Serena Williams won her last grand slam title in 2017, clinching her seventh Australian Open victory while she was eight weeks pregnant.
She had only discovered she was expecting her first child during practice for the tournament. Her reaction? She told Vanity Fair that one of her first thoughts was, “But I had planned on winning Wimbledon this year.”
Yes, Williams is a special player with a unique attitude. Her place in history is already assured, but there is still unfinished business. For years she has been trying to equal Margaret Court’s record of 24 grand slam victories, and since the birth of her daughter, Olympia, the stakes have got higher.
Williams’ Instagram profile reads “I’m Olympia’s mom” and shares links to her clothing and jewellery sites. There’s no mention of her phenomenal sporting success. Don’t let that fool you.
While Williams is a doting mother and successful businesswoman, you’d be wrong to think she cares any less about her tennis ambitions these days. Serena sacrifices time with her daughter to train hard, and travels across the world for tournaments. She was back playing at the French Open eight months after giving birth, an astonishing physical feat, and her on-court meltdowns (memorably against Naomi Osaka at the US Open Final in 2018) show just how much she wants that elusive 24th victory. You can understand why.
It’s often said that tennis offers a fairly level playing field for women in comparison to other sports. It’s a dubious claim, given the debates about unequal prize money, although admittedly most people could name more WTA players than female rugby stars or cricketers. However, the sexism in the tennis system was exposed for all to see when Williams took maternity leave. Nobody knew what to do about her ranking. She was world number one before she gave birth, and placed at 453 on her return in Paris. That’s like telling the CEO to come back and do the photocopying.
This isn’t about rankings anymore though. Or the criticism she faces for her catsuits, or the way in which her achievements are casually overlooked in favour of her male counterparts. Post-pregnancy, Williams has fought to regain her fitness, to stay ahead of the competition. At 39, she regularly faces opponents at least a decade younger than her, if not two. Nonetheless she persists as if she has a point to prove. I’m not sure if this is to the world or to herself.
I’m reminded of another champion of the sport, Roger Federer. Even without the physical stresses of childbirth (Williams has spoken openly about her traumatic labour), the male GOAT had a fallow period. After winning Wimbledon in 2012 it took him another five years to claim his next Grand Slam.
During that time, commentators were thrilled to write him off – the Big Four had dominated for so long and journalists were ready to usher in the stars of tomorrow. But of course they had underestimated the steely determination of a champion, the unique way in which the presence of a superstar can intimidate an opponent. Federer won two slams in 2017, and another in 2018. He hasn’t retired yet.
So why can’t Serena do the same? The answer is that she can, she just needs the right match on the right day. Since welcoming Olympia into the world she has reached four Grand Slam finals – her goal is so tantalisingly close. Her serve is still fierce, her form is improving, there’s nothing impossible about this dream.
It’s worth noting that Serena wouldn’t be the first mother to win a slam, three women have done it before (including Court, the player whose record she is trying to equal). But as arguably the most famous sportswoman in the world it would be a glorious moment for every mother who has struggled after maternity leave – and every woman putting off a baby in case it affects their career.
And best of all, Williams thinks motherhood would make victory all the sweeter. “It’s not a secret that I have my sights on 25 grand slams,” she told Vogue in 2018. “Knowing I’ve got this beautiful baby to go home to makes me feel like I don’t have to play another match. I don’t need the money or the titles or the prestige. I want them, but I don’t need them. That’s a different feeling for me.”
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