of an ITF-issued exemption, a task made all the more difficult by the fact that this is the last hard-court tournament for the next few months as the tour shifts to her worst surface: clay.

"I keep thinking about the Olympics and I need my points," she said after her third-round win over Wozniak. "Whenever things look bleak, I think about the Olympics and that keeps me motivated."

Williams, a three-time gold medalist, said of the Games: "It's just the ultimate level in sports.  It's about participating.  It's about having that experience.  It's about having the honor to be good enough to be there. It's just the pinnacle of sports."

While Venus may be notorious for not paying attention to the little things like, you know, scorelines (she had no idea she was down match point against Wozniak until reporters told her), she's well aware of her ranking-point totals.

"That's such a rookie move to calculate points," Williams said. "I try not to do that, but secretly I probably am."

For now, things are pretty simple for Venus: Manage her health and win matches. To the extent her illness prevents her from training as hard as she'd like to prepare for the tour grind, Venus has a good perspective on it. "In the scheme of things, if I have to spend three hours out of 24 in the day, then I'm going spend the three hours and try to win," she said. "It might not work every time, but I just gotta do what I gotta do. It's easy to be afraid, and it's a lot of hard work to come back to this level, especially with the time constraints. I need to play now so I can play the Olympics. It's like I have to get back.  Something's gotta give."

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