© Ella Ling

Robin Soderling

How the 'kissing disease' is hurting tennis


Some days, Robin Soderling can’t get out of bed, can’t do anything more energetic than puff up a pillow and read a book or do a puzzle. On other days, when he is feeling at his strongest, he plays with his Maltese puppy, sometimes even manages half an hour of tennis training. This is not, unfortunately, anything new, a story of a tennis player who feels as though he has had the batteries ripped out the back of him. 

Soderling, a former world number four and twice a beaten French Open finalist, accepts that he might never compete on the tour again. That is what mononucleosis, or glandular fever, can do to you. Soderling has had it worse than others. But there have been plenty of others: Roger Federer, Justine Henin, Andy Roddick, Mario Ancic, John Isner. Those are just the ones whose lethargy has been diagnosed. Glandular fever is known as ‘the kissing disease’, as it is more commonly associated with amorous teenagers and students than with professional tennis players.

Tennis would appear to have a ‘kissing disease’ problem, and it would appear to have nothing to do with free love after matches (tennis isn’t polo; you don’t hear many stories which would make Jilly Cooper blush).
For Roddick, and many others, it is extremely unsettling suddenly realising that you barely have the energy to grip a racket, let alone swing it: “It was weird, the fear of the unknown and not knowing what was going on. There were some days when it was good, and some days when it was real bad. I would have two or three days and think, ‘OK, you’re just being kind of a wimp’.” Ancic was so wiped out by his bout of mono that he missed half a season, and was never the same player again. Federer had glandular fever in 2008, the disease perhaps contributing to his defeat in the Wimbledon final that year. 

It would be interesting to see some scientific analysis of the numbers, to confirm – or not – that the modern tennis player is more prone to glandular fever than the general population. The layman’s view is that travelling around the world does not do great things for your immune system, even when you’re in the turn-left-on-planes, seven-star bubble. If anyone has a view on why tennis is afflicted by the ‘kissing disease’, please leave your thoughts below.

Are we seeing the start of Andy Roddick’s death-spiral down the rankings? Roddick, once the world number one, dropped ten places on Monday, from number 17 to 27. It is his lowest position for more than a decade. In some ways, the drop is irrelevant. Roddick could be fifth in the world, and many would still give him little chance of getting past the four-headed beast that is Djokovic-Nadal-Federer-Murray. Roddick’s last real chance to win a second major, to add to the one he won at the 2003 US Open, came at the 2009 Wimbledon Championships when he lost a 16-14 fifth set to Federer.

There is good argument to suggest that Roddick is the greatest grass-court player in history not to have won Wimbledon. What now, though? Some players will want Roddick to move back up the rankings, for him to stay interested in the grind. Firstly, because they like him. Secondly, because he could be useful to them. Roddick would be a good face of the locker-room militancy, but he wouldn’t be able to do much from retirement.

  • Gerald UK

    I think there’s no doubt that mono affected Federer’s 2008 season but not Wimbledon (it would be wrong to take away any credit from Nadal for that acheivement), it affected him more at the start of the season, in particular the Australian Open where he made the semi finals before losing to Djokovic.  While his bout of mono is nowhere near the level of Ancic or Soderling’s it was there and it does show how good a player he was back then that he could still make the semi finals of a Grand Slam.

    I think it is a real shame that mono is ending tennis players careers and would have thought that maybe some ex professionals may want to invest in scientific research to try and find a preventative cure.

  • San

    well its true that this disgusting disease is killing the players…. this disease killed federers many chances of winning slams… starting from 08 he suffered even in 2011…. i think those four years took a lot of things from him… hope a cure comes soon…

  • Gina Burton

    I run a help service for those struggling with post glandular fever fatigue troubles. I would say over 85% of people coming through to me are very active sporty types – most are active at a competitive level – club level right up to international level. I have cyclists, runners, rowers, kayakers, rackets players, dancers, swimmers, hockey players, boxers, footballers, horse riders coming through to me . . . of all ages. Interesting that I actually get VERY FEW ‘regular’ teenagers coming through to me – they are usually very high achieving teenagers, well above average academically and driven/talented sports competitors. I have had over 5000 message enquiries sent to me over the last 10 years and all follow a similar pattern.

  • Jan

    There appears to be a correlation between tennis stars who pose with dolphins and glandular fever. It is well known that the dolphins are kept in awful conditions that slowly kill them so it stands to reason that humans will pick up disease/infection if in the water or, as in many case, kissing them. My sympathy however is with the dolphins who cannot escape.