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Venus Williams the 2017 French Open champ? Why not?

PARIS -- It was the opening Sunday of the 2013 French Open, and as the light was fading on Court Suzanne Lenglen, the crowd was transfixed as a match between Urszula Radwanska and Venus Williams hit the three-hour mark.

The two players continued to trade blows for 19 more minutes, until, mercifully, Poland's Radwanska earned the best win of her career. Soon after, Williams trudged off the court, beaten in the opening round of a Grand Slam for only the fifth time in her career.

The fans who had remained late into the evening gave her what seemed more a sympathetic round of applause, an appreciation of a once-great player apparently heading toward the end of her career -- someone who was brought down by an energy-sapping illness.

Back then, it had already been five years since Williams had won a major title and four since she had been diagnosed with Sjogren's syndrome. At the time, doctors said she would struggle to play again professionally, but the former world No. 1 defied their cautious predictions to return to the tour.

In 2013, as Williams approached her 33rd birthday, the inevitable questions of retirement came her way. They were batted down, but there was an element of sadness as she discussed her battle to be out there, a fight not helped by a niggling back injury on the day.

"What I'm going through is not easy, but I'm strong, and I'm a fighter," she told reporters that night. "I don't think I'm playing for just me. I'm playing for a lot of people who haven't felt well. I think for me, it's a positive to be able to play three hours."

The loss dropped her out of the top 32 and denied her a seeding at Wimbledon, and by the time she reached the US Open, her ranking had plummeted to No. 60.

The contrast with 2017 is little short of remarkable, to the point that as Williams prepares to play Timea Bacsinszky in the fourth round of the French Open on Sunday, the American, now seeded 10th, is even being talked about as a potential champion -- 15 years after she made her first and only final here.

Four months ago, at the Australian Open, Williams made her first Grand Slam final since Wimbledon in 2009, and today, just a fortnight short of her 37th birthday, she bids to reach the quarterfinals in Paris for the first time since 2006.

It certainly doesn't hurt that the likes of sister Serena Williams, Maria Sharapova and Victoria Azarenka aren't in this year's draw. The most dangerous possibility in Venus' half of the bracket would be a possible quarterfinal date with defending champ Garbine Muguruza, but it should be noted that the Spaniard has played unevenly since she won last year's title.

In the past 18 months, Williams has found a way to compete. What made life so tough for her was that she wouldn't know from one day to the next how she would feel, something that made training even more difficult. Even so, she finished 2015 back in the top 10.

In her first three rounds this week, whenever there has been a tough moment, Williams has lifted her game, finding more pop on her groundstrokes and more accuracy on her serve. Even on a surface that has never been easy for her, the efficiency and dynamism of her movement are still first-class.

Bacsinszky beat Williams at the same stage here last year, but in her 20th year at Roland Garros, Williams seems as hungry as ever for success. "I think sometimes clay can be tricky," she said after her third-round win. "Sometimes a player catches fire, and you don't have a good day. I think this year I'm playing really well strategically, and I'm enjoying it. So it feels like a good thing.

"There is really no reason to stop. I've got a lot of fun out here, and I enjoy it. I love it. I'm good at it. So why not?"

Exactly. Why not?