Serena Williams: Comeback Queen

The Wimbledon champion shares the details of her life-threatening health scares and her inspiring recovery.  

Bonnie Siegler
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She’s been called the Fierce Stomping Diva and Serena the Great, but today, tennis star Serena Williams is probably best known as the Comeback Queen. After a string of health scares in 2011—two foot surgeries, blood clots in her lungs and stomach bleeding—she’s made a major rebound on the court. Serena won her fifth Wimbledon title in July and became the first 30-something woman to win a singles title at the tournament in more than two decades. “Coming [to Wimbledon] and amazing because...last year I was ranked almost 200,” the 31-year-old winner of 27 Grand Slam titles and two Olympic gold medals has said. “It’s been an unbelievable journey for me.”

One health scare after another
Serena once wondered if she’d ever compete again. After winning her fourth Wimbledon tournament in July 2010, she stepped on broken glass while leaving a restaurant in Germany and injured a tendon in her right foot. She had surgery to repair it and planned to return to tennis in the fall. But she reinjured her foot and had a second operation in October of that year. Then, in February 2011, she suffered a pulmonary embolism (a blood clot in her lung) after flying from New York to Los Angeles. “I was walking and couldn’t catch my breath,” she recalls. “I didn’t know that was a symptom of a pulmonary embolism.” She saw her doctor, who performed a CT scan of her lungs and discovered the blood clot.

Doctors weren’t surprised, since prior surgery and air travel are known risk factors for a blood clot. Making matters worse, Serena was immobilized for six months in two different casts after her foot surgeries. Being sedentary allows blood to pool in the legs, also increasing the risk of a clot.

A few weeks later, Serena developed a hematoma (a pocket of blood that swells under the skin) in her stomach. It happened after she gave herself an injection of blood-thinning medication, which had been prescribed to treat the clots in her lung. “I hit a blood vessel,” she says. “[My blood] didn’t clot…so I started bleeding on the inside. What started out like a golf ball ended up being the size of a grapefruit.” Serena was rushed to the hospital, where doctors told her they needed to remove the hematoma surgically. “This has been extremely hard, scary and disappointing,” she said in a statement at the time. “I know I will be okay but am praying and hoping this will all be behind me soon.”

“I couldn’t ask for anything else”
The multiple health scares took a toll on the tennis star. “I couldn’t function like I normally did—playing tennis, driving, working out, even walking,” says Serena, who spent a lot of time at home during her recovery. “I tried to make the most of my downtime, but it wasn’t easy for a person like me, who is used to going 200 mph every day.” She remembers feeling very discouraged. “There was a moment I remember I was on the couch and I didn’t leave...for two days,” she says. “I felt down, the lowest of lows.”

Serena eventually returned to tennis. Although she won several tournaments, the Wimbledon championship was a major turning point for her career and spirits. “This [win] is special to me because it’s a huge comeback,” she has said. “You know, I couldn’t ask for anything else.”  

Serena’s health struggles have taught her an important lesson. “It’s in the picking ourselves up and dusting ourselves off and pushing ourselves forward that we find our will, our drive, our purpose,” she has said. Her drive has clearly paid off: At an age when some tennis players hang up their rackets, Serena has proven she can still handle stiff competition. “The whole tournament I felt really great physically,” she has said. “So I think it’s definitely the beginning of something great. I hope it is.”

April 2012