Serena Williams: How Tennis Greatly Rewrote The Playbook For Female Athletes Balancing Motherhood And Sport



CNN

When Serena Williams Announcing she was “developing away from tennis,” she was pictured with her five-year-old daughter, Alexis Olympia Ohanian Jr.

The 23-time Grand Slam winner was photographed on a sunset beach in a Balenciaga dress, with Olympia’s face peeking out from behind the train of her powder blue dress.

“Believe me, I never wanted to have to choose between tennis and family. I don’t think it’s fair,” Williams said in an article in Fashion, published Aug.

“If I were a man I wouldn’t be writing this because I would be out there playing and winning while my wife does the physical labor to add to our family.

“I hesitate to admit to myself or anyone else that I need to stop playing tennis,” she added.

Williams expressed the emotional turmoil of making the decision to expand her family and forego her commitment to her sport — a predicament many female professional athletes face during their sporting careers.

“The pain in the article that Serena spoke about, people don’t realize it, and I’m glad she’s speaking out so loudly,” says Lindsay Flach, Team USA heptathlete, in the opening scenes of the new CNN movie, “Serena Williams: On her terms.”

“People don’t realize that sometimes you have to… prioritize motherhood over athletics.

“It’s hard to choose between one or the other. And it’s definitely very difficult to do both.”

Early in her career, Williams learned to thrive under conditions that were not made for her success as a black athlete.

Williams was born in Saginaw, Michigan in September 1981 and grew up in the working class town of Compton, California. She grew up with her older sisters, Venus, Lyndrea, Isha, and Yetunde, and her mother, Oracene Price. Her father, Richard Williams, began coaching her and Venus when the duo were toddlers.

“Venus and Serena, with the help of their father, knowingly or unknowingly, came to tennis without apology as they are. Black young girls playing in this white world,” broadcast journalist Cari Champion tells CNN during the documentary.

“He felt he could teach his daughters that this white world of tennis is not your friend and if you can thrive in this world whatever the circumstances, in the face of the worst and the best, you can do anything in life.”

Serena Williams with her father Richard Williams and sister Venus.

As the sisters’ tennis skills blossomed, so did excitement about their budding careers.

In 1990, Venus became the highest-ranked player under the age of 12 in Southern California, making the cover of the New York Times and the pages of Sports Illustrated.

In 1991, the family moved to Florida, where both sisters trained with professional trainers for the first time. After several years of playing non-junior tennis, Williams turned pro at age 14, a year after Venus.

During her meteoric rise to become one of the greatest tennis players of all time, Williams proved she had the willpower to overcome numerous professional and personal challenges.

In 1999, 18-year-old Williams stunned world No. 1 Martina Hingis in the US Open final to win her first Grand Slam, marking the beginning of a new era.

“This is really great news. I’m doing really well and it’s good news for the minorities and just a different group of people to watch tennis and just see tennis in a different spotlight,” Williams said in a post-game interview.

Williams kisses the trophy after defeating Martina Hingis in the US Open final.

At the age of 20, she became world no. 1 for the first time in her career after beating defending champion Venus in the 2002 Wimbledon final. She then achieved her first “Serena Slam” by winning all four Grand Slam titles from 2002 to 2003.

But while she and her family have faced racist attacks — especially in the Finals at Indian Wells in 2001 – They also mourned the death of their older half-sister Yetunde Prince, who was murdered in Compton in 2003.

In 2006, Williams took a break from tennis and fell out of the top 100 in the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) rankings.

According to the official tournament website, she entered the 2007 Australian Open ranked 81st. Despite her break, she remained unbeatable and triumphed over Maria Sharapova 6:1, 6:2 in the final in 63 minutes.

In the coming years, Williams added to her list of Grand Slam wins, winning her third consecutive US Open title in September 2014 and her seventh Wimbledon title in 2016, giving Steffi Graf her most singles titles of the Open era.

