Serena Williams is back. Did you know she’d been away? Ask the average person to say who won the women’s title at Wimbledon last year, and chances are they will offer her name. Remind them that she gave birth to her first child on 1 September, and quite often they may nod before asking in puzzlement, “Didn’t she win, then?”
Serena has captured 23 grand slam singles titles – the biggest prizes in tennis – and she could win her eighth Wimbledon, at the age of 36, a couple of weeks from now. That’s barely ten months after the arrival of her daughter Olympia; but even she couldn’t win the greatest championship of them all when seven months pregnant. It was Garbiñe Muguruza who took the 2017 title, although there was a Williams in the final – Venus, magnificent at (then) 37, is still ranked in the top ten even now, one year on.
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Serena did, of course, win grand slam number 23, the Australian Open, in January last year, when she was eight weeks pregnant – since when she has also got married. She met Alexis Ohanian, now 35, multimillionaire co-founder of the social news website Reddit, in May 2015, and their wedding guests last November included Eva Longoria, Kim Kardashian and Beyoncé. Six months later, the new Mr and Mrs Ohanian were mixing it with George and Amal Clooney and co at the marriage of Prince Harry and Williams’s friend Meghan Markle.
Two days after the royal wedding, when Serena was seen practising on the red clay courts of Paris ahead of the French Open, it caused a tennis sensation. Until then, her comeback after her daughter’s birth had been a stop-start affair. Initially she had targeted the defence of her Australian Open crown, in January this year, but it was only when she announced that she wouldn’t be fit in time that she disclosed she had suffered blood clots and hematoma in the days after having an emergency caesarean and they had almost cost her her life.
She took the return slowly – two wins and two defeats in the USA in March added up to so little that some had begun to question if she really did want to return. After all, it would be perfectly understandable if her focus had shifted. And then there she was in Paris, front-page news.
Having played so little that her WTA singles ranking stood at 451, she was unseeded at the French Open, meaning that she risked being drawn against the world number one in the very first round. Instead, she faced first the number 70, Kristyna Pliskova, then Ashleigh Barty (17) and Julia Görges (11) – and defeated them all – in a black catsuit that became an instant sensation. (It remains to be seen if Wimbledon will sanction an all-white version.)
Only her withdrawal with a pectoral injury prevented a showdown with her old foe, Maria Sharapova, herself on a longer comeback trail since returning from a drugs ban. Earlier, in a riveting press conference, Williams had dismissed assorted stories told about her in Sharapova’s 2017 memoir Unstoppable: My Life So Far, as “100 per cent hearsay”.
Ah yes, the press conferences – at Roland Garros, Serena’s were jam-packed. The rules state that all players must face the media after every match year-round or else pay a fine, so each grand slam yields dozens of routine such gatherings; but even among the biggest names at the French Open, barely any were like hers, with 150 or so correspondents crammed into a room at the Stade Roland Garos.
It’s impossible to calculate how many press conferences she has given in her time. Bear in mind that when she won her first Wimbledon title – the mixed doubles with Max Mirnyi in 1998 – Bill Clinton was in the White House, and the prince whose wedding she would attend 20 years later was only 13. Two decades on, the more Serena wins, the hungrier she gets.
Celebrity has hardly dented that appetite. She counts Oprah Winfrey and Facebook CEO Sheryl Sandberg as friends; she’s a regular at New York’s A-list Met Gala; and has a cameo in new crime caper Ocean’s 8. She loves all that. But what she wants professionally, above all things, is to reach 25 singles grand slams, and break the record of 24 won by Australia’s Margaret Court between 1960 and 1973. Court, incidentally, won the last three of her slams following the birth of her first child.
“That’s what Serena’s hanging in there for – to take that record, which she’s very capable of doing,” says Radio Times expert Annabel Croft, who is also a BBC analyst and former British number one. “I was in absolute awe of her tennis in Paris. Anyone who’s had a baby knows how exhausting it is. It divides your time – all day you’re emotionally tuned in to your baby and you don’t want to leave them for a second. Before the baby, her day would have been 100 per cent geared to being a professional player, and all that entails in terms of gym work, physio, running, quite apart from tennis. It’s mind- blowing she’s fitting all that in round a baby.”
Williams isn’t the only tennis mum to make a comeback. The former world number one Victoria Azarenka gave birth to her son Leo in December 2016 and is now ranked 85; her return began a year ago, but was complicated by a custody battle. Luxembourg’s Mandy Minella was ranked 67 before she gave birth to her daughter Emma last October, and is now ranked 336 after returning in February. But Williams’s high profile meant that her return to tennis spurred a debate about new mothers in all professions going back to work.
“Her stardom is like Muhammad Ali,” says Croft. “She transcends the sport. She has very strong messages she puts out, she speaks her mind, and backs it up by being one of the greatest athletes ever. She is an icon, a torchbearer for women, a role model in so many aspects – I know my kids absolutely adore her.”
And yet consider this. Earlier this month, right after Rafael Nadal won his 11th French Open singles title, this headline appeared in The Daily Telegraph: “If the Greatest Of All Time debate was a fair fight, Rafael Nadal would be far ahead of Roger Federer”.
Neither Nadal (with 17) nor Federer (with 20) has won 23 grand slams, unlike Serena. Neither man has won so much as one grand slam doubles title, unlike Serena (she and sister Venus have grabbed 14 together, while Serena has a further two in mixed doubles). Neither man, funnily enough, has won any of his slams while pregnant, unlike Serena. Neither has almost died in childbirth, or then started a comeback mere months later, unlike Serena. And while both are hugely popular, with a reach way beyond tennis, neither has generated a global debate relevant to every working parent of their gender, unlike… you know the chorus by now. Yet Serena is still casually overlooked.
But not by everyone. Andy Murray has picked up on this lazy sexism more than once. When it was put to him by John Inverdale in Rio in 2016 that he was “the first person ever to win two Olympic tennis gold medals”, Murray corrected him immediately: “I think Venus and Serena have won about four each.” Then last year, after he had lost to the American Sam Querrey in the quarter-finals at Wimbledon, Murray sat glum-faced in a press conference afterwards, but roused himself to correct a journalist who said Querrey was “the first US player to reach a major semi-final since 2009”. “Male player,” the Scot said sternly.
If that “who’s the greatest?” debate was fair, there’d be only one name in the frame. Serena Williams is one of the greatest sports achievers on the planet. The phrase “they’re history” is usually said of those in defeat. Serena Williams is making history, and she walks among us. All rise.
Wimbledon 2018 airs on the BBC throughout July