Tennis

Tennis needs Venus more than ever

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Greg Couch

Greg Couch has been a national columnist at AOL Fanhouse and The Sporting News and an award-winning columnist at the Chicago Sun-Times. He was featured twice in "Best American Sports Writing" and was recognized by the US Tennis Writers Association for best column writing and match coverage. He covers tennis on his personal blog. Follow him on Twitter.

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We're not ready for tennis' Great American Story to end. Venus Williams deserves one last good run, one more major championship, one more leap of glory.

She's not going to get it.

Venus Williams

SURPRISE ENDING

Venus Williams withdraws from the US Open prior to her second-round match disclosing a recently diagnosed illness.

Williams is 31 years old, a senior citizen to tennis, and her body is breaking down. Injuries and health issues are taking her away from the game. On Wednesday, she withdrew from the US Open an hour before her second-round match against young German Sabine Lisicki, a Wimbledon semifinalist.

She later issued a statement saying she had been diagnosed with Sjogren's syndrome, "an autoimmune disease which is an ongoing medical condition that affects my energy level and causes fatigue and joint pain. I enjoyed playing my first match here and wish I could continue, but right now I am unable to."

She said she was just glad to finally know what's wrong. With Sjogren's, which usually affects women, white blood cells attack healthy glands. The disease is manageable.

But Williams' body is betraying her now. It's that time. And it's just so hard for any athlete, especially a superstar, to accept. That body has always done what it was supposed to do, climbed every mountain, won every Wimbledon. It was there to be counted on, perfected.

Now, Williams has lost nearly two years of tennis because of it. She will drop out of the top 100 in the rankings, mixed in with a group of players no one has ever heard of.

2011 US Open

2011 US Open

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"I'm never down," she said two days earlier, after making another return to tennis to win her first-round match. Her eyes were glassy and she looked weak, as if she had the flu. "I started to get down this summer because all these things are out of my control. It's easier if it's something I've done, I can control. If it's out of your control, it can be frustrating."

An athlete's body out of her control. Williams has managed to play just three tournaments in the past 12 months. In one of them, the Australian Open, she withdrew with an injury. It was her first retirement during a match in a major championship. From there, it was roughly five months with knee and hip problems. Then, she played two tournaments, including Wimbledon, without much success. Since then, she has been out with various injuries and sicknesses.

It's just an awful thing to see, really. And even though it's inevitable, it still manages to sneak up on you somehow. It seems too early somehow, because she still has game.

Can she ever get back to the top level? Highly unlikely.

The skill is still there. In fact, she can still run fast when healthy.

When those brief times come without pain, she can play beautifully still. But for nearly two years, she has spent all her time resting and recovering from injuries just to be ready for the majors.

She makes it to those majors, but hasn't had time to practice. So she can't put together several good matches in a row.

When did she finally hit the practice courts for the Open?

"Last week," she said. "You know, I was able to stay on the court only because my anxiety was high if I didn't play. So at least I was able to hit the ball to calm my nerves.

"But it wasn't like a real practice. In fact, my mind wasn't there. It was like, 'Let me try to make it X number of times.' At least staying on the court helped me to keep some rhythm."

That was no way to prepare. And that's the thing: She can't prepare anymore. She can still find greatness in flashes, as she did early in 2010, when the pain in her knees let up. And even that might be too much to ask at this point.

Williams is done winning majors. But the game needs her. American tennis needs her, and that's not just because there aren't ready-made stars waiting to replace her. Simply put, the game just needs her whether someone is there or not.

She has been an elegant and eloquent role model for young girls, in the only women's sport that has hit the mainstream.

What a story she has been: a black woman, and her sister, Serena, from the rough town of Compton, Calif., becoming the face of tennis, of all sports. Their dad used to hit half-dead tennis balls to them from a shopping basket.

Tennis isn't the snooty country club sport it used to be, but you still aren't going to see a story like this often.

"These are the cards that I have," Venus said. "I have to do the best I can with what I have. Last year, I had little to no preparation, too. A lot of the battle is just trying to be fit and stay healthy. I've been losing that battle a lot."

It would be so nice to see her win that battle one more time, have a miracle run at the Open, or at Wimbledon.

But time is up.

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