NEW YORK — Venus Williams' smile was tinged with a bit of sadness when she said goodbye to the U.S. Open for 2011 — certainly not on her terms and certainly not the way most people expected.
The two-time champion and one of the headliners of the game for nearly 15 years withdrew Wednesday after revealing she had recently been diagnosed with Sjogren's syndrome, an autoimmune disease that has been sapping her energy all summer and made it too much for her to go on at this, the season's last Grand Slam.
"I enjoyed playing my first match here, and wish I could continue but right now I am unable to," she said in a statement. "I am thankful I finally have a diagnosis and am now focused on getting better and returning to the court soon."
As she departed, she gave a slight little wave before folding into the back seat of a courtesy car. She did not answer questions shouted at her by reporters.
But she knows the story as well as anyone: She is 31 and much closer to the end of her career than the beginning.
Her illness is not normally considered career threatening — dry eyes and dry mouth are the most common symptoms and sometimes fatigue and sore joints set in, as well.
It figures she'll make it back at some point, though when and under what conditions remain the big questions.
Given her age, and the fact that her last major victory came at Wimbledon in 2008, it's no longer unreasonable to wonder if tennis fans have seen the seven-time major winner's best come and go.
And yet, almost every time she shows up to play, they are reminded of why she can never be overlooked. It's been that way for years.
"There was all this hype around these two girls but they weren't playing tournaments, so everyone was talking about how good they were, how good they weren't," said Andy Roddick, who grew up around the Williams sisters, talking about the early days. "Everyone had an opinion. Turns out they were pretty good."
Still are, but health problems won't let Venus show it this time. And with the way this draw is shaping up, who knows how far she might have gone?
Through the first three days, eight of the 32 seeds have been eliminated.
That includes No. 5 Petra Kvitova and No. 6 Li Na — the Wimbledon and French Open champions. The injured Kim Clijsters, this year's Australian Open champion, never even made it to Flushing Meadows, making this the first U.S. Open in 30 years without a reigning major titlist in the draw come Round 2.
Even the players still left in the tournament felt a bit of loss with one of the sport's biggest stars gone.
"I'm kind of sad and I'm disappointed that Venus had to pull out," said Irina Falconi, a 21-year-old American who defeated No. 14 Dominika Cibulkova. "But I hope it gets better, for what it's worth."
This from the woman who would've played Williams in the third round had Williams stayed and beaten No. 22 Sabine Lisicki. Instead, Lisicki got the walkover.
"She's a tough girl, and I think she'll come back. You know, it would be unfortunate if she couldn't," Lisicki said. "Serena and Venus both are amazing players, and it's nice to have them in the women's sport. I hope she comes back."
Williams' sister, Serena, is still in the draw and looks very much like a favorite, even as a No. 28 seed. Serena plays her second-round match Thursday against Michaella Kraijcek. Later on Arthur Ashe Court, No. 1 Caroline Wozniacki meets Arantxa Rus.
Also playing Thursday are No. 1 Novak Djokovic and No. 3 Roger Federer, along with the top American player, No. 8 Mardy Fish.
On Wednesday night, Roddick — who used to be America's best on the men's side — needed 2 hours, 57 minutes to defeat 96th-ranked Michael Russell 6-2, 6-4, 4-6, 7-5, yet another sign that the days of Roddick dominating every time he walks on the court are gone.
"Well, every wins helps," said the No. 21 seed. "I'm certainly not fooling myself by thinking that was worthy of a championship performance, by any means. But, you know, I don't know if I would expect that."
After Roddick's match, No. 3 Maria Sharapova took the court for a match that started just before 11 p.m. She rolled through Anastasia Yakimova 6-1, 6-1 in 70 minutes.
"I'm usually in bed by 10:30, give or take, 11," Sharapova said after the match. "I'm usually in my tenth dream by now."
Another winner was 19-year-old American Christina McHale, 7-6 (2), 6-2 over eighth-seeded Marion Bartoli of France, the runner-up to Venus Williams at Wimbledon in 2007.
"I think there's a lot of American players — young American players — right now that are all kind of pushing each other. So I think it's exciting," said McHale, who knocked off Wozniacki at a hard-court tuneup tournament in Cincinnati in August.
Venus isn't young anymore, and now the wait begins to see if she'll work her way back into the mix of top contenders.
"I don't think any of us know how serious it is and hopefully it is not," Sharapova said. "I don't feel like it's the end of her career, even though she's a bit older. She's one of the fittest players on tour. And one of the most dangerous when she's playing well."
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