Recovery never comes fast enough for Venus Williams, who plans to return this weekend in the Fed Cup against Belarus after a five-month layoff caused by an autoimmune disease that can cause fatigue and joint pain.
Williams has been fighting Sjogren's Syndrome and hasn't played a sanctioned match since the U.S. Open in August. She withdrew after the first round and was not ready to return last month for the Australian Open.
Williams practiced with the U.S. team Wednesday morning and said she's thrilled to be so close to competing again.
"I think just being on a team and just having some adrenaline just gives me even more energy, to be honest," she said at a news conference. "I need to be on a team every week and not at home."
Williams has had to learn the difference between recovering from an injury and an illness. That has meant pacing herself more in practice and minding doctors' orders not to push it while she tries to regain her form. A former No. 1 and seven-time Grand Slam singles winner, Williams isn't used to taking it easy.
"The difference is acceptance - trying to accept how you feel and limitations. Listening to your body and taking care of yourself," she said. "Instead of trying to run through a wall, just really kind of take a step back and be smart. I think that's kind of what I've learned.
"There are some things you can't keep going through," she added. "I still have to be reminded to slow down, but hopefully there will be a day when I don't have to be reminded of that."
Williams played younger sister, Serena, in an exhibition in Colombia in November.
The recovery has been frustratingly slow at times, but she feels ready for this weekend when the U.S. begins its quest to return to the top tier in the Fed Cup. The Americans were bounced to Group II in a 5-0 loss to Germany last year, when Venus was with the team but couldn't play because of a hip injury.
"I was just kind of standing on the sidelines, which was tough because I wasn't able to help the team at all," she said. "This year, it's great to be in a position to help the team."
It's also great for U.S. captain Mary Joe Fernandez, who said the lineup for the matches Saturday and Sunday will depend on how well Venus plays in practice over the next few days.
Wednesday's results looked promising, Fernandez said.
"Just to have her around is such a big motivator for the rest of the team. There's a lot of excitement. I think Venus was thrilled and she was itching to get out there and hit that first ball," Fernandez said. "I think that goes such a long way. The ripple effect of everybody seeing it - just seeing the desire, the determination, the intensity - it rubs off. It was great to see Venus out there this morning hitting well and working hard."
Belarus features new world No. 1 Victoria Azarenka, who just won the Australian Open title on Saturday.
Fernandez said she has to submit her lineup on Friday, when the weekend draw will be determined. There are two singles matches Saturday and another two rounds of singles Sunday before the competition wraps up with doubles. The U.S. team also includes Liezel Huber, the world's No. 1 doubles player, Christina McHale and Sloane Stephens.
Serena Williams has been recovering from a left ankle injury, but could still be the American opponent to face Azarenka, who routed Maria Sharapova 6-3, 6-0 in the Australian Open final.
"The good news is we can always change it up the second day, so I have good options," Fernandez said.
No matter how she plays this weekend, just getting on the court for a real match will be somewhat of a triumph for Venus Williams, who will be 32 in June.
Injuries have limited her to playing in only 11 matches since she reached the semifinals at the 2010 U.S. Open. The last few months of recovery have been more trying than what she has endured in the past because it has been so different.
"It's definitely difficult not being on the court, especially when there's not much to be done about it when it's completely out of my control," she said. "I think that's probably the hardest part."