Shortly before her second-round match Wednesday, Venus Williams withdrew from the U.S. Open due to a recently-diagnosed autoimmune disease, Sjogren’s Syndrome. The disease causes fatigue and joint pain, something Williams has experienced for quite some time but with no clear diagnosis. Until this week.
Sjogren’s Syndrome ̶ in a explanation that shows true medical ignorance ̶ is an illness where disease-fighting (white) blood cells attack glands that release important stuff externally (like sweat). Sjogren’s causes fatigue, joint pain and dryness (think mouth and eyes). There is no known cure, and the only treatment is symptomatic (taking drugs to ease pain).
Such symptoms have lead Williams to play just 11 matches in the last year. After withdrawing from the Open, Williams will drop out of the top 100, where at 31, she’s older than all but four players.
Several medical-types stepped forward to say that Sjogren’s is not necessarily career ending. There was likely a sense of relief in the Williams camp when the plaguing issue was given a name and face, but how can a world-class tennis star possibly continue a career with a disease that has been described as “energy-sucking?”
The longest tennis match in history was just last year between John Isner and Nicolas Mahut, coming in at 11 hours, five minutes and spread over three days. Venus may have an excellent mental game, but that will not be enough to get her through a marathon match, should she find herself in one. She can’t will herself more energy.
Injuries can be rehabilitated. Trainers can whip you back into shape. Practice builds stamina. But an autoimmune disease causing fatigue and joint pain for a 31-year-old tennis player is check mate.