Never before has a virus had such strange symptoms: Whiffing on a swing at a tennis ball; having trouble bouncing and catching the ball. Double Faults. But that’s just what Serena Williams was doing when we last saw her, at Wimbledon, in the moments before she and sister Venus defaulted their doubles match while down 0-3 to Kristina Barrios and Stefanie Voegele.
Serena is back now, and set to begin her quest for the Stanford title tomorrow evening. As always, as soon as La Serena showed up she went viral. Inquisitive minds wanted to know more about her condition, and about the “viral illness” that, according to statement issued by Wimbledon shortly after the doubles default, so incapacitated Serena that she couldn’t perform her duties and as a result was obliged to quit.
At her press conference, Serene dramatically articulated just how ill she was in London “I was really, really sick. Literally, the next three days I couldn't get out of bed . . . Most people don't want to be around the (tournament) surroundings (after they lose). You leave. I literally stayed until the tournament ended. I wasn't allowed to leave by the doctors. The doctors said, 'Don't leave. You cannot. You have to stay.'"
However, anyone who hoped to learn more about what Serena described as a “viral condition” left disappointed. Medical terms and diagnoses were strikingly absent from her remarks. “They (presumably the doctors) just said that I was really ill and under the weather,” she said.
Well, it’s a pretty long way from feeling “ill and under the weather” to suffering from a mysterious viral condition. Imagine the media frenzy if Serena had actually fainted on the court and bonked her head on the surface, as Victoria Azarenka once did (and in the U.S. Open no less). The networks with their satellite trucks would still be trailing Serena everywhere in an endless caravan.
You can see why, if Serena does have some viral condition, she wouldn’t want to make the information public, or give her rivals more than the scant hopes that’s all they ever had to cling to. Yet the very fact that just days after Wimbledon ended Serena was laying around in a bikini and taking in the sights on a vacation in Croatia suggests that whatever ailed her disappeared or went into remission pretty quickly.
Well, there are countless viruses out there, and new ones popping up all the time. And they all have different symptoms. So what could this one be? Without much to go on, we can speculate freely.
Serena could be suffering from the age virus, a condition that begins to inflict some players as their careers are winding down. Suddenly, they’re not so eager to jump into their tennis whites. Suddenly, they might find themselves feeling a little queasy as they look in the mirror and ask themselves, “Do I still have it?” Serena hasn’t made it to the quarterfinals of a major this year, and that degree of relative failure for an elite player can be a marker for this virus.
It could be the disinterest virus, which also hits players later in their careers. The general ennui that often makes a player wonder “How much longer do I need to do this $#$%?” usually manifests itself in subtle ways (like playing well but failing to win the critical points). But it can also make a player feel disorientated, listless, and tired — that’s the mind telling the body, “Hey, we’ve got a problem here and you need to pay attention to it.”
Or perhaps it’s the bummer virus, which really is just an indication of mild depression. It tends to hit people when life looks bleak, and often after a difficult emotional experience. Patrick Mouratoglou, Serena’s coach and (now) former boyfriend, told France's Tennis Magazine that despite rumors to the contrary, they were still working together but that Serena was going through "a difficult period."
Hey, wouldn’t you? But that’s none of our business.
After the doubles disaster, Serena’s sister Isha Price was quoted in USA Today saying that Serena was “sad and emotional” in the days after her loss at Wimbledon to Alize Cornet. Could it be that she stuck it out in London as long as she did out of loyalty to her doubles partner and sister, Venus, but just couldn’t overcome her depression?
I’m not a doctor, and I don’t believe in complicating things more than necessary. But it’s also possible that Serena’s “viral condition” was what we once called a case of the blues. That can affect anyone’s ability to focus and perform professionally. It happens to people all the time. They can even become incapacitated by anxiety, then a day or two later they feel much better. But this is Serena Williams, so it would be hard to leave it at that even if that were case. The narrative she generates skews toward the epic.
I hope she just had one of those little episodes, and that all she’s needed was a little respite from tennis in the Croatian sun. It seemed to do wonders for her, and that’s a good sign. When she was asked if her breakdown could be attributed to general exhaustion, she somewhat cryptically replied: "I've been thinking about a lot of things. A lot of things have been crossing my brain. I'm going to get a lot of tests done at the end of the season and go from there. I do have to get a lot of tests done because of things that do run in the family, so I just want to make sure."
I hope those tests don’t turn up anything more threatening than confirmation that Serena Williams, like the rest of us, can sometimes get the blues.