When Serena Williams looks back on her 2018 season, she just might find it to be the most meaningful campaign of her career. After a 14-month maternity leave, she returned to the court this past March a wife, a mother and the winningest player in tennis. Over seven tournaments, she recovered her footwork and lightning-fast serve, donned a Marvel-worthy catsuit at the French Open and reached the final at Wimbledon and in New York. But it was the impact she made off the court that set her apart.
This year, Super Serena stepped into her powers and used her voice to give the public a window into her fears, her conflict and her pain. In doing so, the 23-time Grand Slam champ provided herself with an alter ego: a relatable, flawed everymom who cried when she made the decision to stop breastfeeding, missed her daughter, Olympia’s, first steps while she was at work and admitted to having days when she felt she wasn’t cutting it as a mom.
Williams, 37, had struggled plenty during her 20-year career, and time and again she hurdled tragedy, heartache and setbacks to win titles, and she did so with the quiet support of a close network of family and friends. But this season, she had boundless support from fans who followed her to tournaments and on social media. Women — and men — who once believed they had nothing in common with a superstar athlete felt connected to a mom who suddenly seemed a lot like them, whether or not they were parents themselves. It’s difficult to relate to Superwoman without also knowing the human she becomes when she takes her cape off at night. And for much of her life, Williams had reserved her private persona for a very select few.
For more than a year between 2015 and 2017, as Williams chased Steffi Graf’s Open era record, those closest to her described Williams with words that one rarely heard used about her by media.
But slowly, and with the help of social media, Williams began to chisel away the wall. She joined Snapchat, posted videos of herself doing splits, dancing in front of a mirror and singing karaoke at dinner with friends. She spoke out about police violence against African Americans in an emotional post on Facebook, and continued to be vocal on the topic of equal pay. Her followers — she currently has 10 million on Instagram and 10.9 million on Twitter — responded by asking for more.
Over the past year, Williams became a voice for mothers and future mothers on the WTA Tour, for women dealing with postpartum depression — Williams said she prefers the term “postpartum emotions” — and for African American women who are more likely to die from pregnancy-related complications than white women and often feel ignored, dismissed and even chastised by their doctors when they speak up. Williams had to demand treatment from her doctors and, in doing so, likely saved her own life and the lives of women who read the account of her delivery and will feel empowered to speak up in the future.
Williams divulged the details of her emergency C-section and the three surgeries that followed when she developed blood clots in her lungs. Knowing her body and the signs of pulmonary embolism, a condition with which she has a history, Williams urged her doctors to administer a CT scan of her chest, which revealed clots that might have been missed had she not been so persistent. She continued to share her experiences as she returned to the practice courts, won and lost her first matches, and experienced the joys and exhaustion of becoming a working mom. culled from espn.com
After Williams lost against Angelique Kerber in the final at Wimbledon in July — only four months after returning to the game — she choked back tears as she told the crowd, “For all the moms out there, I was playing for you today.” For once, Williams was competing for more than her place in history; she was playing for the fans with whom she’d created a connection. They were supporting her at a time when she needed them most, and she wanted them to know she felt their love.
In that moment, and all year long, it wasn’t about whether Williams won or lost, it was that she was playing the game. That she was willing to put herself out there, set bold goals, risk failing so openly, and ask for support when she did made the public embrace her in a way that at times felt protective and motherly in its intensity. “We love you, Serena!” they responded in chorus after her Wimbledon speech.
That relationship came to a head during the US Open final against Naomi Osaka in September. When chair umpire Carlos Ramos handed Williams a rare coaching penalty in the second set, Williams believed he had questioned her character and integrity, and that the penalty could be interpreted as her being called a cheater in front of the very people who had supported her in her comeback. She needed them to know, needed her daughter to know, wanted Ramos to understand, “I’d rather lose than cheat,” she said.
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