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

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

“If I was a guy, I wouldn’t be writing this because I’d be out there playing and winning while my wife did the physical labor to expand our family.

“I was hesitant 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 grow her family and give up her dedication to her sport – a difficult situation that many professional female athletes face during their athletic careers.

“The pain in the article that Serena talked about, people don’t realize, and I’m glad she talks about it a lot,” said Team USA heptathlete Lindsay Flach in the opening scenes. from the new CNN movie, “Serena Williams: On Her Terms.”

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

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

Play against all odds

Early in her career, Williams learned to thrive in conditions that weren’t designed for her to succeed, as a black female 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, started training her with Venus when the duo were toddlers.

“Venus and Serena, with the help of their father, knowingly or unknowingly came to tennis without any excuse. Young black girls are playing in this white world,” journalist 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 this world under all circumstances, given the worst and the best, you can do anything. in life.”

As the sisters’ tennis abilities developed, so did the buzz surrounding their budding career.

In 1990, Venus became Southern California’s highest-ranked under-12 player, 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 with professional trainers for the first time. After playing tennis outside of the junior circuit for several years, Williams turned professional at age 14, a year after Venus.

A new era

During her meteoric rise to one of the greatest tennis players of all time, Williams has proven that she has the will to take on many 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 really well, and it’s great news for minorities and just a different group of people to see tennis, and to see tennis in a different light,” Williams said. in a post-game interview.

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

She became world number 1 for the first time in her career at the age of 20, after defeating defending champion Venus in the Wimbledon final in 2002. She then performed her first “Serena Slam”, in winning all four Grand Slam titles from 2002 to 2003.

But while she and her family have suffered racist abuse – including in the 2001 Indian Wells final – they have also mourned the death of her older half-sister, Yetunde Prince, who was murdered in Compton in 2003 .

In 2006, Wiliams took a break from tennis and dropped into the top 100 of the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) rankings.

Serena Williams has done it all in tennis, but there's so much more to come

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

In the years to come, Williams added to her tally of Grand Slam wins, winning her third straight US Open title in September 2014 and her seventh Wimbledon title in 2016, tying Steffi Graf for the most wins. singles titles from the Open era.

“She was on fire”

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

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

“It’s so great to have 23. It’s really great,” Serena told reporters in a post-match press conference.

“She was on fire in this tournament. She was just beating 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 the same situation as Williams when she competed at the 2021 Olympic trials in Eugene, Oregon, 18 weeks into her pregnancy with her son, Rylan.

“I wish it had gone a lot better even being pregnant,” Flach told 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 this year.

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 labor and delivery, telling Vogue: “Nobody talks about the tough times – the pressure you feel, the incredible disappointment every time you hear the baby cry… The emotions run wild.”

Jennie Finch, a former softball player and Olympic medalist, had her first child, Ace, in May 2006. She tells CNN that, like Williams, she struggled to deal with the tidal wave of emotions that came with maternity.

“As 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 along and takes your heart and steals it,” Finch said during the documentary.

“All those sweet emotions that I feel like we’re told to suppress. That’s it, you’re faced with a heart torn in two.

“I’m so grateful that I can still be in the game, and that’s still a big part of who I am and what I do. But it’s different when you really hang up the cleats for good.”

Take control of your story

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

In a moment of fortuitous symmetry, she bid farewell on the court where she won her first Grand Slam.

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

Throughout her illustrious career, Williams has 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 doubles titles mixed. She is one Grand Slam singles title behind the all-time record held by Australian Margaret Court.

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

“For me, Serena is the figurehead of a strong female athlete. Now she wants to focus on her family, but it showed everyone that you can be a mother and be a top athlete. “, WNBA player Napheesa Collier told CNN during the documentary.

From her appearance in Beyoncé’s “Lemonade” and her six Oscar nominations for “King Richard,” to her support of the Black Lives Matter movement, Williams has paved the way for black female athletes to forge multifaceted careers.

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

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

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

As for the future, Williams said she will step away from tennis to focus on her venture capital 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 to the future and making sure her career and her legacy are told entirely through her,” Champion said 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 across business, women and people of color,” Williams said. .

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

Don’t miss the premiere of CNN’s new documentary, “Serena Williams: On Her Terms” on Sunday, September 11 at 8:00 p.m. ET.

Naomi C. Amerson