Venus Williams Faces Challenge Returning to Her Tennis Peak After Disease

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 yesterday 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 today 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 long-term treatments could take “three to six months” to start working, Williams said.

‘Get Better’

“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. Around a half- million people in the U.K. suffer from the condition, which is usually diagnosed in women between the ages of 40 and 60. The American College of Rheumatology’s website said between 400,000 and 3.1 million people are affected in the U.S.

Patients with the condition “feel tired all the time, they feel washed out,” Stephen Porter, a professor of oral medicine at UCL Eastman Dental Institute in London and a former council member of the British Sjogren’s Syndrome Association, said in an interview. Playing professional tennis -- which requires practices of up to five or six hours a day -- “might be tricky,” Porter said.

Young Victim

Williams is relatively young to have been diagnosed with the disease, according to Bowman.

“It’s a very variable disease, and there is typically inflammation in the glands that produce tears and saliva,” Bowman said. “But in younger people such as Venus Williams it can have more involvement of other parts of the body. It can lead to general fatigue, which is of course a major problem if you are a high-level sports person, it can cause problems with skin rashes, the breathing, the nervous system, the muscles, it can cause arthritis.”

Williams won Wimbledon five times and formerly was ranked No. 1 on the WTA tour. Now ranked 36th, she struggled with injuries all season and has played only four tournaments. She was unseeded at the U.S. Open for the first time since 1997.

Asthma Treatment

Williams told ABC she had been diagnosed with exercise- induced asthma four years ago after she struggled with her stamina and that her medicine never worked. This summer, she developed more symptoms of Sjogren’s.

“I had joint pain, my hands started swelling, my joints started to change shape, I had some of the classic symptoms -- dry eyes and dry mouth,” Williams said. She also struggled with fatigue, she added.

“The dryness I don’t think will affect her ability to play tennis,” said Porter. “However, if her mouth is dry, it can affect her sleep patterns and that might interfere in the activity of a sports person. That might be a bit of an issue.”

Although the dryness symptoms can be relieved with eye drops and moisturizing gels placed in the mouth, there currently isn’t a treatment for fatigue, Porter said.

Arthritis Research U.K. has invested 1 million pounds ($1.6 million) in a five-year clinical trial on Sjogren’s syndrome.

“It’s going to be a few years before we know whether they benefit people or not with this condition,” Bowman said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Danielle Rossingh in London at drossingh@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Christopher Elser at celser@bloomberg.net.

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