Serena Williams Describes the ‘Debilitating, Throbbing Pain’ of Migraines and How They’ve Changed Her Tennis Career

Serena Williams has been at the top of women’s tennis for over 20 years. She’s had to put up with a lot. From being a black woman in a predominantly white sport to her pregnancy sidelining her career for a while, Williams has faced many challenges. However, one hurdle has nothing to do with injuries, pregnancies, or discrimination. For most of her career, Williams has dealt with horrible migraines.

Being Serena Williams

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Williams occupies a space in modern sports that few can relate to. She is arguably the most famous female athlete on the planet and has been so since she was just a teenager. Since going pro before she could ever drive, Williams has seen the good, the bad, and ugly of life in the spotlight. Throughout it all, however, Williams always competed at her highest level. 

When somebody gets as good as Williams, especially in women’s tennis, nothing they do will ever be good enough for a certain subset of people. If she wins, they’ll say that she didn’t face any fierce competition. If she loses, they’ll decry her for losing to an opponent that they perceive as weak. Even in older age, when Williams is 20 years the senior to some competitors, people find a way to bring her down. 

However, what defines Williams’s success is that she has bypassed the adversity to become the person she is. She is no longer just a tennis player. She is a cultural icon known by anyone with a television set across the world. Her passion on the court, combined with her down-home charm and penchant for social activism, has made her an inspiration. Still, at the end of the day, Williams is a human with problems just like everyone else. 

Williams’ greatest foe: migraines

Serena Williams
Tennis player Serena Williams holds her head | BEN STANSALL/AFP via Getty Images

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Williams has suffered from migraines for years. While many see them as horrible headaches, those who get them know it goes far deeper. She has experienced back, shoulder, and knee problems, details Bleacher Report, but migraines are different. They can affect someone’s ability to see, think, hear, and take in their surroundings. Furthermore, in a world as unforgiving as sports, nobody wants to hear a valid excuse like migraines. 

“Migraine isn’t a knee injury — it’s something you can’t physically see,” Williams told People. “You can’t really say, ‘Oh, Dad, I have a migraine. I’m going to stop playing.’ People are like, ‘I don’t see swelling. I don’t see bruising. Tough it out.’ I got used to playing through the pain… You can’t go into a press conference with the media asking, ‘Well, what happened?’ and say, ‘Well I had a migraine attack.”

Some of Williams’s highest highs and lowest lows occurred during migraines. They can be debilitating, but Williams learned to cope with them and ensure that she’s ready for the challenge no matter what the migraine is doing. During stressful times such as these, Williams still has to learn how to cope with her migraines even during the recent quarantine. 

Coping through the tough times

Williams isn’t just a tennis star. She’s a mother and a wife. Stuck at home with her family, Williams is experiencing much of the same stress that others worldwide are suffering. Unfortunately, stress can be linked to heavy migraines, according to Self.

“I was dealing with a lot of stress and unknown factors and things that I wasn’t used to,” she explained. “And so I think that was contributing to my migraine attacks and making them more frequent.”

Williams is now a spokesperson for the migraine pill Ubrelvy, but even more than that, she’s proof that although this condition can be debilitating, she does not let it get the best of her. Williams is another kind of athlete, but deep down, she has to go through what millions of others do. Her ability to do so, however, might be the key to her overall greatness.