Shortly before 4 p.m. Wednesday afternoon, word broke at the National Tennis Center that the 31-year-old Williams had withdrawn from her second-round match against 22nd-seeded German Sabine Lisicki, a painful coda to an annus horribilis for the seven-time Grand Slam singles champion.
This is how 2011 has been for the older tennis-playing Williams sister: After retiring in the third round of the Australian Open against Andrea Petkovic -- her first-ever retirement in a Grand Slam match -- Williams missed six months with knee and hip injuries before returning at Eastbourne, a warmup to Wimbledon. At the All England Club, she lost to No. 32-seeded Tsvetana Pironkova in the fourth round. She then disappeared again, missing the summer U.S. hardcourt season with a viral infection, which she called "energy-sucking" on Monday but refused to name specifically. That ailment has a name now, according to the player.
"I have been recently diagnosed with Sjögren's syndrome, an autoimmune disease which is an ongoing medical condition that affects my energy level and causes fatigue and joint pain," Williams said in a statement. "I enjoyed playing my first match here and wish I could continue but right now I am unable to. I am thankful I finally have a diagnosis and am now focused on getting better and returning to the court soon."
According to the Sjögren's syndrome foundation website, the syndrome is a chronic autoimmune disease in which people's white blood cells attack their moisture-producing glands. The site says as many as four million Americans are living with this disease and that nine out of ten are women. There is no cure for Sjögren's syndrome, but it can be treated and controlled.
It was the strangest -- and saddest -- of Venus's 13 appearances at the Open, a title she captured in 2000 and 2001. She had previously reached the fourth round or better every time in New York, and given she was defending 900 points here because of last year's semifinals appearance, her ranking now tumbles. Williams falls out of the top 100 for the first time since 1996, when she was 16. She entered this tournament as the world's 36th-ranked player after playing just 11 matches this year.
On Monday, after defeating Russian Vesna Dolonts in a match she described as "nervewracking," Williams said that she had huge plans for this summer to improve her ranking and was disappointed she had been unable to practice. "To miss so much time off tour was just disheartening," Williams said.
It's now unclear when she will return.
Asked by reporters on his client's status, Venus's agent, Carlos Fleming, said," It's a big surprise. We're all worried."
Lisicki, a powerful young German with a booming serve that rivals the Williams sisters', said the tournament referee told her about the withdrawal about 30 minutes before their match. "I saw her and I heard she practiced as usual," said Lisicki. "I saw her in her match clothes so she was fully prepared and really looking forward to the match. I think she's a tough girl and I think she'll come back. You know, it would be unfortunate if she couldn't. Serena and Venus both are amazing players and it's nice to have them in the women's sport. I hope she comes back. It makes it more challenging."
The sport can use her. On Wednesday, American Christina McHale upset France's Marion Bartoli, the No. 8 seed. Already three of the Top 10 women's seeds have exited the Open in the first 72 hours of the tournament, including French Open champ Li Na and Wimbledon titlist Petra Kvitova. The loss of Venus reduced a draw significantly lacking in star power.
After pulling out of the tournament, Williams hung out for a bit in an office housing Grand Slam supervisors and review officials office. She then hurried down a hallway outside the players' exit, texting someone on a bubble-gum colored smart phone, before entering a private room with a sign on front that read "PLEASE KNOCK AND WAIT FOR A RESPONSE BEFORE ENTERING." About 20 minutes later, shortly before 5 p.m., she emerged from the same door, declining to comment as she exited the grounds, and into a gray transportation van with U.S. Open written on the side.
Moments earlier, SI.com and New York Times reporter Karen Crouse had spoken with Oracene Williams, the mother of Venus. Crouse asked how concerned she was about her daughter. "It's been something that's been worrisome," Oracene said, before adding, "for a long time."