Venus Williams is feeling better and looking forward to returning to competition.
© Jared Gruenwald
By Erin Bruehl, USTA.com
WORCESTER, Mass. – To prepare to face Belarus as part of the U.S. Fed Cup Team, Venus Williams went through many of the same tasks that her other teammates did: Training on the court and in the gym, and she watched some opponents’ matches at the Australian Open.
The difference for Williams is that she watched the Australian Open on television from home instead of the courts in Melbourne.
Williams is training to get herself match-ready as she has not played a WTA sanctioned tournament since withdrawing from the 2011 US Open with Sjogren’s Syndrome, an autoimmune disease which can affect a person’s energy level. Since then, her ranking has also dropped to No. 133 in the world.
It has been very difficult for the seven-time Grand Slam champion to not compete, especially as she dealt with something new, an illness, for the first time, instead of knowing just how long it make take to heal a nagging injury.
But Williams is feeling better than she has in quite a while and is happy to be back on court with the U.S. Fed Cup Team, which has a tall task of playing new Australian Open champion Victoria Azarenka and Belarus Feb. 4-5 in Worcester, Mass. The former world No. 1 is pleased she can help the team on court this time, as opposed to just sitting on the bench in the U.S. team’s World Group Playoff loss to Germany last year.
"It's definitely difficult not being on the court, especially when there's not much to be done about it, when it's completely out of my control," said Williams. "I think that's probably the hardest part. It's about learning and adjusting. I learn for me how to treat myself, how to be smart, listen to my doctor, do as much as I can. I think that's brought me a long way."
In fact, Williams thinks being in the team atmosphere of Fed Cup, of working and competing for others, is helping her energy levels and making her feel so much better. She had her first team practice Wednesday morning, hitting with Sloane Stephens, and looking focused and solid with her strokes.
"I am feeling better every week. I think I have felt this week the best I ever have," Williams said. "Being on the team and having some adrenaline just gives me even more energy to honest.
"This is good for me to be here, especially last year I could not play, in Germany I was just sitting on the sidelines, which was tough, because I was not able to help the team at all," Williams added. "So this year it is great to be in a position to help the team."
Venus has a stellar 17-4 Fed Cup record in her career but has not played a match since the U.S.’s semifinal loss to Russia back in 2007. But she loves the team spirit and support that comes with Fed Cup, no matter what the score of a match.
"I think what really makes it special is just the feeling of not really just playing for yourself, kind of taking that burden and that pressure and living up to it, coming through not just for yourself but for the rest of the team," Williams said. "Here it doesn't matter if you're down 5-Love, they're like, ‘Come on.’ They really rally for you. It's really a team spirit, high or low, which is rare in tennis. So it's a great feeling."
Exactly what match she will play this weekend is still under consideration as U.S. Fed Cup Captain Mary Joe Fernandez wants to watch her, Serena Williams, Stephens, Christina McHale and Liezel Huber all practice through Thursday before making her final lineup decisions for Friday’s official draw ceremony.
Venus could play singles, both singles and doubles, just doubles or even just one singles match, as the captains have the option of changing their lineups for the fourth singles match on Sunday, after the third singles has been completed.
There is also the possibility she might not play, if Fernandez thinks McHale or Stephens is more match-ready in singles and Huber in doubles.
Williams added that she did not see much of Azarenka’s Australian Open victory over Maria Sharapova, due to the time difference, but knows to win her first Grand Slam and take over the world No. 1 ranking, Azarenka is at the top of her game and everyone on the U.S. team needs to be as well.
And Fernandez has liked what she has seen from the team’s limited practice the first two days, including from Williams.
"It's huge to have Venus on the team. Just to have her around is a big motivator for the rest of your team," Fernandez said. "She was itching to get out there to hit that first ball. I think that goes such a long way. The attitude, everybody seeing it, seeing the desire, the determination, the intensity, it rubs off. It's great to see Venus out there this morning hitting well, working hard."