Venus Williams faces a tough fight to return to the highest levels of tennis after being diagnosed with a strength-sapping autoimmune disease that left her barely able to lift her arms.
The 31-year-old American, a seven-time Grand Slam singles champion, pulled out of the U.S. Open Wednesday and said she has Sjogren's syndrome. The condition, which is mainly found in women, can cause extreme fatigue and joint pain and affect internal organs, according to Arthritis Research U.K.
Williams said in a statement issued at the Open in New York and reiterated Thursday on ABC's "Good Morning America" that she planned to return to professional tennis. Simon Bowman, who runs a clinic for people who have the disease and is medical president of the British Sjogren's Syndrome Association, said in an interview that she faces a tough task.
"If you've got a desk job, you might be able to cope with any of these things,” said Bowman, a rheumatology consultant at England’s University Hospital Birmingham. “But it might be quite difficult to deal with if you’re a top-flight athlete.”
Williams, who won the U.S. Open in 2000 and 2001, withdrew shortly before her second-round match against Sabine Lisicki of Germany.
“I had a tough practice, and I was sitting there and it was an effort to just lift my arms,” Williams said on the ABC morning show.
She said she was diagnosed a few weeks ago after years of struggling with her stamina. Some of the treatments could take “three to six months” to start working, Williams said.
“The good news for me is that now I know what’s happening after spending years not knowing,” Williams said. “Now that I know, I have the chance to get better.”
Sjogren’s syndrome can lead to inflammation in the muscles and lungs, make patients feel lethargic and cause dryness in the mouth and eyes, Bowman said.
Although Sjogren’s isn’t life-threatening, it is an incurable condition where the immune system starts attacking glands that produce tears and saliva instead of fighting infection, according to Arthritis Research U.K. The American College of Rheumatology’s website said between 400,000 and 3.1 million people are affected in the U.S.; the condition is usually diagnosed in women between the ages of 40 and 60.