Martina Trevisan made the semi-finals of the Wimbledon and French Open girls doubles as a 16-year-old in 2009. It took the Italian more than a decade to enter her first Grand Slam main draw as a pro at the 2020 Australian Open. A few months later, she tasted her maiden Slam win at the Roland Garros; on Tuesday, she will play her first Major quarter-finals.
The 26-year-old Trevisan’s case isn’t just one of a late bloomer, or a promising junior talent’s struggles at the big stage. During her teen years, she was diagnosed with anorexia; the eating disorder that compels people to lose weight by starving themselves or exercising way beyond the necessity. We are bombarded, in this era of sports, with nutritional information and just how tailored and careful an athlete’s diet can get. Athletes struggling with eating disorders slip away under the radar; but according to a 2004 study on Norwegian elites by the National Center for Biotechnology Information in the US, anorexia not uncommon in female athletes and “more common among those competing in leanness-dependent and weight-dependent sports than in other sports”.
Grappling to cope with the complexities of the disorder, Trevisan quit tennis after turning 16. She only made a comeback four years later, in 2014. She detailed her struggles of that period in a blog where she mentions eating “thirty grams of cereals and a fruit in the evening” that was merely enough for her to “stand up”. “I hated my muscular body and imposed on myself diets on the verge of survival to lose weight,” Trevisan wrote for The Owl Post.
Tajinder Kaur, who has worked as a sports nutritionist with the Sports Authority of India and is currently a senior nutritionist for Olympic Gold Quest, said anorexia is a complex psychological issue that can work on a feedback loop.
“(It can happen) because they (athletes) are confused about their image,” Kaur said. “There is self-doubt. They are continuously trying to lose weight or attain a certain shape. For athletes suffering from this, it can go to very serious levels. If a person is obsessed about losing weight without actually caring about the requirement of their game, it will affect the performance. That in turn will also play on their mind. It becomes a vicious cycle of self-doubt.”
Trevisan isn’t the only sportsperson who has dealt with anorexia and bulimia (bingeing followed by purging to avoid weight gain). Madison Keys, a former world No. 7 US tennis star, has spoken about having an eating disorder during her junior days. So did Olympic American figure skater Gracie Gold, English field hockey player Suzy Petty, Australian Paralympic swimmer Jessica Smith and former English cricket Andrew Flintoff, who opened up about battling bulimia in a BBC One documentary last month. Last year, 2014 world junior champion American runner Mary Cain detailed in the New York Times about how the win-at-all-costs coaching set up at the now-disbanded Nike Oregon Project encouraged unhealthy levels of weight loss that led to low calories, low bone density and missed menstrual cycles.
In India, no athlete has spoken publicly about dealing with anorexia yet. However, Ryan Fernando–one of India’s leading sports nutritionists who has worked with the likes of Virat Kohli, Sushil Kumar, Joshna Chinappa and Anjum Moudgil, among others–said anorexia is common in India with young female athletes “with two directions: one where the athlete is either overweight or the athlete has a body frame issue”.
“I’ll give you one case of a teenage athlete who was put in touch with me by a psychologist,” Fernando recalled. “I had to get her BMI (body mass index) above 21, because she was losing out on her menstruation cycle. Her BMI was 16, which is severely malnourished. While we were making progress, she told me that she would have 1 litre of water just before walking into my room to get tested. It misled me into thinking that my athlete has put on weight.
“The first thing is for athletes to come to terms with the fact that they have a problem, which is not just nutritional but psychological. Once that is done, it is a long journey of 2-5 years where we teach them how to eat healthier,” he added.
It’s what Trevisan had to go through during her rehab process while being away from the tour for four years, what she called being “re-educated to eat” and to “appreciate my new body”. “Almost without realising it I found myself again with a racket in hand,” she wrote in the blog.
She has begun making it talk too. After a first-round exit at the Australian Open, Trevisan has taken down the talented Coco Gauff, 20th seed Maria Sakkari and fifth seed Kiki Bertens at the French Open after coming through the qualifiers. On Tuesday, she will take on Polish teen Iga Swiatek for a place in the semi-finals. Some comeback for a player who has battled in the lower rungs of the tour for the past few years, failed in her first nine shots at a Grand Slam main draw and overcome a career-threatening eating disorder.