Venus Williams has always been popular among Lowcountry tennis fans. Spectators have probably never been as excited to see the 2004 Family Circle Cup champion return to Charleston as they are this year.
After a six-month layoff from professional tennis, Williams reached the quarterfinals of the Sony Ericsson Open in Key Biscayne, Fla., before losing Wednesday to No. 5 seed Agnieszka Radwanska. The 2012 Family Circle Cup marks an important step on the road to recovery for her tennis career — and her health.
Last August, Williams withdrew from the U.S. Open after being diagnosed with Sjogren's Syndrome. The 31-year-old American star and winner of seven Grand Slam singles titles reportedly had been experiencing fatigue for about four years before her diagnosis was made. Most tennis fans had likely never heard of her disease until she went public with her battle.
Dr. Richard Silver, a rheumatologist and Distinguished University Professor at the Medical University of South Carolina, explains that Sjogren's Syndrome is a common and yet under-recognized condition. Much more common in females than males, Dr. Silver suggests that as high as 1 percent of the adult population might have the disease.
“The classic manifestation of Sjogren's Syndrome involves dry eyes and dry mouth,” he notes. “For athletes the challenge is often the overwhelming sense of fatigue the disease creates. They often experience myalgias (muscle pains) as well.”
Onset of symptoms in the twenties and thirties and diagnosis later in life is not uncommon, Silver said. If the symptoms are mild, treatment involves symptomatic remedies such as eye drops. Hydroxychloroquine (Plaquenil), an antimalarial drug, and anti-inflammatory medications often make up the first-line of drug treatments. Williams supposedly has adopted a raw diet and an aggressive conditioning program to combat the condition as well.
One major problem with Sjogren's Syndrome seems to be that no treatment really cures it. And despite looking normal to casual observers, patients often feel much worse. Williams told the New York Times after withdrawing from last year's U.S. Open, “Looking back, it's affected my career in a huge way. I've been playing a lot of matches with a half a deck.”
Williams' play in Miami this week has to be encouraging. As she prepares for the Summer Olympics in London, it will be interesting to see if she can maintain her level of play or if the fatigue of the travel and consecutive tournaments catch up to her. Hopefully tennis fans will be fortunate to see this popular and courageous star make a long run in the Family Circle Cup next week.
Dr. Geier is an orthopaedic surgeon and Director of MUSC Sports Medicine. For more information about tennis injuries and other sports medicine topics, go to Dr. Geier's blog at drdavidgeier.com.