Serena Williams — Baby steps

Serena Williams.   | Photo Credit: AP

Under the sweltering Key Biscayne sun, Serena Williams hit the last of her 28 unforced errors — a forehand swatted long on match-point. She gave a chagrined, sheepish smile and heaved in disbelief, while her opponent — the young Naomi Osaka — could scarcely believe herself. Serena packed quickly, strode out of the stadium and directly into a waiting car, skipping the mandatory post-match press conference.

Part of Serena’s legacy is being infallible and unbeatable. Even those following her career might not remember the last time she was ousted in the first round. Before her defeat at the Miami Open, a tournament she has won a record eight times, she hadn’t exited a tournament this early in nearly six years, dating back to the 2012 French Open. Indeed, she has suffered just five first-round eliminations in her career!

The loss to Osaka was only her fourth match on the WTA Tour following a long break after childbirth, and her record stands at 2-2. A day after her defeat, she posted on Instagram: “[Four] months ago I could not walk to my mailbox … but I will keep going forward and I’ll get there.”

But can she get there? Can Serena be both a tennis champion and a mom?

A lone star

There are not many historic examples in tennis to help us answer that with definitive authority. There is, of course, a growing crop of moms on tour, but Serena would like to join the ranks of Margaret Court, Evonne Goolagong and Kim Clijsters as those who have bagged a Grand Slam title after giving birth.

Court, whose Majors record Serena is chasing, won three of her 24 championships after having a child in 1972. Goolagong had her daughter in May, 1977. She won the Australian Open just seven months later, and then took home Wimbledon in 1980, the only mother to win it in the Open Era.

Clijsters had a baby in 2008, then won the US Open in 2009 and 2011, as well as the Australian Open in 2011.

Both Goolagong and Clijsters returned when their competition was tough. Goolagong’s Wimbledon triumph came amidst the presence of Martina Navratilova, Tracy Austin, Chris Evert and Billie Jean King.

When Clijsters returned, Serena and Dinara Safina were competing to be No. 1. The season also saw good runs from Svetlana Kuznetsova, Caroline Wozniacki, Elena

Dementieva and Maria Sharapova, who made a comeback and quickly rose to the top 20.

None of them, however, were Serena’s age when they had children. At 36 and a half years old, she is one of the oldest singles players in recent history. Returning after almost a year, she is not only learning to play all over again, but also defying time. It would be unprecedented if she were to return to her incredibly high level.

But who better to teach us time-bending tactics than Serena? Her record shows that she has only got better with age: she won just one Major between 22 and 25, normally considered a player’s prime years. She is the most decorated 30-and-over player in tennis: 10 of her 23 Majors have been won after her 30th birthday.

Can she, however, overcome the physiological and psychological hurdles postpartum and make a successful return as a mother?

Athleticism and motherhood

Sport psychologists have long called for more in-depth studies focusing on the experiences of women in sport, especially that of motherhood: an experience that can impact training and performance in complex ways.

How hard is it to get back to the strict routine of competitive sport? A study published in the Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport found that lack of energy was reported as the primary barrier to training both during pregnancy and postpartum. Other perceived barriers included nausea, back pain, breastfeeding and weight gain.

Training aside, it can take months to fully recover from the sheer trauma of giving birth. In Serena’s case, it was even more complicated due to postpartum blood clots and haemorrhaging, as well as a C-section recovery that left her unable to get out of bed for six weeks.

Indeed, she looked a bit rusty on court. Movements which were once as natural as flying is to a bird seemed alien to her now. She was a step slow to the ball in the corners and was often late with her swing. To add to that, Osaka wore her down considerably during the rallies.

But given some time, Serena could still return a better player. Wim Fissette, who coached Clijsters during her comeback from 2009 to 2011, described it as one of the most enjoyable periods of his career. “She was a better athlete. She knew her body well and she knew she had to take her time.”

Mental fortitude

Much less literature exists about the psychological factors surrounding the return to competitive sport postpartum. “We’ve seen some other mothers come back… but will she have enough motivation when she sees that little one?” former World No. 1 Tracy Austin said. Serena herself tweeted about how difficult it was to post about anything other than her daughter.

A study published in the Women in Sport and Physical Activity Journal lists examples of elite distance runners “who didn’t mind losing marathons”, who did not take performance outcomes seriously after returning to the sport after childbirth.

Indeed, what is left to motivate the woman who has won it all? It sure is difficult to imagine what it must be like to be Serena Williams, the oldest No. 1 in women’s tennis. She came back from depression, from the trauma of losing her sister and from another critical case of pulmonary embolism that could have ended her career. She won three of her Grand Slam singles titles after being match-point down.

So who is to say that an athlete of such tenacity and grit cannot combine motherhood and on-court prowess to continue doing what she does best: ruthlessly accumulating silverware? And when the greatest female tennis player in history says, “My story isn’t over”, who are we to say otherwise?


What has Serena traditionally done well and what has she struggled with this year?

Keeping it short

In charted matches, 63% of Serena’s rallies have been 1-3 shots long. She wins 56% of these points, her best success rate in the rally-length spectrum (for instance, she wins 52% of rallies 7-9 shots long, her worst rate)

One of Osaka’s successes against Serena came from her ability to draw the American into longer rallies: only 44% of the points were 1-3 shots long

Service rules

Serena’s serve wins free points and sets up others. Between 2010 and 2017, she averaged an ace-rate of 13%. In her four matches in 2018, this is down to 4.7%

Her first serve % between 2010 and 2017 was approximately 60%. She won about 77% of these points. Her first serve this year is at 52.7%. She has won 63.7% of these points

Pressure points

Serena’s quality under pressure is a difference-maker. Between 2010 and 2017, she converted about 53% of break-points and saved 65% of them. This year, the corresponding numbers are 44% and 55%

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Printable version | May 12, 2021 5:50:06 AM |

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