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A Reminder That Serena Williams Is the Greatest

The tennis legend won a Grand Slam — her record-breaking 23rd — while pregnant. The internet rejoiced.

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

Serena Williams won her first Grand Slam title when she was 17, a handful more in her 20s, and another 10 — ten! — of them after she turned the old age of 30. (She is now 35.) She has four Olympic gold medals, a growing proficiency in French, friendships with Beyoncé and Caroline Wozniacki, ping-pong commercials with Steph Curry, an engagement to Reddit cofounder Alexis Ohanian, and a relentless, inspiring tennis game. Her press conferences are by turns expansive and stony, petulant and wise. On the court she can be exceedingly gracious, signing tennis balls for fans even after a rare loss, or she can be in the kind of mood where she threatens to stuff a tennis ball down a diminutive lineswoman’s throat.

At the Australian Open in January, she cruised to another major singles title, her record-breaking 23rd, without so much as dropping a set. It was another great performance in a career so full of them that it runs the risk of warping the spectacular into the mundane, the way TV cameras can never quite do justice to the spin of a tennis ball. This is Serena Williams, though, and when she posted a belly shot on Snapchat on Wednesday with the caption “20 WEEKS,” nerds and fans did the math and figured out that when she picked up her latest Grand Slam victory, she was already eight or nine weeks pregnant. Brooklyn Decker, whose husband, Andy Roddick, is also a Friend of Serena, would later marvel:

Motherhood and maternity and all their attendant tensions and joys are, quite literally, the facts of life; lately, though, the topics have seemed particularly present in public conversation. One of Bernie Sanders’s most oft-repeated lines compares the United States’ family leave policies unfavorably with those of the rest of the world. Beyoncé is currently carrying twins; a true boon to the haute-bebe industry. An Oklahoma Republican drew criticism when he compared being pregnant to being a “host”; later, in lieu of apologizing or clarifying, the Associated Press reported that he said “he didn’t know of a better word to describe a pregnant woman.” A prestige TV adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale is being released next week. Last month, the Iron Workers union announced a new policy for maternity leave granting up to six months of leave before birth, and six to eight weeks afterward.

And Serena Williams posted a baby bump pic on Snapchat, before she deleted it. (Hours and many speculative blog posts later, a publicist confirmed the news about what is now the most anticipated tennis baby since the offspring of Andre Agassi and Steffi Graf.)

Williams’s Snapchat story was live for only a few minutes, but the ripples of interest spread outward immediately, from tweets to Daily Mail bullet points to the reliably near-instantaneous SEO dossier on Heavy.com. “OMG Queen of Tennis Serena Williams Just Revealed She Is Pregnant,” is how BuzzFeed put it. Another BF writer, Joel Anderson, lamented that this news wasn’t coming during the Lavar Arrington days. New York’s Brian Feldman pointed out that this suggested at least one person on Reddit has, in fact, gotten laid. Pando Daily founder and tech reporter Sarah Lacy pivoted the news toward her industry:

Being pregnant is cool and weird: Your bones ache, your gums bleed, your ligaments basically just start giving up. (A hormone called “relaxin” is involved.) You plan decades ahead, then worry you’re jinxing it all. You’ve got a decreasingly nebulous imaginary friend there to listen to your hopes and fears at all hours and you occasionally get the hiccups. But the strangest thing about being with child is the way your body becomes not yours, and not even the baby’s, but the world’s. Complete strangers reach out and touch. Internet commenters opine. Photos of yourself splayed postpartum on a gurney, hair matted to the side of your face, one boob swung free, are triumphantly text-messaged to fathers-in-law without your express written consent.

It’s not fair, it’s never fair, but it’s nevertheless the shared experience of so many women during a powerful, vulnerable time. And it’s only a tiny glimpse of the way Serena Williams has lived for the bulk of her life. Williams’s body and appearance have been debated and objectified from nearly the moment she arrived, as Venus’s younger sister, on the tour. A 2005 biography of the Williams sisters references several tennis analysts, most of them women, who expressed distaste for the flourishes and clacking of the beads in Venus and Serena’s braids when they were still teens. A 2002 Los Angeles Times article quotes a writer named Karen Bates as tut-tutting over a tight, black, stretchy number worn by Williams at that year’s U.S. Open. “She doesn’t want to dress in a way that detracts from her work,” Bates told the Times. A controversial 2015 New York Times article about women’s tennis and body image contrasted Williams’s frame with that of the slight Agnieszka Radwanska. “First of all, she’s a woman,” said Radwanska’s coach, Tomasz Wiktorowski, by way of explaining why he had made the “decision” to “keep” Radwanska at her 123-pound weight. “And she wants to be a woman.”

Both of these comments stand out for their absurdity. There’s not much Williams can do to or put onto her body at work that would, at this point, ever begin to make a dent in her magnificent legacy. Wiktorowski’s idea of what it means to be a woman is dim and disturbing, a marked contrast to Williams’s unapologetic enthusiasm for the multitudes she contains: athlete, winner, nail technician, woman, GOAT. Williams is an authentic competitor. She can be a hothead, but so could her old pal Roddick. She does not get nervous while down a break; she does not suffer fools. And she can defeat her own sister in the Australian Open final — in her first trimester.

No doubt Williams’s future child will be regaled with stories about that triumphant Australian Open, not to mention whatever cool things Williams will do in the coming months. (While she will take the rest of the year off from tennis, I suspect her social media accounts will remain entertaining, news-breaking follows.) But I hope one particular pre-pregnancy story about Williams being a badass will be passed down for posterity too, even if it doesn’t even have to do with tennis.

About a year and a half ago, while out to dinner at San Francisco’s trendy restaurant Mission Chinese Food with Ohanian, Williams realized that some overly chatty dude had swiped her cell phone off the table. So she got up, and she chased that dude down the street, and she got her phone back. She later described her tone when she caught up with the perp as “the most menacing yet calm no-nonsense voice I could muster.” Hearing that, there’s zero question that she’ll be a Grand Slam champion of a mom. Congratulations to her, and to the next generation.