Despite constant pain, Brengle keeps playing

FLUSHING MEADOWS, N.Y. — Madison Brengle is a professional women’s tennis player, one of the 100 best in the world.

Madison Brengle also can’t pick up a cup of coffee with her right hand without immense pain.

Those two sentences sound totally incongruous: How could a top athlete in the prime of her life be able to compete and win, yet struggle with her morning Starbucks latte?

But it’s the reality the Dover native faces every day. When she wakes up in the morning, Brengle has no idea if the pain disease she suffers from will be debilitating, or merely painful but tolerable.

“Every day my life is a coin toss with how I might feel,” the 28-year-old said Sunday night here in New York, as she prepares to try to qualify for the U.S. Open. “Literally, I have no idea what’s going to be when I wake up.”

And with all that’s happened to her over the past two years, Brengle could easily be forgiven for being depressed and unable to crack a smile.

Instead, she’s become the queen of gallows humor when it comes to the medical condition that has taken a once-promising women’s tennis career and made every match a struggle.

“Look, as long as I play a match and by the end of it my hand doesn’t fly off my body like the hand from ‘The Addams Family,’ I’m happy,” Brengle said with a laugh.

“If I survive,” she added, “I call it a win.”

The “this” to which Brengle refers is her battle with Complex Regional Pain Syndrome induced by venipuncture, a debilitating condition Brengle was diagnosed with in 2016 that causes major swelling and pain in her hands and feet.

Her right hand, specifically, has never fully recovered from three mandatory blood drug tests she was subjected to from 2014-16, before Grand Slam events, in which needles were inserted into her right arm as per usual International Tennis Federation protocol. The tests were done despite Brengle repeatedly telling testers of her hereditary vein issues.

As Brengle’s ability to play at full strength diminished, her strong results have fallen off a bit. For the first time in four years she will need to play the qualifying draw here, needing to win three matches to make the main draw.

Brengle was ranked as high as No. 35 in the world in 2015.

In April she sued the ITF, the Women’s Tennis Association and the ITF’s drug-testing agency for damages of $10 million, claiming “prolonged mistreatment at the hands of the giants in women’s professional tennis.”

On Sunday, Brengle said she had tried to stay out of the details of the case as it moves forward. But, on Monday, Brengle’s lawyer, Peter R. Ginsberg, said the WTA portion of the case had been moved to arbitration, which can lead to a quicker result.

Ginsberg said that the ITF part of the case was still in the federal court system and was moving through “at a normal pace,” with no resolution expected anytime soon.

Whatever the outcome of the lawsuit, Brengle’s career and life have forever been changed. Currently ranked No. 105 on the WTA Tour, she now does hours of daily physical therapy to try to keep strength in her hands and feet

On the tennis court, her right wrist is taped so tightly because it hurts to raise her hand up, and she’s greatly curtailed her doubles play because hitting volleys is too painful.

“From the minute I wake up there’s burning in the hand, it’s just a matter of how bad it is on a particular day,” Brengle said. “Some days I can barely get my hands around a racket, but I still try to practice.”

One of Brengle’s coaches, Pat Harrison, said given the amount of constant pain Brengle is in, she’s done a terrific job of compartmentalizing and focusing on her tennis.

“She’s still got a top-caliber backhand and she still has a great service return, and she’s always fighting no matter how she’s feeling,” Harrison said. “With tournaments in the past year, her health has obviously been the major factor, and she’s gotten some tough draws.”

Brengle’s 2018 season has seen some highs and lows. Despite suffering three torn ligaments in her left ankle at a grass-court Wimbledon warmup in June, she recovered to win her first-round match at the All England Club.

“This is going to sound weird, but it was so nice to have a ‘normal’ tennis injury,” Brengle said with a laugh. “Like, oh, this will hurt for a while, then get better. That’s a nice break from what I normally go through.”

The obvious question to Brengle, given how much pain she endures, is why do it? She’s 28, has earned more than $2.3 million in her career, and could do other things in her life that won’t be quite as excruciating.

Why not just walk away from the sport and do something else? Her answer is revealing.

“Because this is something that was done to me, I want to walk away on my terms,” Brengle said, suddenly turning serious. “I want to retire because I decided to retire, not because of the pain that has been caused to me. I’ve been playing tennis since I was 2, and I’m very emotionally invested in the sport, obviously.

“Besides, I still enjoy playing. It hurts a lot, but I get to travel and play the sport I love. Right now, I’m not ready to give in.”

Michael J. Lewis is a freelance writer living in New York.

 

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