A loss to tennis, a big win for motherhood

By Alex P. Vidal

“Sometimes the strength of motherhood is greater than natural laws.”

—Barbara Kingsolver

THERE are two reasons why I won’t be seeing Serena Williams anymore when the U.S. Open 2022 unwraps at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in New York City on August 29.

One, I have decided to skip this year’s tournament (except during the Covid-19 restrictions, I regularly watched mostly the preliminary matches because the venue was just 15 minutes away by walk from where I live in Queens) due to prior commitments.

Two, Serena, 40, as we all know, has announced her retirement from tennis.

Serena’s exit actually will be a not-so-big loss to tennis, but a big victory for motherhood. She is 40 and super-rich; she and her older sister, Venus, have accumulated their wealth by entertaining us on the grass, clay, and hard courts in the major “Opens” of Wimbledon, French, Australian, and the U.S. for many years.

On September 1, 2017, while still active off and on, Serena welcomed Olympia, her daughter with Alexis Ohanian and the little one became her mini-me.

The 23-time grand slam champion wrote via Instagram in February 2020 that “working and being a mom is not easy” even if she loved sharing her moments with the toddler.

She has nothing to prove as a tennis champion, but she still has to show her fans she is a good mother as she has been trying to be these past five years.

She has accumulated 73 career singles titles, 23 doubles titles, and two mixed doubles titles which include 39 grand slam titles—23 singles titles, 14 doubles titles, and two mixed doubles titles.

“It was a lot of emotions, obviously,” Serena told the crowd, speaking about her last match in Toronto where she was waylaid by Belinda Bencic, 6-2 6-4  in the second round of the Canadian Open.

“I love playing here, I’ve always loved playing here. I wish I could have played better but Belinda played so well today. It’s been an interesting 24 hours.”


Months earlier, when she was pregnant, Serena had confessed to me that she worried intensely about whether she’d make a good mother, Rob Haskell confessed in an article in Vogue on January 10, 2018.

Haskell described her as a perfectionist, she is rule-bound (“Am I allowed to eat that marshmallow?”), and her longtime fans know that her fiery self-belief is sometimes undercut with self-doubt; in fact, that tension is part of what makes a Serena Williams match such nail-biting entertainment.

Two rather harrowing months after giving birth, though, Mother has her sea legs—just in time to get those legs back onto the tennis court. From her new vantage point, Olympia is both an irresistible temptation and an ultimate reality check.

This was how Haskell narrated his impression of the celebrity tennis player:

“We’re not spending a day apart until she’s eighteen,” Serena says, only half-joking. “Now that I’m 36 and I look at my baby, I remember that this was also one of my goals when I was little, before tennis took over, when I was still kind of a normal girl who played with dolls. Oh, my God, I loved my dolls.” She breaks into the jingle for Baby Alive, the doll with an eerie array of lifelike bodily functions: “I love the way you make me feel,” she croons in a cracking falsetto. “You’re so real.” Serena named her Baby Alive Victoria, drawn even then to triumphal monikers. Suddenly, shrieking with laughter, she’s on YouTube watching eighties TV commercials in which little girls in soft focus change their dolls’ wet diapers.


“To be honest, there’s something really attractive about the idea of moving to San Francisco and just being a mom,” she says. Reddit, the news aggregator of which Alexis is a cofounder, is based there, and they’ve just found a house in Silicon Valley.

“But not yet. Maybe this goes without saying, but it needs to be said in a powerful way: I absolutely want more Grand Slams. I’m well aware of the record books, unfortunately. It’s not a secret that I have my sights on 25.” She means 25 Grand Slam victories, which would surpass the record of 24 held by the Australian tennis legend Margaret Court and make her the undisputed greatest of all time. (Serena, already widely regarded as the best there ever was, currently owns 23.)

“And actually, I think having a baby might help. When I’m too anxious I lose matches, and I feel like a lot of that anxiety disappeared when Olympia was born. Knowing I’ve got this beautiful baby to go home to makes me feel like I don’t have to play another match. I don’t need the money or the titles or the prestige. I want them, but I don’t need them. That’s a different feeling for me.”


Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg is a longtime hero of Serena’s, and in the last year she has offered invaluable advice about marriage and motherhood.

The two met years ago after Serena, in an interview, was asked to name someone she’d like to have dinner with and chose Sandberg. “I saw that, and I called her and said, ‘I’d love to have dinner with you!’ ” Sandberg recalls. They did not become close until after Sandberg’s husband, Dave Goldberg, died unexpectedly in 2015. “Serena really stepped up. I’d get texts and emails from her from all over the world telling me how strong I was at a time when I didn’t feel strong. She had experienced loss in her own life, and I think she knew what to do.”

Many of her friends from women’s tennis—Caroline Wozniacki, Svetlana Kuznetsova, Angelique Kerber—have reached out to remind her how much she’s been missed this year. This is hugely important to Serena, who insists that contrary to the rumors, this is a group of women that genuinely cares for and respects one another.

“I really believe that we have to build each other up and build our tour up,” she says.

“The women in Billie Jean King’s day supported each other even though they competed fiercely. We’ve got to do that. That’s kind of the mark I want to leave. Play each other hard, but keep growing the sport.”

(The author, who is now based in New York City, used to be the editor of two local dailies in Iloilo.—Ed)