Tennis mothers storm the court, shatter stereotypes

Caroline Wozniacki is the most recent to return to a career in sports after giving birth and has become the face of mothers leading a profession while being a full-time parent; Serena famously won the 2017 Australian Open while pregnant; Court paved the way back in the 1970s

Updated - September 05, 2023 11:50 am IST

Published - September 05, 2023 01:33 am IST

Caroline Wozniacki of Denmark in action in the fourth round of the US Open.

Caroline Wozniacki of Denmark in action in the fourth round of the US Open. | Photo Credit: Getty Images

Former World No. 1 Caroline Wozniacki went down fighting in the fourth round of the US Open at the Arthur Ashe Stadium in New York on Sunday. Playing in her first Grand Slam since 2020, not much was expected from Wozniacki. But the Dane put up a brilliant display to show the world she was ready and serious for a second stint.

Wozniacki came into the tournament after suffering early exits from a pair of tune-up events in Montreal and Cincinnati but excelled in New York, where she took down 11th seed Petra Kvitova en route the round-of-16 before being eliminated by sixth-seed American Coco Gauff who is at the top of her game after winning in Washington and Cincinnati.

During her break from the game, the 33-year-old gave birth to two children. Wozniacki says her plan is to figure in the full programme next year. To come out of retirement is never easy for a player and Wozniacki admitted that she was testing the waters in New York before taking the leap.

“I wanted to see with these three events that I came back and played this year. I wanted to see where I was tennis-wise, where I was physically,” said Wozniacki after the Gauff match. “I’m exactly where I want to be. There are still a few things that I want to work on and can do better. But in general, I think it’s very positive.”

She has identified a weakness in her serve which, she said, let her down in New York, particularly in the first and third sets of the round-of-16 clash. She has set the goal of improving her serve before taking the court in 2024. While she has to improve physically, she proved that she still had a champion mentality. “I think that I can beat anyone on any given day,” she said at the Arthur Ashe Stadium on Sunday.

While Wozniacki’s ‘second career’ is just budding, there are players before her and with her who have taken a break to be mothers and returned with grace.

Familiar face

Now retired, Serena Williams is the most familiar face in the contemporary sports world when it comes to ‘working mothers.’ Serena has the (joint) second-most Grand Slams, sharing the spot with Novak Djokovic with 23 titles. After a glorious career, the American took a break in 2017 to give birth to her daughter and came back to the court in 2018 to reach four Major finals before calling it quits in 2022. It was later revealed that she was pregnant when she won the 2017 Australian Open!

Serena Williams, right, and her sister, Venus, hold their trophies after Serena won the women’s singles final at the Australian Open.

Serena Williams, right, and her sister, Venus, hold their trophies after Serena won the women’s singles final at the Australian Open. | Photo Credit: AP

Serena has spoken up against the stereotypes cast on mothers in the game. Speaking to Vogue magazine in September last year, she said “it was unfair that she had to choose between being a professional tennis player and being a parent,” something that would not be expected of the likes of Tom Brady, for example, who played in the American National Football League at age 45 despite having three children.

Years before Serena, Australian ace Margaret Court, who still holds the record for most Slam titles (24), did the same thing; she suspended her career to have kids and came back to win three titles. Court definitely had it harder, given her peak was in the 1970s, an era where stereotypes were stronger than today.

Margaret Court lifts a replica Daphne Akhurst trophy on Rod Laver Arena.

Margaret Court lifts a replica Daphne Akhurst trophy on Rod Laver Arena. | Photo Credit: Getty Images

Tennis is one of the sports that has tackled sexism the most. From the epic battle of the sexes between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs, tennis has come a long way in ushering in gender equality. At the US Open, the mothers have rattled the courts, stereotypes and opponents. Coming from a social structure that expects mothers to stay at home with their kids, they have entered the fray to show that they can still cast a spell.

Victoria Azarenka went out in straight sets in the second round in New York this year, but is still battling for a doubles crown in the company of Brazilian Beatriz Haddad Maia. The duo has reached the round of 16. The former World No. 1, who has won two Slams, has been through tougher battles in her personal life, including a custody battle for her son whom she gave birth to in 2016. The 34-year-old Belarusian still has her moments on court and is not ready to let her personal life get in the way of her career.

Elina Svitolina, who rocketed to third in the world rankings and is currently 26th, bowed out in the third round in New York on Sunday. She gave birth to a daughter in 2022. The 28-year-old Ukrainian made headlines in 2022 when she refused to play against anyone from Russia or Belarus after the invasion of her country. The war took a toll on her. Nevertheless, she is still out on court, trying to get back to her best.

Townsend back in town

Taylor Townsend of the United States bowed out in the third round of women’s singles in this edition of her home Slam, but has reached the quarterfinals in both women’s doubles, where she has teamed up with Canadian Leylah Fernandez, and in mixed doubles where she is playing with American Ben Shelton. She became a mother in 2021 at the age of 24 and is climbing up her career ladder.

Another ace in the pack is Angelique Kerber, a former World No. 1 with three Grand Slam titles who announced a break from her career in 2022 due to pregnancy. She gave birth to a baby girl in 2023 and has not returned to court. But fans around the world are eagerly waiting for the return of the southpaw.

While they may not have had stupendous success, these mothers are proof that gender or personal choices don’t define the career of a sportsperson. They take the court with swinging racquets and soaring confidence, not ready to cave in without a fight. While they may be a step slower and fallen short of going the distance, they are champions in their own right. Doing double duty — at home and court — is not easy and the fact that they have taken up the challenge deserves a salute.

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