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Monday, January 14, 2013
A milestone return for Venus Williams

By Bonnie D. Ford

MELBOURNE -- What was once routine eluded Venus Williams for the better part of two seasons, and so a first-round Grand Slam win like the one she checked off Monday is no longer to be taken for granted.

Her brisk 6-1, 6-0 dispatching of Russian-born Kazakhstan passport holder Galina Voskoboeva in an hour flat was the kind of result Williams would have expected of herself before the autoimmune disease Sjogren's syndrome changed everything for her. The handful of break points she had to fend off could be chalked up to the usual minor challenge of a top player getting her feet under her when the curtain rises on a major. But Williams has had to take "should" out of her template and judge herself by her present, rather than her championships past.

By that standard, Monday's result was both businesslike and a relief, and the crowd response at Hisense Arena had a warm, welcome-back undertone to it.

"I'm not a patient person," Williams said after the match, relaxed and smiling. "But I think what I have learned more than anything is for me to focus on the things I can accomplish and not to think about the things that I can't do."

It was only six months ago that five-time Wimbledon titlist Williams, 32, exited after her opening match on the turf she once owned. Her pained walk across the grounds back to the women's locker room seemed to take longer than the match itself. She had put all her efforts that spring into qualifying for the U.S. Olympic team, and at that moment, it was fair to wonder if it had been worth it.

Three weeks later, Williams proved it had been, capturing doubles gold with her sister Serena on her beloved grass. Without the motivation of the Summer Games, who knows how the season would have gone. What is certain is that Venus has been on a steady upward trajectory since, working her way back to the top 25 after finishing 2011 outside the top 100 and winning her first WTA tournament in more than two years last October in Luxembourg. Earlier this month, she rallied from a set and 1-4 down at the Hopman Cup in Perth to defeat France's Mathilde Johansson, then paired with the now-hobbled John Isner to win the mixed doubles.

Drilling deep into a Slam draw would be yet another milestone -- Williams didn't make it past the second round in a major last year -- although this was never an easy one for her, even in her prime. She has reached the final just once in 12 appearances, losing to Serena in 2003, and advanced to the quarters last time she was here in 2010. Seeded 25th in this edition, her path will probably lead through world No. 2 Maria Sharapova in the third round if both women win again. Both have spent significant time idled by injury and illness and this would be only the second time they've played in the past four years; Sharapova owns a 4-3 edge in the series.

ESPN analyst and two-time Australian Open winner Chris Evert said Williams' performance was encouraging, and a reward for figuring out how to manage her illness rather than exhausting herself in a futile attempt to beat it.

"I was impressed with her consistency today,'' Evert said. "She hit twice as many winners as errors (21 to 10). She's getting a lot of first serves in and moving better. ... I think she's just so happy to be healthy and so happy when she wakes up and feels good that she's going to make the most of it.''

As much as players discipline themselves not to look two matches ahead, Evert said it would be hard to avoid laying the mental groundwork for a potential showdown with Sharapova.

"I think in the back of both of their minds, even though they won't admit it, they feel they have to start right now and peak and play their best tennis, because they'll have to when they play one another,'' she said.

In her opening match, Williams wore a dress of her own design that was a pastiche of pastels with hair coloring to match. She said the palette was inspired by watercolors, and played most of the match as if she were comfortably perched on one of Monet's lilypads, serving crisply, moving well and loading her groundstrokes with pace. The 28-year-old, 80th-ranked Voskoboeva lurched a bit in the light breeze and couldn't convert any of four break points.

"I don't think my opponent quite got the hang of, you know, it's hard to play the first match in a major, first thing of the year, and that can be a lot of pressure," Williams said graciously. "I did my best to just close it out."

Williams still must structure her training around her varying energy levels, and has tinkered with her diet, calling herself a "cheagan" -- a vegan who allows herself to stray. "If you're sitting next to me, good luck," she said. "You turn your head once and your food might be gone. I'm not perfect, but I try."

Yet the biggest adjustment has been psychological. During a strong run to the semifinals in Cincinnati last summer, Williams told reporters she had to learn to fight feelings of "panic" if she woke up feeling less than 100 percent, defeating herself before she even stepped on the court. "She still has issues," said her mother Oracene Price, standing outside the stadium after the match. "But now she says, 'If I'm having a bad day, I can work it out.'"

That's a different kind of weight training, and one that a younger, less accomplished player might not have been able to pull off. Williams, who always carried herself with a unique and elegant dignity even as a teenager, is a distance runner now, proud of her longevity and quite clear about her exit strategy. This is her 18th season as a pro and she wants to reach the round number of 20. She intends to make it to the 2016 Olympics.

"I don't really have anything to prove except for I have my desire to play and to play well," Williams said. "That really is what it's about at this point, is getting the best out of me."

And that is something she'll never make assumptions about again.