Now 31, and figuring out from day to day how to handle an illness that saps her strength, Williams was on the wrong end of a lopsided 60-minute defeat in the second round of the French Open on Wednesday.
Looking glum and lacking the verve that carried her to seven Grand Slam titles, Williams barely put up any resistance and lost 6-2, 6-3 to No. 3-seeded Agnieszka Radwanska of Poland at Roland Garros. Coming a day after her younger sister Serena was stunned in the first round by 111th-ranked Virginie Razzano of France, the early exit marked the first time in 43 major tournaments with both in the field that neither Williams got to the third round.
"I felt like I played," Williams said after making a hard-to-fathom 33 unforced errors, 27 more than Radwanska. "That pretty much sums it up."
This one was not exactly an out-of-nowhere upset, considering that Williams is ranked 53rd now, never has been as good on clay as on other surfaces, lost to Radwanska 6-4, 6-1 two months ago, and is learning how to be a professional athlete with Sjogren's syndrome, an autoimmune disease that can cause fatigue and joint pain.
Still, the meek way Williams departed was striking, considering that she has been ranked No. 1, has appeared in 14 major finals to Radwanska's zero, and from 2008-10 won 10 of the 11 sets the two played against each other.
"I don't know if I ever asked myself, 'Why me?' I mean, obviously it's frustrating at times. I don't know if there's anything mental more I can do at this point, but there's a lot of stages to go through with this kind of thing," said Williams, whose fastest-in-the-game serve was broken five times Wednesday. "There's a lot of people who have it a lot worse than I do. I'm still playing a professional sport, so I have to be very positive. And I'm going to have ups and downs. I haven't gotten to the 'Why me?' yet. I hope I never get to the 'Why me?' I'm not allowed to feel sorry for myself."
It's hard to know, however, how much energy she'll have from one day to the next.
Whenever the alarm goes off, Williams starts to find out what the next 24 hours will be like.
"Every morning is different. Some mornings, I don't feel great, then it's a better day than I thought it was going to be. I can't automatically be discouraged. When I wake up, I just have to see how it goes. Sometimes I get a second wind," she explained. "It's just so hard to know."
Williams revealed her diagnosis in late August at the U.S. Open, when she withdrew before her second-round match. She skipped the Australian Open in January, before returning to the tour in March in a bid to earn a berth on the U.S Olympic team. Spots are awarded based on rankings -- the top 56 get in automatically, with a maximum of four per country, so Williams should be OK.
"This tournament, for me, was all about getting to the Olympics, as I have said a couple million times," she said. "If that happens for me, and I think the chances are good, then I come out a victor. So that's why I was here."
At changeovers, Williams would slink to the sideline, then sit on her green bench with hands clasped, staring straight ahead, expressionless and motionless.
She was far more animated afterward, laughing often while discussing her condition and graciously complimenting the play of Radwanska, a 23-year-old who is coming into her own this season.
"Of course, when I saw the draw, I wasn't very happy, because Venus as a second-round opponent, it's not easy," Radwanska said. "Maybe she just had a bad day here."
While never advancing past the quarterfinals at a Grand Slam tournament, Radwanska has shown signs of being ready for a major breakthrough, with three lesser titles and a tour-high 38 victories in 2012. Of her seven losses, six were against No. 1-ranked Victoria Azarenka.
On an easy day for the top-seeded players, Azarenka breezed into the third round with a 6-1, 6-1 victory over Dinah Pfizenmaier of Germany 6-1, 6-1, while the No. 1 man, Novak Djokovic, extended his Grand Slam winning streak to 23 matches by beating Blaz Kavcic of Slovenia 6-0, 6-4, 6-4.
"Being No. 1 is a difficult job, because everybody want to catch you, everybody want to move you from the spot," said Azarenka, pushed to three sets in the first round. "Nothing is going to come easy just because you're No. 1."
For years, Roger Federer managed to make things look easy at the top. Now No. 3, he went through a bit of a glitch and dropped a set Wednesday before earning his record-breaking 234th Grand Slam match victory, 6-3, 6-2, 6-7 (6), 6-3 against 92nd-ranked Adrian Ungur of Romania.
"I have been around for so long that, even though I expect myself to win, I can still manage to do that," said Federer, on course for a semifinal showdown with Djokovic. "Whereas in the beginning, when you think you're good but you're maybe not that good yet, you get many more surprise losses."
Before rain cut play short in the evening, all 10 seeded men whose matches ended won, including No. 9 Juan Martin del Potro, the 2009 U.S. Open champion, who acknowledged his bandaged left knee is a "constant bother."
Four seeded women lost, including No. 8 Marion Bartoli of France, the runner-up to Williams in the 2007 Wimbledon final, when the American was near the height of her powers.
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