Serena Williams revealed her latest and greatest trophy to the world in September 2017 – her daughter Alexis Olympia. But the holder of 23 grand slams swiftly declared her clear intention to return to the tennis court as a mother. She would, she said, look forward to seeing her daughter watching from the players’ box soon.
The organisers of the Australian Open have now indicated that Williams hopes to be back in Melbourne in January 2018 to defend the title she won when she was eight weeks pregnant.
No one who has witnessed Williams’ panoply of accomplishments will doubt her ability to return to tennis. But you don’t collect all those trophies by being satisfied with merely participating. The 36-year-old has said herself: “Either I win, or I don’t play.”
So what are the historical, psychological and physical hurdles she will have to conquer as she eyes more silverware?
She would not be the first athlete – nor even the first tennis player – to return to elite competition as a mother. Evonne Goolagong dominated the women’s game in 1980, and became the first mother to be crowned Wimbledon champion since Dorothea Lambert Chambers in 1914.
Kim Clijsters won two US Opens and an Australian Open after the birth of her first daughter, making her the only WTA player to win more majors after motherhood than before. More recently, former world number one Viktoria Azarenka returned to Wimbledon six months after giving birth to son Leo, joining a handful of mothers currently on the women’s tour.
Away from tennis, Paula Radcliffe reaffirmed her superhuman status by re-lacing her running shoes just 12 days after the birth of daughter, Isla, in 2007. She went on to win the New York City Marathon later that year. As Williams has commented:
Ride or die. Women are tough that way.
A mother’s work…
But parenthood does change you. After his daughter was born, Andy Murray said: “Becoming a parent is life-changing. My priority is to be a good father first.” His long time rival Novak Djokovic commented: “Knowing that you’re giving your love and your time to your baby, your child, that gives you a freshness in the mind.”
He even joked that players who wanted to keep up their tennis performances should start a family.
While these sentiments are touching and telling in equal measure, one needs to factor in the bond of gestation, the trauma of delivery, and the attachment of breastfeeding to get a sense of how motherhood might affect a female player.
Williams herself has become a doting new mum, recently tweeting how difficult it was to post about anything other than her daughter. No one is suggesting that fathers are any less close to their children than mothers, but the fact is that men are privileged with an uninterrupted career path throughout childbirth that women cannot replicate.
This biological imperative carries psychological and physiological question marks for female athletes. Mentally, there is the necessary break from the sport which was previously all consuming. Then there is the introduction of a life entirely dependent on you for survival. It must be transformative to say the least.
Not much research has been done around the cognitive factors of returning to competition postpartum. But one study found that motivation and self belief were the most frequent mediators for success in female athletes.
Athletes with higher motivation reported greater training effort and fewer weeks needed to achieve their training goals. As tennis’s greatest player of the open era, Williams need only look at her reflection in her trophy cabinet for instant self belief. As for motivation, she’s only one away from Margaret Court’s record of 24 grand slam singles titles.
She has said previously:
Obviously, if I have a chance to go out there and catch up with Margaret, I am not going to pass that up. If anything, this pregnancy has given me a new power.
Everything to play for
This “new power” might be a common psychological benefit. Physiotherapist Mark Buckingham, who has helped several athletes return to competition after childbirth, comments: “People become better athletes when they have babies because they become able to put things into context.”
Physically speaking, the comparative healing periods when recovering from serious injury and recuperation after childbirth are similar. However, unlike with injuries, motherhood can actually bring physical benefits.
During pregnancy, a woman’s heart changes form. While the heart walls retain their thickness, the chamber capacity increases to enable the retention of a much larger volume of blood, up to 50% more, in order to support the uterus.
The result is not dissimilar to blood doping, which augments the efficiency and rate at which oxygen is supplied to the muscles. This will indeed provide women with a “new power” at least until such time as the heart returns to prepartum levels.
Also, higher levels of oestrogen are released during pregnancy, a hormone which can stimulate the release of serotonin – to minimise fatigue. (Although it is not yet clear how long these increased levels of oestrogen remain.)
The only unanswered question for Williams is how pregnancy, motherhood and returning to top level competition in her mid-thirties will take its toll.
But having followed her evolution all these years from the days when she and I were competing in the same tournaments (unfortunately not achieving the same results), and she was most famous for the noise of her hair beads, I get the impression that this is just another challenge she will relish. And with her eyes firmly fixed on Court’s record, I believe she can overcome any physiological impediment.
When the greatest female tennis player in history says “My story isn’t over”, it takes a brave pundit to state otherwise. I, for one, can’t see any historical, psychological, or physiological reason to doubt her.
Jo Ward does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond the academic appointment above.