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Is gluten-free diet key to Djokovic's smashing tennis season?

Novak Djokovic has suddenly been unstoppable on the tennis court. One key difference: He’s no longer eating gluten after his nutritionist determined that he’s allergic to this common protein.

Have you noticed that 24-year-old Novak Djokovic, a really good but typically also-ran player for the past several years, has suddenly been unstoppable on the tennis court? One key difference: He’s no longer eating gluten after his nutritionist determined that he’s allergic to this common protein (found in wheat, rye, barley, and some oats), according to a Wall Street Journal article published this week. (My 23-year-old gluten-intolerant son alerted me to the story, with the wry comment: “Clearly, I should be turning into a world famous tennis star any day now.”)

When I heard that Djokovic has stopped eating gluten and is suddenly winning every which way he can, it was a “ding!” moment. It makes so much sense: An undiagnosed gluten allergy or intolerance can sap energy, mental sharpness, muscle recovery -- all things critical to athletes (or, really, anyone). And the dizzying array of possible symptoms connected with gluten (it’s even possible to have no symptoms) mean that it’s no small thing to pin down the cause of feeling even just a bit off, or never realizing the level of energy you could have if your body were not fighting this common protein; in some cases, digestive issues might not even arise.

Djokovic’s crazy-good season was a bit puzzling at first -- I kept thinking, well, he’s on a confidence streak -- but he really got my attention when he beat world-number-one Raphael Nadal ... on clay (by far Nadal’s best surface; he’s won the French five times) ... twice ... within two weeks (one of those in Spain, Nadal’s home court) ... without dropping a set. As the WSJ article puts it, since January “Djokovic’s season has gone from good to great to outrageously, impossibly, unrealistically phenomenol.” His 2011 record so far is 37-0 and seven titles, the longest winning streak in tennis since John McEnroe’s in 1984.

If it’s true that giving up gluten has catapulted Djokovic to the top, I can’t help but hope that he’ll use his platform to speak up about gluten intolerance and allergy. According to Tennis.com, Djokovic credits his nutritionist for doing “a great job in changing my diet after we established I am allergic to some food ingredients like gluten. …My movement is much sharper now and I feel great physically.”  Experts estimate that more than 90 percent of people with a gluten allergy or intolerance don’t yet know it. Just think what his story could do for others struggling with not reaching their healthiest, best level -- even if we all can’t suddenly become world famous tennis stars. 

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