As Venus Williams swatted autographed tennis balls into the stands at Billie Jean King Stadium Court after her victory Tuesday, she aimed the last one straight at one of her biggest fans.

And without the aid of a single Pip, Gladys Knight snatched the ball out of mid-air.

"She's got some hand-eye coordination," Venus said of the famed singer, leader of the group Gladys Knight and the Pips. "Sings and plays sports. That's awesome."

Williams, whose career seems in permanent comeback mode since she was diagnosed in 2011 with Sjogren's Syndrome, had to fight hard Tuesday to avoid having to catch a midnight plane back to her home in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla.

She needed three sets and more than two hours for a 6-3, 0-6, 7-5 victory over Barbora Zahlavova Strycova of the Czech Republic. Venus had four match points at 5-4 in the third, then closed it out by smashing a forehand volley on her fifth chance.

Williams, 33 and seeded No. 11 at the Family Circle Cup, has spent the last three years learning how to control her condition, an autoimmune disease that can sap energy and cause joint pain and digestive issues.

She made the semifinals at the FCC last year - "I don't know how," she said - and won in Dubai in Feburary, a major step for the seven-time Grand Slam champ.

"I haven't gotten rid of it," Venus said of Sjogren's. "I wish I could have. Unfortunately, it clings to me."

To combat the disease, she's adopted new exercise regimens and a vegan diet, and is "just always going for optimal health."

"This time last year, I was not definitely not anywhere in control," she said. "I was trying to figure out how I can be better, and sometimes that's tough because you're not doing anything wrong. You've always done things right your whole career, and you're facing something you can't control."

Williams will play South African Chanelle Scheepers in the second round. Maybe Gladys will bring a Pip or two with her.

"She's sweet," Venus said. "I've known her through the years, so it was a nice surprise to see her here. I didn't know she was coming."

Toss balls, win prizes

Family Circle Cup fans will have a chance to win a computer tablet or autographed memorabilia on Friday night at Stadium Court.

As part of SunTrust Night, the first 5,000 attendees will receive stress balls. After the night's first quarterfinal match (at about 8:45 p.m.), fans will try to toss the balls into one of eight-on court bins. One winner from each bin will receive a tablet or autographed items.

SunTrust will donate $5 for each ball that ends up in a bin (up to $2,500) to its pediatric oncology support fund at MUSC Children's Hosptial.

Diet tips

At 5-11 and a rail-thin 137 pounds, 30-year-old Daniela Hantuchova makes a striking figure on court. And now, her diet secret is out.

Tuna steak. And lots of it, apparently.

"I had it at Blossom and Cypress," the No. 32-ranked player said, naming two of Charleston's most famous restaurants. "I don't know where else I'm going to have it, but it's awesome."

That's coincided with a drop in Nutella consumption.

"I'm trying to cut down on that a little bit, be a little smarter," she said of the hazelnut spread. "But yeah, if I have a chance, I still love it."


Crowds for the first three days of the Family Circle, including two days of qualifying, totaled 18,348 fans, an average of 6,116 per session.

That's just ahead of last year's three-day pace of 18,261 fans. To equal the FCC record of 95,767 (set over 14 sessions in 2010), the tournament must average 7,367 fans over 13 sessions.