Forced to sever ties with a few guilty dietary pleasures in the past six months, it stands to reason Venus Williams would use an idiom related to food when summing up her motivation to return to the tour at 31.
The seven-time Grand Slam singles champion wanted to give herself the best possible chance at dealing with the debilitating Sjogren’s syndrome so steak, chicken, sweets – they all had to go if she was to achieve the one ambition still igniting her competitive spark.
“My only goal is to get to the Olympics and then everything else is the icing on the cake,” Williams told Wimbledon.com in Madrid a few weeks ago. “Right now my career is just more about challenging myself.”
As one of the most athletic and statuesque players to grace the tennis court, the tour veteran of 17 years has a seasoned resolve at sticking to an athlete’s diet.
But after being diagnosed with Sjogren’s syndrome in September last year and consequently missing the next six months on tour, Williams was forced to take the health kick to the extreme if she was to be in the mix for London 2012.
She seriously weighed up retirement after being diagnosed with the auto-immune disease that affects sufferers’ joints and causes severe fatigue.
It has been far from smooth sailing for the three-time Olympic gold medallist.
She was even forced to start the self-dubbed “cheagan” diet – a vegan diet that includes cheating with the occasional treat outside the boundaries.
“Honestly, I don’t really miss anything anymore. It’s just that sometimes I come across stuff,” she said of the change in eating habits.
“In the beginning I missed steaks and chicken and I daydreamed of sweets, which were my best friends, you know. Like, it’s OK, but I’m still weak when I see it on someone else’s plate.
“I want to be good but the bad is still in my head. That’s the best that I can explain it.”
The mathematics is simple. Williams must get her ranking back inside the top 56 and be ranked among the top four Americans to be guaranteed her place on the team or rely on a wild card from the International Tennis Federation.
A quarter-final showing on the clay in Rome two weeks ago went a long way to boosting her cause – a jump of 11 spots to No.52 in the rankings elevating her above third and fourth-ranked Americans Vania King and Varvara Lepchenko respectively. And then yesterday, a crucial first-round win at Roland Garros, recovering from a set down against Argentine Paula Ormaechea, should make qualification a done deal. But you never know.
“For the Olympics, you can’t rely on a wild card to come. You know, these other tournaments, I could maybe get a wild card. Someone will feel sorry for me and say `hey, she’s been through a lot; let’s give her a bone’ or something,” Williams said.
“By the Olympics, I needed to qualify so that was my whole motivation every day of practice coming back. The days I wanted to quit, you know, just `you gotta qualify’. So that was like everything for me; that’s been my beacon in front of me.”
With five Wimbledon ladies’ singles and four ladies’ doubles titles [all with sister Serena] to her name, clearly the surroundings at the All England Club suit her.
“Let’s hope so. Let’s hope I can get an upper hand. I’ll take any upper hand I can get at this point,” she laughed. “Give it to me.”
Williams is a realistic Olympic medal chance on the grass in singles, doubles and mixed doubles, should she choose to compete in all three. She already has two Olympic women’s doubles gold medals with sister Serena to complement her singles gold from Sydney in 2000.
“Of course my dream would be to play all three. Even if I would [get picked for all three] I want to be honest with what I can achieve and I’m definitely building my way up to playing doubles [with Serena] and I’m hoping that we can play in some of the next tournaments,” she said.
“I haven’t thought about Wimbledon yet. I will at some point. When the clay-court season’s over, for sure, I’ll be zoned in on that. You know, with any luck I would have already qualified for the Olympics and I’ll be moving on to some new goal.”
Should she represent Team USA for a fourth time in London, Williams is prepared for the sobering reality check to follow. It could be taken as a hint it will be the last time she ventures on to the grass at the All England Club.
“Once the Olympics are over I hope I don’t just fall apart,” she laughed.
“It’s been a battle but definitely at the end of the season I’m going to be taking the biggest break out of all the players.”