KEY BISCAYNE, Fla. — Venus Williams eagerly looks forward to the London Olympics, and not just because she wants another gold medal.
Williams also collects Olympic pins, and has souvenirs from each of the Summer Games going back to 2000.
“I pretty much hide them around the house to the point where I can’t even find them,” Williams says. “So then it takes me a few months to figure out where I hid them. They’re my pride and joy.
“I have an Olympic pin holder set. You unzip it and you open it, and I have 2000 and 2004 in there. Strange enough, I haven’t put 2008 in there. I need to get cracking.”
Indeed, as the 2012 Games approach, Williams has work to do. She must improve her ranking to qualify, with the teams to be chosen in early June after the French Open.
There’s a lot of tennis to be played before the Olympics, including the French Open and Wimbledon. ButWilliams — a three-time gold medalist — says her focus on the London Games is what motivates her these days to practice.
“My goal is to peak for the Olympics,” she says. “When I don’t want to get up or, you know, I want to do something different, then I think about the Olympics and how if I don’t do the right thing I might not be there. That keeps me on the straight and narrow.”
Williams’ ranking fell to 134th because she has been idle for most of the past seven months after being diagnosed with an autoimmune disease that causes fatigue and joint pain. She climbed to 87th by winning four matches at the Sony Ericsson Open in Key Biscayne before a quarterfinal loss last week.
In the past, the cutoff for making the Olympics in singles has been around 68th. The former No. 1 and seven-time Grand Slam champion pretends not to monitor her ranking status.
“That’s like such a rookie move to calculate points,” she says. “I try not to do that, but secretly I probably am.”
The clay season began Monday, which means Williams must accumulate some wins on her worst surface. She’s scheduled to play this week in Charleston, S.C. — her first clay tournament since May 2010 — but was noncommittal about her plans beyond that.
Williams says she wants to become a four-time Olympian because she enjoys everything about the games, from trading pins with fans to rubbing elbows with the world’s greatest athletes. The site of this year’s tennis event — Wimbledon — adds to the appeal.
“It’s just the ultimate level in sports,” she says. “It’s about participating. It’s about having that experience. It’s about having the honor to be good enough to be there. It’s just, you know, the pinnacle of sports.”
She has done well on the big stage, winning so many gold medals she struggles to keep track.
“Three — one in Sydney and two in Beijing,” she says. “No, wait. I want to get that right. Two in Sydney and one in Beijing.”
That’s correct: She won the gold medal in singles in 2000 at Sydney, and teamed with her sister Serena to win the gold in doubles at Sydney and again in 2008 at Beijing. She also competed in singles in 2004 at Athens, losing in the third round.
Williams hopes to team with Serena in doubles again and also play singles. Mixed doubles — a new Olympic event this year — is probably out.
“I used to think about mixed,” she says. “But that’s a lot of tennis.”
Williams’ disease — Sjogren’s syndrome — has forced her to pace herself. She says most of energy is devoted to matches and training, which means taking it easy when she’s not in the gym or on the court.
“My life is one big workout,” she says.
She lives in Palm Beach Gardens with Serena, her best friend and biggest fan, who concedes Venus now tires more easily than in the past.
“She has been through so much,” Serena says. “To know you can go through and that and continue to play and never give up really gave me hope and inspiration. At some points I would give up, and she never did. She just really inspires me. And not just in tennis but in life in general. She has inspired so many people.”
Venus says she considered retirement after being diagnosed. At 31 she’s among the tour’s oldest players, and she has been a pro for 16 years. She has plenty of other interests, including her interior design and clothing businesses.
But she wants to show resilience that can provide an example to others.
“For the first time in my life, I’m playing for more than myself,” she says. “There would be times where I would be scared for about five seconds, but I can’t spend that time being afraid. I have to move forward.”
Her planned destination: the London Games.