This was article was initially published before the 2020 French Open
Caroline Wozniacki has spoken about her battle with rheumatoid arthritis, playing professional tennis with the condition, her retirement earlier this year and her work with Advantage Hers, a campaign to support women with chronic inflammatory diseases.
Former world No 1 Wozniacki announced her retirement at the Australian Open earlier this year, having been diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis in 2018. She won her last tournament in October 2018 – which she describes as a “roller coaster” - and this month started working with UCB, a global biopharmaceutical company, to launch Advantage Hers.
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Ahead of the French Open, Wozniacki spoke to Eurosport's Laurent Vergne about her condition, the difficulties with getting a diagnosis, dealing with the hard times, and how she is now trying to empower other women.
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When it all started
“I won the Australian Open in 2018 and was playing really well, feeling at the top of my game and career. During the spring, I started to feel the first symptoms, just light things, and started to lose some matches I normally wouldn't. I didn't feel great but I couldn't really put a finger on and what was going wrong. I just took it down to being exhausted, overworked or you know, just normal stuff.
But it wasn't until I played in Montreal in August when I woke up one morning and I just couldn't get out of bed it was so much pain and I was just so exhausted.
"I couldn't lift my arms. I couldn't do anything and David my husband (David Lee, former NBA player) had to pack my bags and he had to get me out of bed and help me through the airport to so that I was able to actually do something.”
Difficulties with diagnosis
“I went straight to see the doctors and the physios and I think I went to see four or five different doctors before I got a proper diagnosis. It took a while and I had to be very persistent for the doctors to really do their research, because at first I wasn't taking seriously.
The doctors told me at first that maybe I was in bad shape. Maybe I was pregnant or maybe it was a mental thing that was going on with me and I knew that it wasn't.
“I knew that was something wrong with my body so that's why I kept pushing it. Finally, I got it in New York and I had the doctor just test me for literally everything and then after four or five days when I got the blood test back it came back that I had an autoimmune disease. He told me I had to see a good serial rheumatologist to get more tests done and turned out that it was rheumatoid arthritis.”
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‘Why me? Why now?’
“I mean you are 28, you are at the top of your career, you just won your first Grand Slam six months ago or something like that in Australia and suddenly you have to deal with that. You always think 'why me? And why now?' but at the same time once I kind of it went through my head and I got a few days to really think about it, I thought, yeah, I'm going to make the most of it and I'm going to fight it. You know, prove to myself that I can still play tennis at a very high level even going through everything that my new normal is.”
Winning her last title at the China Open in October 2018
“It was definitely such a hard tournament for me to win body wise at the time it was kind of a little bit of a roller coaster even though I was starting to feel a little bit better.
But winning that tournament was so special because I think proved to myself that I can do this and I can still play at a very, very high level and I can beat the best players in the world and it was also important.
Dealing with the disease in everyday life
“Most days now I feel pretty good. I feel somewhat symptom free, but I definitely have days when I'm exhausted. I'm tired. I feel like I need to stay in bed for the day. I have days when I have pain in my hands and in feet and just feels sluggish.
“I think I know my body so well. I think I know when I've gone too far and when I'm not going feel well or how far I can I can push myself when I work out or do other things so in that way. Sometimes the disease will have an advantage over me but most of the time I want to take advantage over the disease.
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“The fact that I was an athlete and a competitor is in my advantage and I think that kind of sums it up well if being the competitor, finding a way to beat the disease and find a way that even when you live with rheumatoid arthritis or other chronic diseases, you're going to try and find a way to win.
“But on the other hand, I think that was the main thing I had to learn that, you know sometimes you just really need to take it easy is the best way to do it and really listen because when I was younger everything I did was going too far and pushing maybe too much but that's a change that mentality for me. It has definitely been a challenge and something I still work on you know, as I still feel okay.”
Working with Advantage Hers
“I wanted to help other people living with chronic disease. I wanted to be an empowerer and empowering thing for other people going through the same thing as well. I realised how difficult it was to find the proper information and real information about this disease.
“So for me to empower women to speak up and search for doctors that are going to listen to them and going to diagnose them in a proper way and also find a place where you can talk about your experience and also gain the right. It was really important to me, and I think as an athlete I have that platform to be able to do that and help a lot of people.
“It's really important to get diagnosed really quickly, so the more I can raise awareness the more I can let people know that yes, it can happen. Yes, it can happen to young people. It happens to athletes, too, it can happen to anyone.
“I think that is important because a lot of people got so dark to not feeling well and don't even think that something like this can be the symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis or other kind of diseases. So I like to raise awareness. We put up a website together where you can really gain information… it's a platform where we can all be together and we can tell our stories.
“I want to do something that even if I can help only a few people, it is helping a few people to feel better because I mean, it was horrible for me when I was going through it and mine was pretty short, but you are going through a time where you can't get out of bed, you're exhausted you have so much pain and you have no idea what's going on and nobody to help.”
Retirement from the tour
“I've hit one time since Australia (where she officially retired in January), so it hasn't been much. I enjoyed watching the US Open it from the outside but I was also really happy that I didn't have to put in all the work that it takes to be in the late stages of tournaments so right now watching it from far but not having to put it all the work, I enjoy that.”
Friendship with Serena Williams
“Serena is special. She’s a special person, obviously as a tennis player, but as a human being as well. Being able to do what she's been doing for 20 years is pretty remarkable and to still be playing at such a high level at 39 as really incredible. I really hope she will get [Grand Slam] number 24.
“I think it would be great for history but you know, whether she's going to win the last one I don't know, but I hope so and I was hoping for it at the US Open. I was cheering for her to go the whole way. She'll have a chance again at the French. Let's see let's see. I hope that she'll play another year as well at least.
“Just before I retired we played together the doubles in Auckland in January. We were talking, laughing the whole week. We made it to the finals, it was overall just a fun and great week and was really happy. I got to do that before I stop playing and it was one of the most fun weeks of my career. We were planning to play an exhibition in Copenhagen but had to cancel it because of the coronavirus crisis. But we'll do it. Just waiting because we want to do it in front of a full stadium.”
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