I was 19 when I was diagnosed with Primary Sclerosing Cholangitis (PSC), which is a liver condition that affects my immune system, and when my specialist told me I was absolutely devastated. Don’t get me wrong, I know that I got off very, very lightly because there are people coping with way worse liver problems than me. But at that moment it felt like the end of the world because I was being told that my tennis career might be over before it had really begun.
Sat there in the doctor’s office, if someone had told me that I would end up playing people like Maria Sharapova and Kim Clijsters, competing at all the grand slams and on the WTA Tour, I wouldn’t have believed them. I’d be feeling so exhausted all time time in the months leading up to the diagnosis and it was hard to imagine ever being fit to play again. I got all my medication sorted out and I took six months off from tennis and slowly, little by little, I found I was able to hit for short periods. Eventually I was able to practice full-out and then compete, though it was only for one or two tournaments at a time at first.
Learning to manage my illness around the demands of being a professional tennis player has taken a long time and I’m still learning now. It probably helps that I am very fit and I’m certainly in better condition overall now than I have ever been. Any athlete has to be careful what they eat and when – and how much fluid they take on – it’s just that I have to be a lot more careful than most. I still take ten pills a day and I will probably have to do that for the rest of my life and when you travel as much as I do – and that travel can be a bit unpredictable – you have to be organised about your prescriptions and your medication.
During pre-season before the start of the 2012 season, I sat down with my sports science specialist Chris McManus and we went through my diet and which foods might have a positive or negative effect on my liver condition. Now I have a largely gluten-free diet (apparently Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic are the same) and it’s made me feel a lot better. Most of time at tournaments it’s fine because there is usually rice (which is gluten-free) and I always carry gluten-free foods with me.
I have always felt that I was very, very lucky to be able to manage my condition as well as I can. Since June 2010 I have been patron of the Children’s Liver Disease Foundation (CLDF www.childliverdisease.org) and that really brought home to me how much people’s lives can be cursed by liver disease and chronic liver conditions. When I hear some of the stories of sufferers, it’s pretty humbling and very inspiring. I’ve got absolutely nothing to complain about, really.