Serena Williams has never liked the word “retirement”. Her move away from tennis, announced in an essay in the September issue of Vogue, is an “evolution”, she says. In her transition, she will shift focus from tennis to “other things” that are important to her. One is her desire to have another child.
Williams and her husband have been trying for their first child in the last year. Their four-year-old daughter encouraged them to do so. Williams hopes to become a big sister. But, as Williams told the magazine: “I definitely don’t want to be pregnant again as an athlete. I need to be two feet into tennis or two feet out.”
Williams was just two months pregnant when the Australian Open of 2017 was won by her. On 1 September 2017, Williams gave birth to Alexis Olympia Ohanian Jr. It wasn’t an easy pregnancy. Williams, who had a bloodclot in her lungs during labor, underwent a caesarean. After that, she was able to continue with her life.
Elite athletes can be affected by pregnancy, it is clear. The weight gain and change in body shape affect balance and posture, which take some adjusting to, and training at maximum intensity should be avoided, says Prof Kari Bø at the Norwegian School of Sport Sciences in Oslo. It is strongly discouraged to do any training that could result in a bump being struck, whether by impact or fall.
While training may be reduced, athletes still continue to exercise throughout pregnancy. The way things go depends on how quickly elite female athletes can return to work after giving birth. In pregnancy, as the expanding womb pushes them apart, there is often a separation of the stomach muscles.
The child can also be freed from ligaments and connective tissue by this time. Incontinence can result from weakened pelvic floor muscles, and this can cause urinary and faecal issues. Each of these can impact recovery.
Additional problems can arise after giving birth. Breastfeeding can cause a drop in oestrogen levels. This reduces the body’s ability to absorb calcium, which in turn drives a loss of bone density. An elite athlete could fracture a bone if they return to high-intensity competitions or training too quickly. “It’s an issue we have to take into consideration, especially for endurance athletes. They have to have a balance with nutrition and exercise,” says Bø.
However, not all changes are bad. Although the heart can pump more blood during pregnancy, it changes and reshapes. The changes last only a few months.
Despite all the difficulties, there are no shortage of women who have returned in elite tennis. Margaret Court was the mother of her first child, and she won the Australian Open in 1972, the French Open, and the US Open in 1973. Evonne Cawley, Kim Clijsters and Kim Clijsters won titles in motherhood. “If everything goes smoothly and there are no complications, it is possible to get back into shape and to improve on past performance, it doesn’t need to be a setback at all,” says Bø.
Candice Lingam–Willgoss, senior lecturer in sport, fitness, and motherhood at the Open University, said that the biggest problem for elite athletes is losing their recovery time. It can be difficult to train at maximum intensity if you are tired, but it is easy to take up time for childcare.
The most striking truth in Williams’s essay is that if she was a man, she would not be in this position. “I’d be out there playing and winning while my wife was doing the physical labour of expanding our family,” she writes. The chance of having a baby at 40 is about 40-50%. In June, when 36-year-old Rafael Nadal announced that his wife was pregnant, he noted: “I don’t think it will change my professional life.”
Says Lingam-Willgoss: “A lot of elite athlete mothers are still struggling with cultural norms that see women as the caregivers. Motherhood is very selfless and being an elite athlete is very selfish and you are in this constant tension of trying to do both things very well.”
One of the toughest challenges for Williams – and for any elite athlete – is the fundamental loss of identity that comes with leaving the sport. Williams is fortunate in this area. “Saying goodbye to that athletic self is very, very difficult. It’s everything she has worked for, it’s who she is,” says Lingam-Willgoss. “But she has already got another identity, and she is thinking of becoming a mother again, and that can mitigate some of the psychological impact. She has already got that new focus.”