As I sit down to write a story about Serena Williams with the 2018 U.S. Open on the horizon, it’s difficult to come up with enough words and adjectives to describe the storied career of the 23-time Grand Slam champion.
Serena returned to the WTA Tour earlier this year at Indian Wells and faced a long road back to returning to the player that captured 20-plus Grand Slam titles. Her return came just six months after she gave birth to her first child, daughter Alexis Olympia Ohanian Jr., and her first match was against older sister Venus.
Big sister just happened to be Serena’s last opponent before she left the Tour because of her pregnancy, at the 2017 Australian Open, where Serena prevailed in straight sets. Venus would come out victorious in the big return match at Indian Wells in March, but having Serena back playing competitively was a welcome sight to the tennis world.
“I haven’t played in over a year,” Serena said after the match. “It [losing] is definitely not less disappointing. I wish it were, but it’s not…But then again, I wish it wasn’t. Then I wouldn’t be who I am. So I just have a long way to go, and I’m looking forward to the journey.”
After losing in the opening round of Miami, Serena powered her way through three rounds at Roland Garros, before having to withdraw from her Round of 16 showdown with Maria Sharapova.
But Williams’ body recovered in time for Wimbledon, where she pursued her eighth title at the All-England Lawn Club. She lost just one set in six victories on her way to the finals where she squared off against a familiar foe, Germany’s Angelique Kerber.
“It was such an amazing tournament for me,” said Serena after her 3-6, 3-6 loss to Kerber. “I was really happy to get this far. It’s obviously disappointing, but I can’t be too disappointed because there’s so much to look forward to. To all the moms out there, I was playing for you today, and I tried.”
That notion is something that Serena has taken very seriously. The 36-year-old has been more than open about sharing both the joys and challenges of being a new mother, which goes a long way when one of the greatest athletes of all-time shows that even she is vulnerable to life’s struggles. Recently, she shared a post on social media revealing that she had been dealing with postpartum depression and grappling with her feeling that she wasn’t doing enough for her child.
“Last week was not easy for me. Not only was I accepting some tough personal stuff, but I was just in a funk. Mostly, I felt like I was not a good mom,” Serena said in the post. “I read several articles that said postpartum emotions can last up to three years if not dealt with. I like communication best. Talking things through with my mom, my sisters, my friends let me know that my feelings are totally normal. It’s totally normal to feel like I’m not doing enough for my baby. We have all been there…Although I have been with her every day of her life, I’m not around as much as I would like to be. Most of you moms deal with the same thing. Whether stay-at-home or working, finding that balance with kids is a true art. You are the true heroes. I’m here to say: If you are having a rough day or week—it’s ok—I am, too!”
Almost instantly, that post received an immense amount of feedback from mothers and non-mothers everywhere who expressed their gratitude for her candor and honesty.
“You shed powerful light on moments when you felt most weak, from your perilous experience giving birth and postpartum depression, to the anguish you felt at knowing that little Olympia took her first steps while you were off training for Wimbledon,” wrote Leslie Gray Streeter in The Palm Beach Post. “And on days when myself and other mothers don’t feel like ‘the true heroes’ you say we are, at least that thought lifts my humble cape just a little bit off the ground.”
Serena has inspired millions with her on-court success, but is now doing so much off the court to inspire and uplift many more with her revealing commentary following the birth of Alexis. She has been outspoken about other issues in recent weeks as well, pointing out the alleged bias in drug testing in tennis.
“And it’s that time of the day to get ‘randomly’ drug tested and only test Williams. Out of all the players, it’s been proven I’m the one getting tested the most. Discrimination? I think so. At least I’ll be keeping the sport clean,” Serena tweeted recently. “But I’m ready to do whatever it takes to have a clean sport … so bring it on! I’m excited.”
She has also posted on social media about unequal pay in the workforce, referring to statistics in wage gaps between black women and white men. These are just a couple of the many ways that the 23-time major champion remains socially conscious and continues to use her platform in the media spotlight for positive change, even more so as she has started her newest and most important role: Being a mother.
One constant that has also remained is her desire to win and win at the highest level. Her run to the finals at Wimbledon showed that she still has plenty left in the tank, but finding consistency and remaining healthy is a major factor in sustaining that success.
Her journey back to form has not been without its speed bumps along the way. At the Silicon Valley Classic in San Jose, Calif., she suffered the worst defeat of her career at the hands of Great Britain’s Johanna Konta, a lopsided 6-1, 6-0 defeat in just 51 minutes, and the first time ever that Serena won just one game in a match.
“I know I can play a zillion times better, but I have so many things on my mind that I don’t have time to be shocked about a loss that clearly wasn’t when I was at my best,” said Serena after her loss to Konta. “I can only try to be there and fight, which is what I was doing out there. I moved a lot better, too, so I’ll take the positives where I can.”
Serena is expected to rest ahead of the U.S. Open, and recently pulled out of the Rogers Cup in Montreal citing personal reasons. Despite her rust and continuous recovery from her health scares, expectations will be high for the American in Flushing Meadows. She is a six-time U.S. Open champion and has the ability to work her way through the women’s field once again.
The U.S. Open certainly missed Serena’s presence last year, and having her back playing on Arthur Ashe Stadium will be a welcome sight for tennis fans and New Yorkers alike late this summer. While her impact transcends anything she does on the tennis court, seeing Serena Williams back playing in important matches just feels right, and will only add to the excitement for the 2018 installment of the U.S. Open.
Brian Coleman is the Senior Editor for New York Tennis Magazine. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org