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Serena’s Serve: How Motherhood Impacts her Legacy

Kathleen Felli reflects on the retirement of the tennis superstar and where her motherhood fits in the narrative of her career.

 
 

When I opened Instagram on August 9th and saw the news that Serena Williams would be retiring from tennis, I was astounded. Despite being nearly 41 years old, it had never crossed my mind that one day, one of the greatest athletes of all time would have to end her career. Serena felt timeless – forever a winner, forever an icon.


In the days leading up to her final match, Sean Gregory’s piece in Time reflects upon her prolific career without shying away from how Serena’s womanhood and motherhood have complicated the narrative of her career.

From the very beginning of Gregory’s article, Serena’s motherhood is highlighted as the biggest influence for her departure from tennis. To still be considered an elite player, Serena would have to maintain an intense training regiment that would be difficult for any athlete her age and with the same history of injuries. Combined with her duties as a mother, it became clear to her that something had to give.


For women in sports, it has always been expected that they will have a shorter career in comparison to their male counterparts to start their families. With her daughter turning 5 this year, Serena Williams proved that being a successful athlete and being a mother are not mutually exclusive.


However, despite all of the accomplishments that Serena has had in tennis, her title as the greatest tennis player of all time is constantly in question. Serena details her frustrations in her own words:


“The way I see it, I should have had 30-plus grand slams… I played while breastfeeding. I played through postpartum depression. But I didn’t get there… I didn’t show up the way I should have or could have. But I showed up 23 times, and that’s fine. Actually it’s extraordinary.”


As Gregory notes, other “G.O.A.T.” worthy athletes – such as Tom Brady and LeBron James – can have decades-long careers without having to sacrifice their family. Alternatively, Serena had to delay her motherhood to achieve an outstanding 23 grand slams in her career, and then nearly lost her life while giving birth. While I hesitate to diminish the various career-ending injuries that athletes can have, fewer people praise Serena Williams’ ability to win a grand slam while pregnant but will praise other male athletes for finishing a game with an injury. There was more than one life being put at risk; all to simply place herself within the conversations that people all over the world have in the comfort of their homes.


When determining Serena Williams’ value in the cultural zeitgeist, her role as a mother is completely divorced from the narrative of her career. This – whether intentional or merely subconscious – is just another example of the way that women are expected to conceal their motherhood to achieve other-worldly success. However, to not view her career in its totality, pregnancy and all, is to deny a part of her greatness.

 

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