As Williams entered the third decade of her career, her next goal was to break Graf’s record for most singles titles in the Open era.

In 2017, she did just that by defeating Venus in the Australian Open final.

“It’s such a great feeling to be 23. It feels really great,” Serena told reporters during a post-game press conference.

“She was on fire in this tournament. She only beat up players,” Rennae Stubbs, a former professional tennis player and four-time Olympian, told CNN during the documentary.

“What I didn’t realize was that she was already pregnant, which is just unreal.”

Flach found herself in a similar situation to Williams when she competed in the 2021 Olympic Trials in Eugene, Oregon, 18 weeks into her pregnancy with her son Rylan.

“I wish it would have gone a lot better even if I was pregnant,” Flach tells CNN during the documentary. “I had no idea what was going on. I had no idea what the next step would be.”

Serena Williams with her daughter after a US Open match earlier this year.

After announcing her engagement to Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian in December 2016, Williams gave birth to the Olympia in September 2017 – just under eight months after winning the Australian Open.

In January 2018, she told Vogue about the numerous medical trials she was subjected to in the weeks following the birth: “No one talks about the deep moments — the pressure you feel, the incredible disappointment every time you hear the baby cry … The emotions are crazy.”

Jennie Finch, a former softball player and Olympic medalist, gave birth to her first child, Ace, in May 2006. She tells CNN that, like Williams, she found it difficult to cope with the tidal wave of emotions that came with motherhood.

“As an athlete, you’re selfish, you know? You are a fierce competitor. Your whole life has been like this. And then this little kid comes in and just takes your heart and steals it from you,” Finch says during the documentary.

“All these soft emotions that I feel like we’re supposed to repress somehow. That’s it, you’re faced with your heart being ripped in two.

“I’m so grateful I can still be around the game and it’s still a big part of who I am and what I do. But it’s different when you really hang up your shoes forever.”

In September, Williams’ tennis career likely came to an end after losing to Australia’s Ajla Tomljanović in the third round of the US Open.

In a moment of happy symmetry, she waved goodbye on the court where she won her first Grand Slam.

“I wouldn’t be Serena if it wasn’t for Venus,” she told ESPN in an on-court interview after the game. “She’s the only reason Serena Williams ever existed.”

During her illustrious career, Williams won 73 singles titles, 23 doubles titles and two mixed doubles titles, including 39 Grand Slam titles – 23 singles titles, 14 doubles titles and two mixed doubles titles. She is one Grand Slam singles title behind Australia’s Margaret Court’s all-time record.

Serena Williams' husband Alexis Ohanian and daughter Alexis Olympia Ohanian Jr. watch their match in the first round of the 2022 US Open.

“For me, Serena is something like the poster child of a strong athlete. Now she wants to focus on her family, but it showed everyone that you can be a mom and still be a top athlete,” WNBA player Napheesa Collier tells CNN during the documentary.

From her performance in Beyoncé’s Lemonade to six Academy Award nominations for King Richard to supporting the Black Lives Matter movement, Williams paved the way for black female athletes to forge multidimensional careers.

“Growing up I never thought I was different because world number one was someone who looked like me,” said world number 12 Coco Gauff.

“She introduced people who had never heard of tennis to the sport and I think I’m a product of what she did,” said four-time Grand Slam champion Naomi Osaka.

Serena Williams rang the opening bell on the NYSE floor on Friday, August 26, 2022 in New York, USA.

Looking ahead, Williams said she will step away from tennis and focus on her venture fund, Serena Ventures. The firm has invested in 66 startups, 78% of which were founded by women and people of color.

“We watched her grow into this beautiful, enterprising young woman who is now really looking forward and making sure her career and legacy are fully narrated through her,” says Champion in the documentary.

“At the end of the day, I am who I am and I love who I am. And I love the impact I can have on people through companies, women and people of color,” Williams once said.

“If I didn’t have the passion that I have on the tennis court, I wouldn’t have the passion for what I do now.”

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