Jason Day’s dramatic battle with vertigo at last month’s US Open evoked disturbing memories for Alicia Molik and the former tennis star only hopes the golf ace doesn’t endure the same torment that she did.
Day’s troubles have been linked to a viral infection in his right ear but, with medication, the world No.8 is vowing to soldier on in pursuit of British Open glory next weekend at St Andrews.
Ten years ago, Molik wasn’t so fortunate.
At the peak of her powers, two months after reaching the Australian Open quarter-finals and also climbing to world No.8, Molik was struck down with her own devastating middle ear disorder, later diagnosed as vestibular neuronitis – a condition, which ominously for Day, results in vertigo.
Severely affecting her vision, perception and balance, the onset was sudden – and beyond debilitating.
It not only cruelled her career – at just 24 – but also plunged Molik into depression and turned her world upside down.
“I actually read one of the first articles that came out about Jason and it immediately brought back a lot of bad memories,” Molik, now Australia’s Fed Cup captain, told AAP at Wimbledon.
“I immediately sympathised with what he experienced without knowing what he was diagnosed with.”
Molik’s attack occurred during the most intense period of her career, after she’d won five WTA titles and an Olympic bronze medal in five months to emerge as genuine grand slam force.
“It was at a time I was performing the best, training the hardest and just had a lot of stresses, pressures, lack of sleep, anxiety; the whole kit and kaboodle that you experience as a professional tennis player,” Molik said.
“I was pushing my body to its limits.”
Molik suspects her punishing schedule, lack of sleep and all the stresses attributed to her plight.
“I was just so on the edge all the time physically, mentally, and that’s how I reached my highest ranking,” she said.
The South Australian recalls seeing things in black and white in the days leading up to her first episode, but she could never have imagined what would follow.
“I remember waking up at a tournament in Charleston just feeling a little bit off, dizzy,” Molik said. “I woke up and literally fell into the wall.
“My pre-match routine the night before was the same, always to have a quiet dinner with my coach, David Taylor at the time, in bed pretty much by 9.30.
“So it was a normal preceding day but I woke up off balance, I didn’t have great vision.
“I thought it may have been low blood pressure so I made sure I had a good breakfast and took something with me, like a protein bar or a muesli bar, to the courts.
“I started my warm-up with David and I literally hit the first ball into the side fence.
“I tried again and I think I air-swung the next three balls. The fifth one I nearly smashed over the back fence.
“So I had no coordination. I couldn’t fix my focus on a moving object. I felt like I was seeing things almost in third person.
“It was almost the feeling like you may have had a couple too many wines over dinner.
“Everything felt blurred. I had no sense of space or awareness about my body or particularly my tennis racquet.
“It was really scary – really scary.”
Molik doesn’t know if Day, whose vertigo forced him to collapse on the final hole during the second round at Chambers Bay, experienced any of the same senses.
But like the golf star, Molik said moving her head quickly made her feel nauseous and she’d need to quickly lie down.
“It was a case of I can’t play tennis. I needed to return home, get a bunch of tests done, which I did, and that’s what came of it, that I had vestibular neuronitis, which is damage to the middle ear,” Molik said.
She was directed to a vestibular physiotherapist.
“These type of physiotherapists are people who often work with stroke patients who have to regain their sense of balance and learn how to operate their body and neural pathways once again,” she said.
Molik spent months undergoing basic exercises like reading newspaper headlines on a wall and focusing on two dots on a table at once to reprogram her middle ear to cope with day-to-day activities.
“That was incredibly difficult for six months. Very simple things,” Molik said.
It took her nine months to start to begin normal life again and “a good two years to fully come through it”.
“The most difficult part was contemplating a life away from tennis,” she said.
“Because playing professional tennis again in the doctors’ eyes was highly unlikely for me.
“It was probably the time in my life I was most down; when your livelihood and what you love doing every day is taken away from you.
“So I’ve thought about Jason Day a lot. I don’t know him, but I love sport – I always follow every single Australian athlete.
“So I read the story about him and thought ‘ah ahhh, I feel like I know what he’s going through.'”
Molik says she doesn’t have the medical background to advise Day, but hopes the 26-year-old three-times major runner-up heeds any warning signs and doesn’t work too hard like she did.
“I took time out of tennis to get better,” she said.
“But no question I made two or three premature comebacks because I was just so anxious and eager and tried to convince myself otherwise that I was ready.
“But truly it wasn’t the case. I was just so desperate to get back to what I knew how to do best, and that’s play tennis.
“I’m thankful now that I took the time to spend those hours to do those boring exercises.
“It was really frustrating, which is why I’m happy to share my experience. That was a very difficult time.”