NEW YORK — Four years ago, Venus Williams pulled out of the U.S. Open before a second-round match and announced she had been suffering for years from the symptoms of Sjögren’s syndrome, an energy-sapping autoimmune disorder.
She wouldn’t return to the WTA Tour for nearly seven months, and it could have been longer if not for one source of motivation.
“That’s all I want now, to be an Olympian again,” Williams said at the 2012 French Open, according to The New York Times. “If not for the Olympics, I would probably have come back around now [in May 2012 rather than in March 2012]. I would have waited until I was comfortable. Because I was a wreck. My first match back, I couldn’t move my arms. I was like, ‘Can I even win a set?’”
The Olympic tennis fields of 64 singles players per gender are determined by world rankings, with no more than four women’s singles players per country. Williams, with that extended absence, fell to No. 137 in early 2012, well out of the Olympic picture, and faced the challenge of climbing to the London Games in a three-month window.
Williams reached three WTA event quarterfinals that spring and moved to No. 47 in the world and third among Americans on the date that the Olympic tennis field was determined.
She made her fourth Olympic team, reached the round of 16 in singles and took doubles gold with sister Serena on the lawns of Wimbledon. Williams owns four Olympic medals, all gold — doubles with Serena in 2000, 2008 and 2012 and singles in 2000.
Now, less than one year before the Rio Games, Williams is in a better personal situation to qualify for the Olympics in singles, but the domestic competition is tougher.
Williams is ranked No. 23 in the world and No. 3 among Americans, behind top-ranked Serena and No. 19 Madison Keys, an Australian Open semifinalist and Wimbledon quarterfinalist who was born four months after Venus turned professional in 1994.
Williams is in the running with other younger players, such as Sloane Stephens, 22, who won her first WTA tournament title in August and CoCo Vandweghe, 23, who made the Wimbledon quarterfinals.
Williams gets another countrywoman, 25-year-old Irina Falconi, in the second round of the U.S. Open, a key tournament as the four Grand Slam events offer more rankings points that go toward Olympic qualification.
On Monday, Williams was asked if a fifth Olympics in Rio were as important to her as her fourth Olympics in London. She said all the right things but was not exactly enthusiastic.
“The Olympics were my dream come true,” the noted Olympic pin collector said softly after winning a three-set, two-hour first-round match under a new, partial roof at Arthur Ashe Stadium, shading her somewhat from nearly 90-degree heat. “I believe I’ll be a real asset for the team, were I to make it. I’ll try to put my best foot forward.”
If Williams is one of the maximum four 2016 U.S. Olympic women’s singles players, she could become, at 36, the second-oldest Olympic singles player since the sport returned to the Olympic program following a 64-year break in 1988, according to sports-reference.com.
The oldest was Swede Jonas Bjorkman, also 36, at Beijing 2008.
She and Roger Federer are attempting to become the first athletes to play in five Olympic singles tennis tournaments.
She and Serena are attempting to extend their shared record for Olympic tennis gold medals and, with one medal, match the Olympic record for overall tennis medals held by 1920s British player Kitty McKane.
The 2016 Olympic tennis fields will be determined by rankings on June 6.