Venus Williams talks about living with her Sjögren's syndrome and keeping her tennis game fresh as she preps for the 2018 U.S. Open

By Julie Mazziotta
August 21, 2018 12:40 PM
Clive Brunskill/Getty

Venus Williams is preparing for her whopping 20th appearance at the U.S. Open, but the tennis star hasn’t lost any of her enthusiasm for the sport over the years.

What’s even more impressive is that Williams, who is now in her 24th year as a professional, can do it all while dealing with an incurable autoimmune disease that causes fatigue.

She first revealed that she had Sjögren’s syndrome in 2011, after she had to withdraw from the U.S. Open. Now Williams says she’s learned how to effectively manage the disease.

“It’s obviously something that you learn to live with the best you can,” she tells PEOPLE. “I think it’s about living life on your own terms and looking at it as a challenge, not as the end all.”

Williams says her symptoms — which can include swollen joints and fatigue — stay fairly consistent from year to year, and she’s figured out how to take control.

“I try to take care of myself and take rest and focus on what I eat,” she says. “And obviously getting the best medical care I can.”

She’s also been able to help others with Sjögren’s.

“I try to give them any advice that I can, especially in the beginning,” she says. “It’s all new and it can be a lot for a person. But I enjoy that. I wish that I would have had that experience as well, so if I can give back to someone I will.”

RELATED VIDEO: Serena Williams Says Sister Venus Is Helping Her Return to Tennis Post-Baby: ‘It Takes a Village’

Williams also keeps her energy up by planning out her year with her favorite matches.

“I go to the tournaments that I enjoy, and I try to keep a realistic schedule,” she says. “I rarely withdraw because I make a schedule I can maintain both mentally and physically. I don’t want to let anyone down, including myself.”

And the U.S. Open, which kicks off on Monday, holds a special importance for Williams, who won her second-ever grand slam there in 2000, and another in 2001.

“I remember watching that tournament nonstop growing up, watching all the players. And now I’m playing! So it’s a full-circle experience and it’s very surreal,” she says. “It’s not by chance, and there’s a lot of hard work that goes into getting there. It’s that dream as a child, and being able to live it.”

Serena and Venus Williams
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As Williams gets ready for her first match, she says that “everyone goes in dreaming of a win,” and she knows she can do it, but works on taking it one step at a time.

“You don’t want to pressure yourself. I don’t want to be focusing on the finals in the first round. The main thing is focusing on the game at hand, and the challenge at hand at that very moment,” she says.

And the American Express spokesperson has some fun events planned for the tournament. She’ll be the official tutor for the brand’s Super Rally experience, where tennis fans can step on to the court and play using augmented reality.

Venus Williams with the Super Rally racket
Bryan Bedder/Getty

Williams also plans on visiting with her new niece, sister Serena’s 11-month-old daughter Alexis Olympia.

“I have to make sure I’m on her schedule though, can’t stop by at nap time,” she says, laughing. “I do the best I can as an aunt. I’m learning a lot, that’s for sure.”