WIMBLEDON — Think of what it has taken for Serena Williams to get back on the tennis court. In the last nine months, she has recovered from a Caesarean section and life-threatening complications. Her body, which has been a formidable instrument in her legendary career, is simply not the same.
Unlike what she had been told, in her case, the extra pounds did not melt away by nursing little Olympia and she ultimately had to decide between that uniquely maternal bonding time and getting back to the form she needed to have in order to compete at the highest level. When her daughter was three months old, Williams couldn’t do it. At four months, it was the same.
“Once I got to six months, I felt good about it,” Williams said. “Then it was just emotionally letting go. That was a different thing. I literally sat Olympia in my arms, I talked to her, we prayed about it. I told her, ‘Look, I’m going to stop. Mommy has to do this.’ I cried a little bit, not as much as I thought. She was fine. She was totally fine. It was the strangest thing. I just learned from that experience, every physical body is different.
“After that, like literally I lost 10 pounds in a week. It was crazy. I just kept dropping.”
When the 36-year-old Williams first started playing tennis tournaments, her opponents often were teenagers, and players usually retired before the age of 30.
With a career that usually concludes before the average woman’s fertility level begins to dip, there was no reason to choose between professional tennis and a family. It’s a choice the men on the ATP Tour don’t have to make in the same way, although father-of-four Roger Federer has significantly altered his schedule in recent years.
A woman’s tennis career no longer is a sprint from high school until injuries or exhaustion dictate the conclusion. Improvements in nutrition and training, as well as advancements in surgical techniques and rehabilitation, have meant that many players on the WTA can play well into their 30s.
And how does that change the calculation when it comes to priorities?
“It will be really nice for these women to take a year off, and have the most amazing thing in the world, then come back to their job and not have to start from the bottom, scrape, scrape, scrape,” Williams said. “Still give them an opportunity to be out there for bringing life into the world.”
And plenty are doing just that. In addition to Williams, eight mothers currently are competing: former No. 1 Victoria Azarenka, Kateryna Bondarenko, Tatjana Maria, Mandy Minella, Evgeniya Rodina, Maria José Martinez Sánchez (Andrea), Vera Zvonareva and Patty Schnyder.
In fact, Rodina will play Williams on Monday in a fourth-round match.
The WTA is changing policies and practices in order to facilitate their needs.
From the WTA: “We are seeing more WTA players who are mothers choosing to return to play professionally. Accordingly, the WTA has a number of supportive measures in place. From a health care perspective, the WTA’s Sport Sciences and Medicine and Athlete Assistance Departments provide physical and psychological health and wellbeing support and services. This includes attention to the special musculoskeletal, physiological and psychosocial needs of pregnant, post-partum and breastfeeding mothers, including educational information, and specialized women’s health physiotherapy and counseling.
“I think players are able to play longer for a couple of reasons,” said former No. 1 player Tracy Austin, who won two U.S. Open titles. “They’re making more money and they can afford to have physios travel with them to maintain their fitness. And for Serena, it’s the challenge but it’s also the record.”
More about that later.
Azarenka just returned to play in Europe after a custody dispute with her son’s father prohibited her from leaving the United States. Unseeded at Wimbledon, she lost to No. 7 Karolina Pliskova in the second round here and said she has no doubt she will return to top form. It’s just that she’s not very good at being patient.
“I think a lot of people don’t really know on the daily basis what things that I have to go through, and that’s OK,” Azarenka said. “But I think physically I’m very fit right now. Probably better than I have ever been before. But to be able to connect that with my tennis, it’s been challenging and a little bit frustrating in a way.”
Accommodating a return
The issue is that any individual player has no guarantee that she will return at the same level after taking an extended absence. The decision risks a steady revenue stream that not every player can afford to give up.
“It’s an experiment in some ways,” former player Rene Stubbs said.
In order to mitigate some of that risk, the WTA has changed its formula for tournament entry and some tournaments have changed the way they seed players. For example, as a seven-time champion here, Williams was granted the No. 25 seed at Wimbledon despite her ranking of 181. The French Open didn’t offer that courtesy and was not obligated to do so.
From the tour: “The WTA is open to making changes in the rule based on the input received from our players. Every voice needs to be heard and taken into account as any change would require their full consensus. The current maternity leave policy provides a two-year period for an athlete to return to competition by using her special ranking; her ranking on the day she stopped playing. She is then provided an additional year to enter the tournaments of her choice. This enables the WTA to guarantee jobs for returning players and a 3-year period of time to re-enter the workplace.”
But even as the tour adapts to smooth the return of new mothers to the workplace, players have to do a lot of the work themselves. There is the training, the support system needed and then the most important gut check.
Williams knew she still had the competitiveness that has won 23 Grand Slam singles titles, just short of the record of 24 that Margaret Court won before the open era. That is the record that Austin was referring to — and she could get it at Wimbledon.
The will to win
She has watched the HBO documentary about her, called “Being Serena,’’ and was struck by the scene in the hospital in which someone suggested that she still could be playing when her daughter takes up tennis. In the haze of the moment, she took umbrage that she could be dethroned even by her daughter’s future career.
“I said, ‘Not if I’m still playing, I’m going to win,’ ” Williams said. “It was totally ridiculous. I was still on medication.”
But there is a bigger point to be made there, and it’s about what has fueled her to win slams in three decades.
“I don’t think I ever actually lost that competitive side,” Williams said. “In fact, I feel like it’s stronger because I’ve been through so much. I put so much on the back burner, I feel like even more so I’m even more competitive.”
And given how well she’s played at Wimbledon, that should serve as notice to every opponent going into the second week of the tournament.
Another Wimbledon title will give Serena Williams 24 singles titles, tying her with Margaret Court for most all-time. The breakdown of Serena’s 23 Grand Slam championships:
Wimbledon: 7 (2002, 2003, 2009, 2010, 2012, 2015, 2016)
U.S. Open: 6 (1999, 2002, 2008, 2012, 2013, 2014)
Australian Open: 7 (2003, 2005, 2007, 2009, 2010, 2015, 2017)
French Open: 3 (2002, 2013, 2015)