Sad exit for Venus Williams

WIMBLEDON, England -- Surely, this is not the way Venus Williams wants to go out:

She walked slowly to the net, her head down, summoning the strength to force a broader-than-necessary smile. She politely shook the hand of Elena Vesnina -- a useful but unremarkable Russian player ranked No. 79 in the world -- and started gathering her things. She waved to the respectful Court 2 crowd, first with her left hand and then her right. Then she disappeared through the exit.

For good?

It wasn't just the listless, lethargic nature of her 6-1, 6-3 loss, it was where it happened. This is the All England Club, the cherished place where Venus has had her greatest success. The five-time champion, who suffers from Sjogren's syndrome, was absent in virtually every sense on the grass that has always accentuated her greatest gifts.

The numbers were seriously ugly. It was her:

• earliest loss here since her first appearance, 15 years ago.

• second-most one-sided loss, in terms of the four games she won.

• earliest exit at a Grand Slam in six years, going back to the 2006 Australian Open.

Vesnina, it must be said, had lost 10 of her previous 11 Grand Slam singles matches.

"Obviously I come into tournaments with a positive attitude, doing my best," Venus said later. "I don't really feel like talking about my health right now.

"So it is what it is."

Williams turned 32 earlier this month, which is historically close to the end for elite tennis players today. If it weren't for the autoimmune condition that she revealed at the U.S. Open a year ago, it wouldn't be hard to imagine her still winning titles and making deep runs at the Grand Slams.

But Sjogren's syndrome is debilitating and creates a terminal fatigue in those who suffer it. Training is, by necessity, limited, making it difficult to prepare for the three, four and five matches required in a weeklong event. Venus missed seven months after last year's U.S. Open and she has never returned to anything close to her championship form.

"For me right now, I'm just a couple of months into getting back on tour," she said. "You know, life is challenging, but I'm always up for a challenge."

Venus says she has good days and bad days. Last Month in Rome, she surprised U.S. Open champion Samantha Stosur in the fourth round, before losing to Maria Sharapova in the quarterfinals. More often than not, though, the results have been disappointing. There was a second-round loss to Angelique Kerber in Madrid and a similar defeat by Agnieszka Radwanska at the French Open.

A dozen years ago, a slender 20-year-old raised in California rocked this place. Venus beat Lindsay Davenport in the final and eventually established herself as the best player of her generation on grass. Her long strides made virtually no ball unreachable. Her super-heavy serve was often unreturnable. Her athleticism allowed her to run down and dig out the low, skidding balls this unique surface creates.

Monday, there was none of that. There were some balls from Vesnina that Venus didn't even pretend to chase. Her serve was broken on five of eight occasions and she placed only 38 percent of her first serves in. On changeovers, there was the same weary, glazed look she wore in Paris.

For those who remember her verve, her once-indomitable spirit, it was heartbreaking to see.

Even after her peak -- when she won four of six majors in 2000 and 2001 -- Venus still managed to dominate here. She won titles in 2005, 2007 and again in 2008, over her sister Serena in the final. It was her last major victory.

Willie Mays falling down in the outfield, chasing a ball for the New York Mets; Joe Willie Namath getting battered in the pocket as the quarterback of the Los Angeles Rams; Muhammad Ali taking a pounding at the hands of Trevor Berbick: These were spectacular athletes staying past not just their prime, but their time.

And now it's happening to Venus.

She could have walked away last year, but she and her sister had their heart set on playing doubles at the Olympics. Venus worked hard, put herself into potentially embarrassing situations and managed to lift her ranking high enough (the 50s) to qualify for a berth on the U.S. team for singles, too.

But is she paying a physical price for that decision?

"Gee whiz," she said, "that's a loaded question. I'm really proud of my efforts to get my rankings up for the Olympics. That's one of the toughest things I've ever done in my life."

The Olympics will be played at Wimbledon three weeks after this event ends. Will it end for Venus with another a weak wave of the hand and a sad grimace? Will she be back at Wimbledon?

"Yeah," Venus said, "at the Olympics you'll see me here."

Next year?

"I'm planning on it," she said.

As the postmatch interview progressed, Venus did not like the direction in which it was headed. When reporter Sandra Harwitt suggested she was "struggling," Venus took exception. When Harwitt persisted and asked where she would find the motivation to keep playing, Venus finally came clean.

"I feel like I am a great player," she said. "I am a great player. Unfortunately I had a deal with circumstances that people don't normally have to deal with in this sport. But I can't be discouraged by that, so I'm up for challenges. I have great tennis in me. I just need the opportunity.

"There's no way I'm just going to sit down and give up just because I have a hard time the first five or six freakin' tournaments back.

"You know, that's just not me."