Long play Venus Williams

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The losses are mounting, but Venus Williams' joy on the court doesn't seem to be diminishing.

It used to be, when Grand Slam draws were announced, tennis fans would scan the bracket to see where Venus and Serena Williams landed. If they were on the same side? That was the tough part of the draw. Opposite sides, and you had a real shot at an all-Williams final.

That's no longer the case.

Although Serena's second-round loss this week is a blip in a still-strong career, Venus Williams has not been the same player since being diagnosed with Sjogren's Syndrome in 2011. She has missed a Grand Slam each of the past three years, and it isn't unusual to see her exit in the first or second round.

Yet Venus is still ranked No. 29 in the world despite her age, 33, and her fatigue-inducing condition. It's pretty extraordinary.

When the goal is accumulating majors and prize money, stepping onto a tennis court is relatively effortless. But here is Williams, her skills fading and her stamina unreliable, heading to the baseline with more joy now than when she was younger and healthier.

There is something inspiring about that, even if she never holds another silver chalice on a show court.

Williams still has good days; one of them came in February when she beat Ana Ivanovic, Caroline Wozniacki and Alize Cornet en route to the Dubai title. Not one match was even pushed to a third set. After the win, her first title since 2012, Williams was asked to compare it with her youthful accomplishments.

"Oh, well, winning all those Grand Slam titles and playing deep and getting to the final so many times, I mean, those are amazing accomplishments," Williams said. "It takes a lot of nerve, takes a lot of, you know, mental prowess, so I'd like to think I'm on that path. I'm not looking to do anything I did in the past, because I already did that. I'm looking to improve and be a better, smarter Venus."

That decisive success in Dubai was just a month after her first-round loss in the Australian Open. A week before that, she reached a final in Aukland.

Her best days are still better than most young tennis players can ever hope to approximate. Her bad days still don't threaten her love of the game.

Venus Williams is hardly Ali on the ropes, and the clay was never her surface anyway.

The next biggie is Wimbledon next month. This has been Venus Williams' second home and -- maybe someday when she retires on her own terms -- it will be the place where she smiles and waves while four walls of fans rise to their feet with applause.

In October, Williams will mark her 20th anniversary as a professional tennis player. She was the first woman of color to achieve the No. 1 ranking on the WTA Tour. With white beads in her hair and braces on her teeth, Venus Williams launched a new generation of girls onto American tennis courts.

What better role model could there be? She embodies something greater than her seven Grand Slam singles titles. Long may she play.

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