- Associated Press - Thursday, September 1, 2011

NEW YORK (AP) - 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.”

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