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Hodgkinson: Evert, A Venus Fan

Mark Hodgkinson caught up with two of Venus Williams' biggest fans - Chris Evert and Serena Williams - to talk about the seven-time Grand Slam champion's remarkable return to form this year.

Published March 18, 2014 12:14

Hodgkinson: Evert, A Venus Fan
Venus Williams

Has there ever been a greater advertisement for the strength and the power of cheating vegans? Or, as Venus Ebony Starr Williams describes it, for being "a cheagan" - that's her word for someone such as herself who tries to keep to a vegan diet, but who once or twice a year finds herself ordering a steak.

Those occasional rib-eyes aside, she's fuelled by raw vegetables and a desire to keep on being a force in the women's game, and she's now playing the best tennis of a period in her career she likes to call "Venus AD", or Venus After Diagnosis. When Venus won this year's Dubai title, it wasn't just her first tournament victory since 2012, and her greatest success for four years; it was also her first big triumph since she disclosed in 2011 she was suffering from Sjogren's Syndrome, an auto-immune disease which had left her suffering from fatigue, muscle aches and shortness of breath. To continue competing on the WTA tour, Venus had to change her diet, even cutting out the cherry pies she loves as "sugar is verboten", but that's just part of the reason that the 33-year-old has remained competitive; there's also her mental fortitude, and her undiminished motivation to train and compete for tennis trophies.

"With all that Venus has been through health-wise, it was wonderful to see her winning a tournament. Her fans loved to see that, as it showed that she's healthy and she's feeling better," Chris Evert, a former World No.1, said in an interview with wtatennis.com. "This disease, it's been a tough thing for Venus because she has found it difficult to be consistent. She's had ups and downs. I think Venus has learned from this disease that she has to manage herself and her schedule, and her diet and her fitness - she has to be more aware of managing everything a lot better. Even though her heart and her emotions want her to play the game, some days it hasn't been there for her physically, and I'm sure that has been frustrating. I'm a big fan of Venus."

Given everything Venus has accomplished in tennis - including winning seven Grand Slam singles titles - this former World No.1 would have been forgiven on receiving that diagnosis for wanting to step away from tennis, for retiring to concentrate on her off-court career as a designer. "But I'm not surprised that Venus is still playing because she still loves the game," Evert said. "I think she still has that power, and she feels that if she can impose that power on most players, she's going to be winning matches. She's still got the game. She's got the serve, and the power off both sides. For a tall player, she moves very well. And sometimes when something is taken away from you, you appreciate it more when you get it back. I think she really appreciates being healthy and wanting to go out to play good tennis. When she has good results, as she did in Dubai, that's going to encourage her more to keep playing. Venus is playing for the love of the game, because she just feels healthy. She's just happy to be playing when she feels good."

It's not as if Serena Williams hasn't had medical dramas of her own, but the alpha female of women's tennis, and the younger of the two Californian sisters, has remarked that if she had been through what Venus has, she would have stopped playing singles and become a doubles specialist. "Venus is the ultimate inspiration," Serena said of her sister, whose victory at the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships was achieved with five victories over Top 40 opponents, in Elena Vesnina, Ana Ivanovic, Flavia Pennetta, Caroline Wozniacki and Alizé Cornet. "Venus has so much courage to show up week in, week out, to play. That's what I call courage. Her spirit is amazing because I know what she goes through - sometimes it's great, and sometimes it's different and difficult. She might lose matches that she would normally win 10 times out of 10, but she accepts that and moves on, and that's really amazing."

You might say that this is the golden age for thirty-somethings on the women's tennis scene, with a couple of 32-year-olds, in Serena Williams and Li Na, at the top of the rankings. And, after her Dubai victory, it is going to be interesting to see how Venus plays for the rest of the season, starting with the Sony Open Tennis in Miami.

Mark Hodgkinson is a tennis author and journalist based in London. He is currently working on 'The Secrets of The Locker Room', which will be published by Bloomsbury in 2015.

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