When Caroline Wozniacki was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis in the summer of 2018, “it was a shock,” she says.
The tennis star, 29, had been feeling more lethargic and sore than usual, but initially thought she had been overtraining, all until one difficult morning.
“One day I woke up after a three-and-a-half-hour match and I couldn’t get out of bed, I couldn’t do anything. That’s when I knew that something was wrong,” she tells PEOPLE.
Wozniacki, who announced at the beginning of December that she is retiring to start a family, says that she started going to doctor after doctor, but “nobody knew what was wrong with me.”
“After doing all the blood tests, it showed that I had an immune disease, and it could have been lupus, it could have been all these other things, but once we went further and further and did more blood tests and it turned out it was rheumatoid arthritis (RA),” she recalls. “It was a bit of a shock, but at the same time I was so happy to figure out what it was and starting to figure out a way that I could feel better.”
Wozniacki got her diagnosis right after Wimbledon, and realized that she managed to play all season — and won her first Grand Slam at the Australian Open that January — with RA.
“I never even thought that me, as a professional athlete, could have RA,” she says. “It never crossed my mind that a healthy, strong athlete could have something like that.”
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There is no cure for RA — it’s a chronic inflammatory disorder in which the immune system attacks the body’s tissue and joints — only medications and treatments. Wozniacki started figuring out what works for her body.
“For example, eating certain things can help me, and for recovery, I go into a sauna, things like that. And you learn that when you’re sick, you really need to take care of yourself, because your immune system is already down from RA,” she says. But she emphasizes — “everybody is different, so what works for me may not work for the next person.”
Overall though, it’s been very manageable, and Wozniacki has played through the last year without too many issues.
“It makes some things more challenging, but I feel great in the day-to-day,” she says. “I feel like I can do anything. I’ve won some of my biggest titles of my career with this illness. I never wanted to use that as an excuse for anything.”
And while the condition is not why she’s retiring after the 2020 Australian Open, Wozniacki does intend to make RA outreach a part of her future.
“I wanted to raise awareness for other people,” she says. “Young women may think that they’re just feeling down or they’re working too hard, and as the symptoms come and go may think, ‘Oh I’m feeling better, I won’t go to a doctor.’ But the average time that a person goes from experiencing symptoms to being diagnosed is seven years. Once I learned more of the facts, I felt that it was important that I use my platform to share my story and show that anything is possible, regardless of RA.”