After a highly successful collegiate tennis career at Virginia Tech, it seemed as if Patrick Daciek was on track to go pro. Problem was, while the Severna Park native’s talent may have been enough, his energy levels failed to measure up with the demands of a professional athlete.
During matches, it sometimes felt “like a bad hangover combined with riding a bike in the wrong gear,” said Daciek, now 25. “I was working really hard to hit just a forehand.”
Nearly two years ago, he was diagnosed with Gilbert’s syndrome, a genetic disorder in which the liver does not properly process bilirubin, a substance produced by the breakdown of red blood cells. It varies in severity, and at its worst can manifest into extreme fatigue, difficulty concentrating, loss of appetite and weight loss.
Daciek tried to play through it, but that proved extraordinarily difficult. “The [syndrome] doesn’t really matter unless you’re pushing yourself to physical exhaustion or under extreme stress, which is what tennis is,” he said. As a result, Gilbert’s nearly cost Daciek tennis altogether.
“At a couple tournaments, my bilirubin levels spiked up close to three, and once it gets there you can risk kidney damage,” Daciek said. “I got really frustrated and actually quit tennis shortly after my diagnosis.”
His break was short-lived, though, and after a few months off he was back to training. Daciek is now nearing a return to full health and has found motivation to come back stronger. Currently ranked No. 1,203 in the world, he has made it his goal to climb to the top 500 by the end of the year.
It promises to be a long, difficult journey – and an expensive one, for that matter. He’s started an online fundraiser to support his expenses, as he travels to tournaments collecting any points he can muster to boost his ranking. But again, it’s a slog: Whereas the winner of this year’s Australian Open will earn 2,000 ranking points, Daciek is nearly 10,000 miles away, competing in front of sparse crowds in Weston, Fla., hoping to take home a modest 18 ranking points at best.
He’s also learning to manage Gilbert’s. His initial struggles often stemmed from losing matches because his bilirubin levels would flare without warning and he didn’t know how to control it. “It cost me around 10 matches last year, which cost me a lot of points, which would have helped me this year,” he said.
After a frustrating loss in August 2015, Daciek’s coach, Murphy Payne, sought out the help of former world No. 13 Alexandr Dolgopolov, a Ukrainian player who also deals with the syndrome. Dolgopolov said sleep, diet and mental toughness were the keys. Daciek now allows himself an extra travel day and averages nine to 10 hours of sleep prior to matches. He has a cup of lemon water a day to flush out the liver, foods high in Omega-3s, like almonds and salmon, and no alcohol. As for the mental component, well, he simply doesn’t use Gilbert’s as an excuse.
That’s something his other coach, Hans Gildemeister, can help underscore. “When I played the circuit, I also had Gilbert’s syndrome,” said Gildemeister, a Chilean former player who was ranked No. 12 in the world at the time of his diagnosis in 1979. “I told Patrick it’s something you can get away from.”
It appears the tutelage and encouragement is paying off. As he works his way back into shape, Daciek now tries to maintain a calmer attitude while executing a more aggressive playing style. Though the climb up the rankings is still steep, he knows it takes just one tournament to break through – he’s now seen other players do it. Dolgopolov is currently No. 35 in the world while managing Gilbert’s.
“Looking to [Dolgopolov] gives me hope for the future that I can make it as a tennis player with this” condition, Daciek said.