Serena Williams has played just four matches on the WTA circuit this year and has withdrawn from more tournaments than she’s entered. Is this the beginning of the end for one of tennis’ best ever?
Let’s go back in time to April 2017. Williams was coming off a superlative Australian Open, where she powered through the tournament without dropping a set. She then accidentally-on-purpose let the world know of her pregnancy via Snapchat, only to delete the post hours later.
But of course, the news went viral.
Tennis fans quickly did the math and found that Williams, a 23-time grand slam winner, a four-time Olympic gold medallist, a world number one for over 300 weeks…had won a grand slam while pregnant at 35. Was there anything this incredible woman couldn’t do?
There were many powerful photos of a scantlty clad but very pregnant Serena in the press. The world waited for the unique kid that had indirectly won a slam before she could even hold a racket. But during the birth of Alexis Olympia Ohanian in September, Williams had complications…complications that seemed to have spilled over into her comeback.
A rough road to recovery
Williams’ postpartum complications lead to a cesarean birth and a healthy baby Alexis, but Serena was not out of the woods. After having trouble breathing and essentially coughing open her cesarean wound, doctors found several blood clots – including in Williams’ lungs – and rushed her to surgery. Childbirth, most certainly, is not for the weak or faint of heart.
Williams then endured six more weeks in hospital, in and out of surgery, mostly bedridden and wondering if she could be a good mother, let alone get back out on court.
“My whole life I’ve been physically pushing my body to the limits,” Williams said shortly after her ordeal.
“And this is the one time where I couldn’t control anything. I couldn’t push my body. My body pushed to its maximum. That was so hard.”
But they breed them tough in Compton.
Williams recovered – as she has so often after serious injuries in the past – and was back on the court in February. That said, her return has been far from ideal.
A Fed Cup loss was followed up by early exits at Indian Wells and Miami, the last of which was on March 20. Since, Williams has withdrawn from several tournaments and is yet to start her clay court swing. While she enjoys a protected number one ranking that allows her to enter tournaments as a wildcard, this has thrown doubt over her appearance at the French Open altogether.
If you had told her before that Fed Cup match that she would only play four more matches before June, Williams would have undoubtedly been irate. However, this is where the current world number 454 finds herself at the moment.
That said, Williams still has time and a coach that backs her. According the WTA Special Ranking Rule, players can envoke it to gain entry (not for seeding) into eight tournaments within one year of their return date. The rule can be used at a maximum of two Premier Mandatory Tournaments (Indian Wells, Miami, Madrid, Beijing) and two Grand Slams, a new rule implemented for 2015.
Williams used the rule to enter Indian Wells and Miami, so entering the French Open and/or Wimbledon is still a possibility.
Motherhood and slams
Others have done it before, right? Well, the list is terribly short and likely hasn’t featured in many pub quizzes. There are only three women in tennis history that have claimed grand slams in motherhood. Namely, they are the legendary Margaret Court of the pre-Open Era, Evonne Goolagong who did so in 1980 and most recently Kim Clijsters, who claimed the 2010 US Open in just her third tournament back after giving birth.
Does Williams deserve to be with those names in the annals of history? I would say absolutely…and she would cement her GOAT status if she could. But there are too many sports stars to count that ‘deserved’ greatness they never achieved.
Williams told the New York Times in April that “pregnancy is not an injury”, arguing for protected ranking and seeding at tournaments, meaning she would not be entered as a wildcard, getting an easier draw. This affected her at Indian Wells, where the draw saw her face her sister Venus in just the third round and get knocked out.
While pregnancy may not be an injury, the debilitating effects can arguably be worse. Can Williams – who turns 37 in September – return to her record-breaking best physically? At least that seems to be the only concern. Although her body may have taken a beating with a difficult birth, Williams’ mind remains as resolute as ever.
“Maybe this goes without saying, but it needs to be said in a powerful way: I absolutely want more Grand Slams,” she told Vogue in January.
“I’m well aware of the record books, unfortunately. It’s not a secret that I have my sights on 25.”
Tick tock Serena, tick tock.