For Caroline Wozniacki, Battling Arthritis Is the New Normal

MELBOURNE, Australia — The beginning of a calendar year normally would seem a strange time to be preoccupied with endings. But when Andy Murray tearfully announced his impending retirement because of a deteriorating right hip in a pretournament news conference, the Australian Open underwent a jarring mood swing, from the so-called Happy Slam to a major dominated by talk about pain management and the sometimes extraordinary measures required to prolong careers.

The Hospice Slam, anyone?

The 31-year-old Murray, a three-time major winner, missed the tournament last year because of hip surgery that did not alleviate his suffering. On Monday, he valiantly battled the pain and his opponent, Roberto Bautista Agut, for more than four hours before losing in five sets.

Rafael Nadal, 32, who secured a spot in the second round against Matthew Ebden, described how his crumbling knees and various other injuries have forced him to adjust his practice schedule based on his “body feelings” and adopt a faster, more aggressive serve to try to shorten points.

The five-time major winner Maria Sharapova, 31, easily dispatched Harriet Dart, then spoke about how the shoulder pain that has plagued her for 10 years forced her to accept “you’re not immortal, you’re never going to play this forever.”

Then there was Caroline Wozniacki, who is still in her twenties but already managing her own health crisis. Wozniacki, 28, returned to Rod Laver Arena for her first-round match against Alison Van Uytvanck looking outwardly the same as she did when she outlasted Simona Halep on the same stage last year to win her first major title.

Wozniacki ran down drop shots and prevailed in most of the rallies of more than nine shots in a 6-3, 6-4 victory that belied the extra effort now required for her to maintain her competitive edge. Last summer Wozniacki was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis, a condition linked to immune system dysfunction. As Wozniacki explained it, her immune system attacks healthy tissue in and around the joints of her hands, knees and feet, causing rashes, inflammation and fatigue.

The diagnosis forced Wozniacki to overhaul her routine to include more massages, less – or at least, smarter — training, more sleep, less sugar, more stretching and less jogging. “You listen to the body, you try different things,” she said, adding: “There are days I wake up and don’t feel great and when that happens, I’m still going to go out there and do my thing, but I’m going to taper it down. And I know in my head I don’t need to go full-out today and it’s going to make me feel worse tomorrow. I’ve matured a lot. That’s never how I used to think.”

It’s notable that so many of the sport’s most prominent players are giving voice to their vulnerabilities. Consider Wozniacki, who knew before last year’s United States Open that the flulike symptoms that had plagued her all summer were, in fact, signs of something more serious. But she said nothing about her condition for two months, waiting until the news conference after her final match of the season, in Singapore in October, to reveal her diagnosis.

“I didn’t want to give anyone the edge,” Wozniacki said.

She rejected the notion that a full disclosure of her health woes would have benefited her by moderating external expectations.

“I think because I’m such a competitor, I don’t want anything to be an excuse,” Wozniacki said, adding, “I know myself and what I’ve done out there. I’m either proud of myself for giving it my all or I can be disappointed because I thought I could do better but I don’t really need the sympathy.”

Wozniacki followed her Australian Open title with two more victories, in a pre-Wimbledon tuneup at Eastbourne and a Premier Mandatory event in Beijing – both while exhibiting one or more of the textbook symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis. The Beijing win was especially satisfying, Wozniacki said, “because I didn’t know, will I ever be able to play six matches in a row? That really gave me the confidence, you know, if I can do this I can do anything.”

After Wimbledon, where Wozniacki lost in the second round, the rest of her summer passed in a fog of inconclusive doctor visits and inexplicable early-round losses. Wozniacki withdrew from Washington, D.C. because of pain in her knees. In her next tournament, in Montreal, she lost to Aryna Sabalenka in her first match and awoke the next morning unable to lift her arms to brush her teeth. From there, it was on to Cincinnati, where she retired after the first set of her first match because she couldn’t find the energy to soldier on.

Everywhere Wozniacki went, she saw doctors, she said, who proclaimed her fit and sent her away with medication for a head cold or influenza. “The doctors did blood tests, but they weren’t addressing the inflammation, which was the weird thing,” said Wozniacki, who found it stranger still that after years of wearing opponents down with her fitness, she was the one tiring first in her matches.

From Cincinnati, Wozniacki traveled to New York, where she maintains an apartment, and insisted on undergoing a comprehensive battery of tests, one of which came back positive for rheumatoid arthritis. Wozniacki was relieved finally to have a diagnosis but refrained from reading up on the disease, she said, because she wanted to focus on the United States Open.

After her second-round loss to Lesia Tsurenko, Wozniacki typed “rheumatoid arthritis” into a search engine on her phone during the ride back to her apartment and quickly educated herself on this new and formidable opponent. She made an appointment to see a New York-based rheumatologist, who assuaged her fears.

“She said a lot of people she works with can live a normal life with it,” Wozniacki said.

Of course, Wozniacki’s physically-challenging, globe-trotting existence is nobody’s idea of a normal life.

“I asked her ‘What about my tennis? What about my career?’” Wozniacki said, “and she said, ‘Don’t worry, we’re going to figure it out.’”

In Monday’s match, Wozniacki expressed surprise at Van Uytvanck’s tactic of hitting drop shots from behind the baseline, as if to test her speed and stamina.

But Wozniacki figured it out and hit a few back for winners. “I’m like, ‘Wow, I actually got to them, hit it well, I kind of complimented myself on a couple of them,” she said with a laugh, not bothering to disguise her delight in showing how much life is left in her wheels.

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