Venus pulled out of the 2011 U.S. Open when the disease reared its ugly head. Here’s what you need to know about the tennis star’s health struggles.
Venus Williams, the iconic tennis superstar, has not only dominated the courts but also battled a lesser-known opponent off the radar: Sjögren’s syndrome. The sister of Serena Williams has fearlessly tackled the autoimmune condition that affects about 4 million people in the U.S., shedding light on an often-overlooked aspect of her life.
The tennis prodigy, who won her first Wimbledon singles in 2000, hasn’t let the diagnosis dampen her spirit, either. Despite the lifelong symptoms that accompany the condition, she inspires fans by continuing to battle in the pro sports world. Venus has redefined what it means to be a warrior, both on and off the court.
“Don’t be discouraged, because what [you’re] going through is similar to other people,” she said in 2019 to comfort others with autoimmune diseases, per Prevention.com. “Talk to those people who understand you or have a similar condition, reach out, and build a [support] team. Don’t isolate yourself. Don’t give up.”
While Venus keeps in high spirits and fans continue to send their well wishes, learn more about her health struggle, below.
Venus had been ranked No. 1 in the world and had two Wimbledons under her belt when she first experienced symptoms like fatigue in 2004. “No matter how hard I worked, I was exhausted, short of breath, and never felt in shape. It was really frustrating,” she told Prevention.com. “My symptoms got progressively worse, to the point where I couldn’t play professional tennis anymore.”
Her mystery illness didn’t get a name until 2011, when she was finally diagnosed with Sjögren’s syndrome. “Unfortunately, that’s typical of people with autoimmune disease,” she said to the outlet. “They’re misdiagnosed or too sick to function. I literally had professional tennis taken away from me before I got the right diagnosis.” She added, “So you can imagine, it has definitely affected my game.”
What Is Sjögren’s Syndrome?
Sjögren’s syndrome is a chronic autoimmune disorder characterized by the malfunction of the body’s immune system, primarily affecting the moisture-producing glands, such as the salivary and tear glands, per the Mayo Clinic. This condition primarily affects women, with a prevalence of about 1-4% of the population.
One of the hallmark symptoms of Sjögren’s syndrome is dryness, particularly in the eyes and mouth Additionally, individuals with Sjögren’s syndrome may experience fatigue, joint pain, and a variety of systemic manifestations that affect different organs, including the skin, lungs, and kidneys.
Diagnosing Sjögren’s syndrome can be challenging, as symptoms can mimic other conditions. Tests may include blood work, imaging studies, and salivary gland biopsies. While there is no cure for Sjögren’s syndrome, treatment focuses on managing symptoms and preventing complications. This may involve the use of artificial tears and saliva substitutes, medications to reduce inflammation, and lifestyle modifications.
How Long Has Venus Williams Been Sick?
Venus was relieved to finally know what was happening with her body after the diagnosis in2011, but, as mentioned, she had been dealing with it for quite some time. “The reason it stayed such a mystery is because the symptoms are so ambiguous that no one can really diagnose it,” Venus told Dr. Oz, per Essence. “At one point, I just ended up getting sicker. And that’s what happens to a lot of people. The average diagnosis time is about seven years. And that’s what happen to me. It took seven years.”
She was also a bit disappointed to learn that treatment could take an extended period of time. “In the beginning, I just had to wait to get better,” Venus told Prevention.com. “One of the medications I had took six months to set in. There was another that took one to three months. It was kind of a waiting game until you can go back to what you had been doing.”
Venus is thriving today and still a champ on the court! “Before I was on medication, the quality of my life wasn’t as good because I was extremely uncomfortable,” she said to Prevention.com, reflecting on those years before her diagnosis. “Just being alive was very uncomfortable. I was exhausted to the point that I was just always uncomfortable or in pain.”
And despite her sister Serena retiring last year, Venus doesn’t sound like she’s slowing down anytime soon. “There are definitely challenges, but it’s about how you face them and how you come out on top so you can live in a way that is acceptable to you,” she said to Health in 2023. “So, it has been wonderful to do still what I love. And even though I still have issues, it doesn’t mean they’re going to stop me.”
And just one look at her Instagram proves to fans that the athlete is still in top shape. One of her most recent posts included a clip of her killing it on the court alongside the caption, “So much preparation goes into getting to that winning moment. It’s a tremendous amount of hard work but it’s still got to be fun.”