PARIS -- Former world No. 1 Venus Williams, in another time, would have been regarded a favorite coming into the French Open. She leads all active WTA players with 54 matches on the red clay of Roland Garros. And she has won her fair share of those.
Instead, all eyes in the tennis world were wondering how Williams would look against unseeded 19-year-old Paula Ormaechea of Argentina on Sunday. Williams, since last summer's diagnosis of Sjogren's syndrome -- a systemic and incurable auto-immune disease -- has seen her life go from contending for Grand Slam titles to trying to show that she can still stay in the game.
Williams, 31, also came into this tournament unseeded -- reflecting how far her ranking has fallen, to No. 53, over the past year. She copes with her disease -- which has symptoms that can include fatigue, joint pain and digestive issues -- through dietary changes and trying to reduce stress. But she can never be sure if she will have enough strength and stamina to compete at the world-class standard she has set over the past 17 years.
The Williams who showed up on Sunday had equal doses of rust and brilliance. It took a shaky first set for Williams to find her traction on clay, but once she did the accurate power flowed freely against Ormaechea en route to a 4-6, 6-1, 6-3 victory. The third set was intense, with both players fighting pretty evenly for the win. Williams broke No. 120 Ormaechea at 3-all and went on to win the match. Simply showing up to play in a tournament, only Williams' fifth event of the season and her first Grand Slam, means a lot.
"It's a huge accomplishment [to be back playing a Grand Slam]; I tell myself to just try and have fun," Williams, who was a 2002 French Open finalist, said after the match. "It's a huge accomplishment for me to be here, right here and now. My perspective changes every week, I just want to do my best, and not be overwhelmed. I just try my best out there and see what happens."
Williams played with a virtually blank expression the entire match but let down her guard after it was over. She smiled broadly and waved to the crowd then threw in a private thumbs-up and sly smile to her box as she walked off the court. Her expression summarized everything: It wasn't pretty, but it was a win. She avoided matching her worst French Open performance from 2001, when she came in seeded second but lost in the first round, 6-4, 6-4, to Barbara Schett of Austria.
Williams advances to play the winner of Agnieszka Radwanska and Bojana Jovanovski in the second round.
Learning how to cope with her illness and chart a path back to feeling better and playing tennis has pushed her emotionally, mentally and physically. She still does not fully know what works -- and doesn't work -- in controlling her symptoms. It's a process of trial and error, with Williams only knowing the results later.
"Sometimes I wonder, did I do something wrong?" Williams said. "I snap out of it pretty quick these days, but is this my fault? There are a lot of things you have to go through mentally. I always want to do more, but the key word is do the best I can. Some losses I don't like to take, but I take them and I move on."
Having a good showing at the French Open is important for Williams, beyond taking another step to regain traction in her career. Getting into the second week should solidify Williams' quest to play in a fourth Olympics. She is on the edge of making the U.S. team for the upcoming London Games, needing to be one of the four top-ranked American women. She is third right now, and if she can maintain her ranking through June 11, she will likely be on the team. An early-round exit at Roland Garros will not aid her cause.
"My main goal is the Olympics, and if I reach that, you may not see me the rest of the year," Williams said, adding a laugh. "So we're celebrating. It's looking more likely with each match that I win."
Both Williams, and her sister, Serena, missed the French Open last year because of different injuries, making this year's joint appearance special to them. Serena, seeded fifth this year, said she has witnessed Venus' struggle to get her health back on track, as the two live together in Southern Florida. Watching Williams suffer, and now work on managing her illness, gave Serena new insights into her older sister.
"It's really intense, and I just don't know anyone out there who has gone through everything that she's gone through and just remaining completely positive and yet still playing so well," Serena said before the tournament started. "It's never easy, you know, for anyone who's going through what she's going through. To do what she's doing, and play a professional sport, is, I think, a whole new level of mental strength.
"Every time she's not feeling well, I'm just like, I can't imagine personally being in that situation. Everything she is doing is inspiring for me."
The sisters are considering playing doubles at the French Open to help prepare for possibly playing doubles at Wimbledon and the Olympics. The two don't play doubles regularly, but when they do it usually results in titles and Olympic medals. They have won the French Open twice (1999, 2010) and have two Olympic titles. The Williams sisters have won a total of 14 Grand Slam titles together.
Serena said she'd play doubles but questioned if her sister should at the French. Venus said she likely look to play doubles at Wimbledon, not wanting to push herself in singles and doubles until she makes the Olympics.
"The biggest challenge has been just learning how to live with this, and I have a lot to learn still," Venus said. "I learn a lot every week, especially having to play a professional sport. That's the challenge -- learning how to live. It's physical, emotional, mental, it's something that you can only get it if you live it. You have to learn how to laugh sometimes."