Serena Williams: How tennis rewrote the playbook for female athletes juggling motherhood and sport



CNN

When Serena Williams announced that she would “evolve away from tennis,” she was photographed 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 gown.

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

“If I were a guy, I wouldn’t be writing this because I’d be playing and winning while my wife did the physical work of growing our family.

“I’ve been reluctant to admit to myself or anyone else that I have to stop playing tennis,” she added.

Williams expressed the emotional turmoil of making the decision to raise her family and forget her dedication to her sport, a situation many professional athletes face during their sports careers.

“The pain in the article that Serena talked about, people don’t realize it, and I’m glad she’s very vocal about it,” says Team USA heptathlete Lindsay Flach in the opening scenes from the new CNN film, “Serena Williams: On Her Terms.”

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

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

Early in her career, Williams learned to thrive in conditions that weren’t built for her to succeed, as a black athlete.

Born in September 1981 in Saginaw, Michigan and raised in the blue-collar town of Compton, California, Williams grew up with her older sisters, Venus, Lyndrea, Isha and Yetunde and her mother, Oracene Price. Her father, Richard Williams, began training her and Venus when the duo were toddlers.

“Venus and Serena, with the help of their father, knowingly or unknowingly went into tennis unapologetically like them. Black girls playing in this white world,” reporter Cari Champion told CNN during the documentary

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

Serena Williams with her father Richard Williams and her sister Venus.

As the sisters’ tennis skills blossomed, so did the buzz surrounding their budding careers.

In 1990, Venus became the top under-12 player in Southern California, landing the cover of The New York Times and the pages of Sports Illustrated.

In 1991 the family moved to Florida, where the two sisters trained for the first time with professional coaches. After playing tennis outside of the junior circuit for several years, Williams turned professional when she was 14, a year after Venus.

During her meteoric rise as one of the greatest tennis players of all time, Williams proved that she had the willpower to face 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 dawn of a new era.

“It’s really great news. I’m doing great, and it’s great news for minorities and just a different group of people to watch tennis, and just watch tennis with a different focus,” Williams said in an interview after the match

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

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

But while she and her family endured racist abuse, most notably at the Indian Wells final in 2001, they also mourned the death of her older 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.

He entered the 2007 Australian Open ranked 81st, according to the tournament’s official website. Despite her bracket, she remained unbeaten and triumphed over Maria Sharapova in the final in 63 minutes, winning 6-1 6-2.

In the following years, Williams increased her number of Grand Slam victories, winning her third consecutive US Open title in September 2014 and her seventh Wimbledon title in 2016, tying Steffi Graf for the most of individual titles in 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 so by beating Venus in the Australian Open final.

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

“She was on fire in that tournament. She was just thrashing players,” former professional tennis player and four-time Olympian Rennae Stubbs tells CNN during the documentary.

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

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

“I would have liked it to go 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 was going to be.”

Serena Williams with her daughter after a match at this year's US Open.

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

In January 2018, she opened up about the many medical trials she faced in the weeks following her birth, telling Vogue: “Nobody talks about the low moments: the pressure you feel, the incredible disappointment every time you hear the baby cry. . . Emotions are crazy.”

Jennie Finch, a former softball player and Olympic medalist, had her first son, Ace, in May 2006. She tells CNN that, like Williams, she had a hard time dealing with the wave of emotions that came with motherhood

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

“All these soft emotions, I feel like we’re told to suppress them. That’s it, you face your broken heart in two.

“I’m very grateful that 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 actually hang up the cleats forever.”

In September, Williams’ tennis career was likely over after she fell to Australian Ajla Tomljanović in the third round of the US Open.

In a moment of fortuitous symmetry, he bid farewell to the court where he won his first Grand Slam.

“It wouldn’t be Serena if Venus wasn’t there,” she told ESPN in a courtside interview after the match. “She’s the only reason Serena Williams ever existed.”

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

Serena Williams' husband Alexis Ohanian and daughter Alexis Olympia Ohanian Jr. watch her play during the first round of the 2022 US Open.

“To me, Serena is, like, the epitome of a strong female athlete. Now she wants to focus on her family, but she just showed everyone that you can be a mom and still be a top-performing athlete.” , WNBA player Napheesa Collier told CNN during the documentary.

From appearing in Beyoncé’s “Lemonade” and earning six Oscar 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 it was any different because, you know, the number one player in the world was someone who looked like me,” said the world No.1. 12 said Coco Gauff.

“He’s introduced people to the sport who have never heard of tennis, and I think I’m a product of what he’s done,” four-time Grand Slam champion Naomi Osaka also said.

Serena Williams was photographed ringing the opening bell on the floor of the NYSE in New York, USA on Friday, August 2.  26, 2022.

Looking ahead, Williams said she would be stepping away from tennis to focus on her venture fund, Serena Ventures. The company has invested in 66 startups, 78% of which were created by women and people of color.

“We’ve seen her evolve into this beautiful, business-savvy young woman who is now really looking ahead and making sure that her career and her legacy are completely narrated by her,” Champion says 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 businesses and 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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