By Lorenzo Benet
Updated January 09, 2012 12:00 PM
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Venus Williams, bathed by the afternoon Florida sun, grabs a racket and takes the court in a shimmering aqua tennis dress, one of her own designs. Even after three months out of competition, she appears capable of launching one of her 120-mph serves. But looks-like a disguised drop shot-can be deceiving. Some days her legendary serve is there, but today isn’t one of them. “I got tired,” she says, checking her pet Havanese dog Harold, napping nearby. “I hit a couple of serves and stopped.”

Williams’s fatigue is due to Sjogren’s syndrome. Her August announcement that she has this autoimmune disease, which attacks the endocrine glands and causes symptoms like swollen joints and severe exhaustion (see box), stunned tennis fans. She withdrew from the U.S. Open, issued a statement, then virtually disappeared. “Venus is a champion and portrays an elegance on the court that is very much missed,” says Chris Evert. “It would be great to see her finish [her career] healthy and on a high note.”

Don’t count her out yet. As a Nov. 23 exhibition match proved, she again has the strength to dust her kid sister Serena (6-4, 7-6). And today she is ready to talk about why she kept her illness secret and what the road back has been like. “I’ve been going hard the past few weeks, and it scares me,” says Williams, 31, who hopes to play in the Australian Open this month. “I need to avoid stress or I’ll get sicker and go backwards.”

From age 14, when Williams played her first pro tournament, tennis had propelled her only forward. When she entered the 2011 U.S. Open, she had 21 Grand Slam titles and three Olympic Gold medals to her name and had three times been ranked No. 1 in the world. So complete was her devotion to the game that she famously finished a January 2011 match after ripping a 3-in. tear in her psoas muscle in the first set and went on to win. She collapses with laughter as she tells that story. “I tried to play another match!” she says. “I’m crazy.”

But even for one as determined as she is, she couldn’t fend off the Sjogren’s symptoms she felt at the Open in her first match, which she won. Two days later, on Aug. 31, she withdrew before her second match, with Sabine Lisicki. “I couldn’t raise my arm over my head; the racket felt like concrete. I had no feeling in my hands: They were swollen and achy,” she recounts. “I realized it would be a miserable show.”

So she walked away. She had been diagnosed with Sjogren’s a month earlier but said nothing until she was forced to: “If you’re going to pull out of the Open, there has to be a reason.”

In February Venus had seen Serena suffer a near-fatal pulmonary embolism. Now she was facing her own health crisis, and she was scared. “I have this random illness I couldn’t even pronounce,” she says. “I was like, ‘Oh my God, will my career be stolen from me because of this?'”

She returned home to the Palm Beach Gardens mansion she shares with Serena, 30, and faced her new reality: She was a tennis star with a chronic condition that could make running after balls and gripping a racket impossible. She points to a still-swollen pinkie joint. “You realize, ‘I am not in control of this. Even if I want to feel good, I can’t.'”

“When she first found out, it was devastating and scary for everybody,” says Serena. “It doesn’t affect just one person; it affects the whole family.” Says Venus: “I would go to the doctor and start crying; I couldn’t help it,” she says. “I just want a chance to play on the same field as other people. I want to feel normal.” But as frightening as the diagnosis was, it was also a relief. It meant “I wasn’t crazy and I wasn’t lazy,” she says. She recalls symptoms as early as 2004 and began seeing doctors about fatigue a year later, but no one could pinpoint the source. In 2007 she was given an asthma inhaler, which rarely helped. “I thought, ‘Is this a mental problem? Maybe I need to work harder.'”

Now her effort goes toward feeling better. At Serena’s urging she sought out holistic alternatives, like yoga and massage, to complement the conventional methods from her doctors in Florida and California. “A lot of the treatments are very aggressive, and you can get a whole other set of problems from the drugs you’re taking,” says Williams, who wanted a more rounded approach to managing a disease that can lead to more serious ailments such as lupus or rheumatoid arthritis. “I don’t want that to be me.”

She changed her diet to raw vegan dishes-a tough switch for this steak lover-which may help ease the inflammation in her joints. “I had one last all-out meal: rib eye, fries, lobster, chocolate cake,” says Williams, who now enjoys avocado carpaccio and portobello-mushroom burgers. “It’s emotional, giving up food I love, but I have to change.” To lift her spirits, she turned to family: playing video games with her niece and nephews and watching tennis with her father. Supportive letters and tweets poured in from other Sjogren’s patients. “She has done a complete U-turn,” says Serena, who showed solidarity by eating the same vegan diet. “She was devastated, but she’s so positive now.”

As Venus’s energy returned, she focused on other pursuits: continuing to earn credits toward a business degree; running a clothing line, EleVen, and an interior design business, V Starr; acting as ambassador for the U.S. Tennis Association’s National Junior Tennis & Learning program. “I want to make the sport more diverse,” she says.

But she is not ready to step aside for the next generation quite yet. Williams resumed training just before Thanksgiving. With all she’s been juggling off the court, a return to competition, she reasons, could actually be relaxing. “It’s eat, sleep, practice, rest,” she says. “I get more rest at a tournament than I do at home.”

People

TABLET BONUS PHOTOS

Venus through the years