For Serena Williams, Tennis — Not Motherhood — Was a Sacrifice
When given the opportunity to write an essay in the September issue of Vogue, one that would touch on how she expects to “evolve” away from tennis, Serena Williams started by talking about her daughter, Alexis Olympia Ohanian Jr.
Her daughter, whom she calls Olympia, wants a little sister.
And Williams? She and her husband, Alexis Ohanian, would like that too.
“In the last year, Alexis and I have been trying to have another child, and we recently got some information from my doctor that put my mind at ease and made me feel that whenever we’re ready, we can add to our family,” Williams said in Vogue. “I definitely don’t want to be pregnant again as an athlete. I need to be two feet into tennis or two feet out.”
She is gearing up to walk both feet off the court, and in doing so, she continues to model what family planning can look like at the highest levels of sport.
In April 2017, Williams announced she was pregnant to the world by accident, uploading a photo of herself with the text “20 weeks” to Snapchat. The news, once confirmed, had fans doing some quick math. She had been about eight weeks pregnant when she won the Australian Open earlier that year.
She gave birth to Olympia on Sept. 1, 2017, and was bedridden for the first six weeks of motherhood because of a life-threatening pulmonary embolism.
She was soon plotting her return to the court, joining a long list of women who made it back to the highest levels of their sport after childbirth not just to compete, but to win.
In 1960, two years after giving birth to her daughter, the sprinter Wilma Rudolph won three gold medals at the Rome Olympics. Joy Fawcett, a three-time Olympian, was among the first American soccer players to have children midcareer — she played every minute of the World Cup in 1995, 1999 and 2003, each competition a year or two after giving birth to one of her three children. And the Olympic swimmer Dara Torres returned to competition just a few weeks after giving birth in 2006, won a national title in the 100-meter freestyle in 2007 and took home three silver medals at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
It’s a list that continues to grow and now includes the sprinter Allyson Felix, the most decorated U.S. track and field athlete in Olympic history, who returned to the global stage after having an emergency cesarean section at 32 weeks in 2018. A few weeks ago, Felix ran her last world-championship event in a full stadium of fans who gave her a standing ovation. Her daughter, Camryn, now a toddler, was in the stands.
Tennis is a uniquely grueling sport for new parents. Much of the calendar year is considered in season, and much of that season is spent crisscrossing the globe for tournaments.
But returning to the biggest stages in the world did not seem to be much of a question for Williams. “I went from a C-section to a second pulmonary embolism to a Grand Slam final. I played while breastfeeding. I played through postpartum depression,” she wrote. She reached her 10th Wimbledon final in July 2018, less than a year after childbirth.
Williams’s daughter hasn’t been far from the stands since. There’s Olympia at the Fed Cup, sporting a red-and-white headband with a glitter bow. And at the ASB classic, sitting on her dad’s lap, clapping, eager to see what shiny trophy Mom has this time. At the Top Seed Open, she was spotted in the stands, a bit distracted by an iPhone (happens to the best of us). And she had a front-row seat to the U.S. Open bubble of 2020, pointing and saying “mama” in a nearly empty stadium.
In the past five years, Williams said, she has not spent more than 24 hours away from her daughter.
But Williams made one thing clear. Her evolution (retirement, she said, is not a word she likes to use) is not an easy decision; it’s not one she’s been able to talk about with anyone other than her therapist. This is not a simple ride into the sunset. No, it’s a more difficult decision — one that she really didn’t want to make.
“Believe me, I never wanted to have to choose between tennis and a family. I don’t think it’s fair. If I were a guy, I wouldn’t be writing this because I’d be out there playing and winning while my wife was doing the physical labor of expanding our family,” she said. “Maybe I’d be more of a Tom Brady if I had that opportunity.”
That’s the case for 36-year-old Rafael Nadal. He announced that his wife, Maria Francisca Perello, is pregnant with their first child. In a news conference in June, Nadal, the winner of 22 Grand Slam singles titles, said, “I don’t think it will change my professional life.”
Williams knows exactly how becoming a mother changed her professional life. “The fact is that nothing is a sacrifice for me when it comes to Olympia. It all just makes sense,” she said, continuing, “I think tennis, by comparison, has always felt like a sacrifice — though it’s one I enjoyed making.”
Before she steps off the court for good, she may have a few more performances to put on for the almost-5-year-old fan in the stands, excitedly waving her arms for her mama.