Williams brings us along for the ride as she conquers tennis, motherhood
If you follow Serena Williams on social media, you’ve probably heard of Qai Qai. Her year-old daughter Olympia’s doll has her own Twitter and Instagram accounts, and even hosted a QQQ&A from Down Under.
It’s fun for Williams’ fans to see Qai Qai in a director’s chair courtside for practice at the Australian Open or being hugged by Olympia, but it’s also a calculated strategy of engagement. From her own accounts, Williams posts video of intimate family moments, and allows fans to see the dynamic of her marriage with Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian. The lighthearted part of it is just the tip of the iceberg for a woman with some very serious things to accomplish.
The annual Grand Slam campaign is about to begin and, for the millionth time in living memory, Williams has a realistic shot at all four, beginning with the Australian Open.
How she is doing it is nothing short of revolutionary. Last year, Williams missed the Australian but reached the final at the U.S. Open and Wimbledon, and the fourth round at the French. Through all of it, she has made motherhood a core part of the process.
“Some people believe that women go quietly and have their babies and the story is on the back end when they come back and they win and they win at the highest level,” former WNBA and UConn star Swin Cash said. “She’s taking the people who may only want to cover the comeback and forces them to cover the journey.”
Cash, who had a little boy at about the same time Williams had Olympia, has related to Williams at every step in this story. In the way Williams presents it, having a baby isn’t the obstacle in a comeback story; it’s just part of the journey. Last week when Olympia wanted to be held while Williams was getting ready for a match, Williams posted photos of her getting her stretching done with Olympia in her arms.
Williams wasn’t always so accessible. There were points in her career where she avoided the media, or sat for post-match press conferences like she’d been issued detention after a loss. In the last few years, that has changed. Even after difficult losses in the final at the U.S. Open and Wimbledon last year, she was available and engaged. Her opening remarks at Wimbledon were some of the most candid I’d ever heard.
In London, she discussed in emotional detail the decision to stop nursing as part of her training process.
“Once I got to six months, I felt good about it,” Williams said. “Then it was just emotionally letting go. That was a different thing. I literally sat Olympia in my arms, I talked to her, we prayed about it. I told her, ‘Look, I’m going to stop. Mommy has to do this.’ … She was totally fine. It was the strangest thing.”
It wasn’t your usual pre-tournament press conference and it was incredibly relatable for many of the women who have followed her career and try to navigate between obligations.
When it comes to women in the workforce, there is little about becoming a mother that creates the sense that you’ll be better at your job. The mommy-track is still a thing, and this assumption goes double for women who are athletes.
Your body changes, and when your body is your instrument of employment, there is a chance it will not be as efficient afterwards.
And into this arena comes Serena Williams, whose excellence is incontrovertible. Who is wearing her motherhood like a badge of honor.
Branding is one thing, but Williams’ family is modeling what could be a future for working parents. Ohanian has actively called for paid parental leave, and took time after the birth of their daughter to be home. He’s made time to support her in person at many events in conjunction with his own work, and has made parenting as much a part of his public face as she has.
And all of it would be lovely even if Williams had retired two years ago. But she emphatically did not. In full view, she has brought her fans along for the good days and bad as she started training again, stopped nursing sooner than she’d hoped in order to drop weight, won her first WTA matches in March and until the dramatic U.S. Open final loss to Naomi Osaka.
Even in that moment, on the blue Flushing courts against a player who was clearly better on the day, Williams let us see everything that was happening.
The annual Grand Slam campaign is about to begin, and – wouldn’t you know – Serena Williams has a realistic shot at all four, beginning with the Australian Open.