My heart attack was really just bad sushi: Nigel Sears
BARRY FLATMAN THE TIMES FEBRUARY 17, 2016 9:17AM
Three weeks after collapsing with apparent heart problems at the Australian Open, people are astonished to see Nigel Sears back working at tennis tournaments again so quickly. Yet he, in turn, is hugely apologetic for the tumult that he caused.
As Sears was lying immobile for 15 minutes on the steps of Rod Laver Arena surrounded by doctors and medics, back home in East Sussex, Leonore, his wife, and Kim, his daughter, were sitting horrified as they witnessed the drama unfold after expecting simply to watch Andy Murray, their son-in-law/husband, in a third-round match.
Now, for the first time, Sears, the coach to Ana Ivanovic, the 2008 French Open champion from Serbia, is prepared to reflect publicly on that frightening weekend more than 10,000 miles from home. “I know I was such big news at home, but it was a really strange one and I’m just really sorry I worried a lot of people unnecessarily,” he said. “But I just want to let everyone who was concerned know that the doctors have assured me my heart is absolutely fine.
“Frankly, now I feel a bit of a fraud, but at the time I didn’t have a clue what was happening to me and fully appreciate just how terrible it must have looked for everyone watching. I feel so bad having put my wife, daughter and friends through that ordeal.
“Quite honestly my timing could not have been worse, with Kim being just a few days away from giving birth. It was the worst possible time in the worst possible place, being so far away from home. But then I’m thinking if I had blacked out in my hotel room when I was all on my own, what would have happened?
“One thing I am really grateful for is that nothing about my collapse got through to Andy, who was playing just a matter of yards away on Margaret Court Arena and the first he knew anything was wrong was when he walked off court after winning his match against Joao Sousa and his mum, Judy, told him what had happened.
“He was great, he came straight to the hospital in the tennis clothes he’d been wearing during his match and stayed with me for a long time. Mind you, by the time he arrived I was sitting up in bed and asking the doctors if I could go back to the match because I thought Ana’s match might still be going on.”
Murray’s anxiety was obvious and he was back at the hospital the next morning while his father-in-law underwent more tests. Sears adds: “Andy was naturally concerned, but the important thing was he could start relaying stuff back to Kim and her mum because they obviously wanted to know what was going on.
“I could see he was worried and thinking about whether or not to carry on in the tournament. Like any husband, he thought the place he should be was with his wife when she was so anxious and so close to having their first baby. I make a rule of never commenting on Andy’s tennis but, yes, I did tell him that it was important that he stuck with the tournament because Kim was fine. And nobody ever knows how many more chances they will get in grand slams.
“As it turned out, he got all the way to the final [where he lost to Novak Djokovic], which was a great effort given the way his concentration on the main task in hand was interrupted. We’re very close, and he knows what I think about him.”
Sears and doctors at the Epworth Hospital in Melbourne and back home in Lewes are still not totally sure what caused his collapse. However, the 58-year-old has been repeatedly assured that his heart is fine after a catalogue of tests, including two electrocardiograms (ECGs) and an angiogram.
His belief is that it could have been an allergic reaction to a piece of sushi that he had eaten for lunch. Sears recalls a similar episode 12 years ago in the United States when, instead of sushi, he had eaten some raspberries.
“They do tend to spray stuff on fruit in the US and I had eaten quite a lot of them,” he says. “Then again I had sushi for lunch ten days in a row in Melbourne and was fine. But I suppose the law of averages dictates, you get one dodgy bit of raw fish in that time.”
Sears is almost embarrassed as he casts his mind back to the events that interrupted the match between Ivanovic and Madison Keys, the No 15 seed from the US. “What I do know is that when I was walking to the coaching box to watch the match, I suddenly started to feel unwell as if I had eaten something which had disagreed with me,” he says.
“I managed to last for the first set, which Ana won 6-4, but I was feeling really dizzy, even though I was sitting down, and began to sweat a lot. I was convinced I was about to throw up and decided I had better head for the rest room. I stood up, took a couple of steps and that’s the last I remember until I came round lying flat on my back with a load of people attending me.”
Sears believes that he blacked out for no more than two minutes and when he recovered consciousness, he was aware of everything going on around him. “When I woke up, it seems somebody had been pounding my chest for 90 seconds and I had an oxygen mask on my face,” he says. “I was connected up to a defibrillator and I heard the computerised voice message from the machine say: ‘Shock not necessary.’ I thought, thank God for that.
“I must admit I was a bit concerned at that stage because I had no idea what had happened to me. I’m very fortunate I was very well looked after. There were a couple of doctors sitting nearby in the crowd including a specialist cardiologist and the tournament doctor [Tim Wood] got to the scene very quickly and he came with me in the ambulance to the hospital.
“There was a bit of blood around on the steps but I was lucky in that I didn’t bang my head, even though I fell backwards. The blood was spilt because they had a bit of a problem putting an intravenous drip into my arm. But quite honestly everybody who responded was great and by the time I got to the ambulance, I felt OK.”
Anyone who knows Sears will attest to his obsession with physical fitness. He once took part in ironman competitions and more recently participated in triathlons. In the summer, he thinks nothing of long training swims in the Channel close to Beachy Head. On the morning of his collapse, he underwent a strenuous session in his hotel gymnasium with Andy Bettles, Ivanovic’s hitting partner.
“I just keep fit but it did occur to me I had worked quite hard that morning,” he says. “Yes, Andy is 23 and I’m a bit older, and maybe I had been overdoing it a bit in the gym but I felt fine until eating that sushi. I really don’t think it’s likely that my collapse was down to exertion.
“Under doctor’s orders, I didn’t do any exercise for two weeks and now I’m sensible, just ticking over in the gym. The fact I was allowed to fly home within 48 hours shows the doctors were confident in their diagnosis. And it’s nothing down to the stress of being a tennis coach. Ana was winning by a set and a break at the time and I now feel a bit guilty she lost to Keys. She was even 3-0 up in the third.
“Clearly she was worried at seeing me stretchered out of the arena and they gave her the option of coming back the next day. I suppose she thought she had the momentum in the match but concentration must have been difficult.”
Sears remains confident that, in his second spell of coaching the former world No 1, she is destined to be a contender for the grand-slam titles again.
“You look at Flavia Pennetta winning the US Open [last year] and Angelique Kerber getting her first major title in Australia [last month] and you think somebody like Ana has got to have a chance,” he says.
“She’s playing well. She’s a more mature competitor now, she’s happy off the court with her boyfriend [Bastian Schweinsteiger, the Manchester United and Germany footballer] and he’s a good influence because he is a consummate professional sportsman.”
Schweinsteiger and Sears were courtside yesterday (Tuesday) at the Dubai Duty Free Championships when Ivanovic backed up her coach’s optimism with a 6-1, 6-0 destruction of Daria Gavrilova, Australia’s new tennis heroine. “It’s great and Nigel is obviously feeling healthy,” she enthuses.
“Everything is going well and our goal, when we started working together again halfway through last year, was to really make a big effort at the major tournaments this year.”
Next week, Ivanovic is taking some time off when the WTA circuit moves through the Middle East to Doha for the Qatar Total Open. So Sears will be spending the week commentating in London on BT Sport, but he will be staying in Surrey with the newly augmented Murray family.
“I missed the baby being born by one day but they have been sending me masses of photographs on a daily basis,” he concludes. “Now I can’t wait to get home for a nice long cuddle with my new granddaughter.”