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Serena’s French Open Is Not an Encore

On Williams’s first major as a mother, and her next act as a tennis player

Collage of Serena Williams photos Getty Images/Ringer illustration

A few minutes before stepping on the court in Asheville, North Carolina, in early February to play a Fed Cup doubles match with her sister Venus, Serena Williams is standing in the locker room half-dressed and slightly flustered, tethered to a hemming, hawing breast pump. Two bottles dangle from her chest, accumulating milk; they are held in place by a specialty bra that looks like an Ace bandage dyed millennial pink. I have that same bra, I think as I watch the scene, which takes place in the third episode of HBO’s new five-part docuseries Being Serena. I have those bottles too. People are waiting for Williams out on the court, but the milk comes first. Williams turns off her pump, rushes to pull the rest of her clothes on, and tucks the bottles and an ice pack into a little cooler. Serena and I, we’re basically the same, I think. Just two moms navigating our returns to the workplace from maternity leave, always on the lookout for a place to pump.

The things I have in common with Williams pretty much end there. I am a mediocre tennis player, whereas Williams has won 23 Grand Slam singles titles. Unlike Williams, I have not recently been hailed by Roger Federer as one of the sport’s GOATs, nor have I been singled out on Twitter by strident superfan Ivanka Trump. Beyoncé was not at my wedding to the cofounder of Reddit, nor was I at Prince Harry’s wedding to that nice girl from Suits on USA. I lack the basic talent, sacrifice, and commitment needed to be an elite professional athlete whose career spans two decades; I can barely find the time or energy to jog around the block.

And yet, watching Being Serena, I can suddenly relate to the nature of her reality, to what it’s like to be fiddling with the minor but constant logistics of milk production when there’s so much other, better shit to get done.

“I have the same struggles a lot of women have had,” Serena told The New York Times in late April. “And a lot of women are determined to do a lot of the stuff that I do, and there’s literally no difference between me and them with the exception of the side of me that just so happens to play professional tennis.” That’s a hell of an exception.

Williams was in the first trimester of her pregnancy, and arguably also at the top of her game, when she defeated Venus in the Australian Open final in January 2017. In the year and a half since then, she has given birth to a daughter, Olympia; survived a life-threatening postpartum medical scare; gotten married to Alexis Ohanian; and been on the cover of Vogue. (Like I said, Serena and I? We’re basically the same.)

When Williams returns to Roland Garros this weekend to compete in the French Open, it will be her first major as a mother, marking the start of what may turn out to be the most compelling and relatable chapter of her career.

“Any tips on how to turn over at night?” an increasingly unwieldy Williams asked a moms forum on Reddit late in her pregnancy, in addition to authoring posts about packing hospital bags and battling heartburn. “I never thought putting on socks would be this hard,” she wrote in another thread. It was refreshing to see such vulnerability come from a woman best known for her mastery of the physiological, to imagine the great Serena Williams felled by a tiny gestating baby, reduced to huffing and puffing and struggling to pull on a sock.

But months later, when Williams shared the story of what happened to her body during Olympia’s delivery and in the days that followed, she painted a picture of bodily betrayal that was far more distressing to contemplate. “That was an amazing feeling,” she told Vogue about how it felt to have her newborn daughter placed on her chest following an emergency cesarean procedure. “And then everything went bad.”

Struggling to breathe, Williams had to beg hospital staff to check whether she was experiencing another pulmonary embolism. (She had been diagnosed with one in 2011.) She was. And somehow, things got even worse from there, necessitating multiple surgeries and complicating Williams’s recovery. Even after being discharged from the hospital, Williams essentially remained bedridden for six weeks.

By telling her story to Vogue, Williams put a spotlight on the issue of maternal postpartum safety, particularly among women of color; her experience underlined a series of investigative reports on the same topic that were being published in ProPublica at around the same time. More broadly, by addressing her pregnancy, her daughter’s delivery, and her early days and weeks of parenting with such candor, whether in Vogue or on Instagram or in Being Serena, Williams became the latest high-profile messenger to normalize the messy realities of motherhood rather than trying to gloss over them.

“I don’t want to be a mother,” writes Meaghan O’Connell in a recently published essay collection about having an unexpected baby, one of a number of recent works—from books to TV shows to films—that are raw and funny in their honesty. “I want to be a writer. I want to be taken seriously. I want money. I want more time. I want to lose weight. I want to be beautiful.” In the movie Tully, Charlize Theron accidentally drops her phone on the head of a nursing baby. “All of us are wearing yogurt and all of our hands smell like urine,” was how Kristen Bell, one of the stars of the movie Bad Moms, described her day-to-day life. “No one told me I would be coming home in diapers too,” Chrissy Teigen famously tweeted after the birth of her first child.

“Fellow moms: How long did you breastfeed?” Williams wrote on Twitter in early December, shortly after Olympia was born. “Is it weird that I get emotional when I even just think about when it’s time to stop?”

There’s a scene in Being Serena when an exhausted Williams, back on the tennis court for grueling workouts, asks her trainer if he brought his lighter medicine ball that day. “That is the lighter one,” he says; Williams is so rattled by the news that she curses and walks off the court. In the most recent episode, Williams gets a tough love lecture from her coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, about how she has to follow the rules. The rules, he explains, are that she can’t enter a tournament unless and until she knows she will win the whole thing.

Williams isn’t new to the rigorous grind of the tennis comeback; on the contrary, she speaks proudly of her history of getting back in shape and getting back on top. She made the Wimbledon final in 2004 after having knee surgery in late 2003, a fact she pointed out when a reporter asked during an 2005 Australian Open press conference whether she and Venus were “in decline.” (“I don’t appreciate that language,” Williams responded, before going on to win the tournament.) In 2011, the same year she turned 30, Williams was diagnosed with a pulmonary embolism and missed a number of events. Then she came back and won 10 more Grand Slam singles titles.

“So that’s the standard for a comeback that I’m setting for myself,” Williams says in Being Serena. “Now just because I’m 36 and I have a baby, am I supposed to lower my expectations? That’s just not something I’m used to doing.”

But coming back from knee surgery at age 21 and recovering from major abdominal surgery and its added complications at age 36 are very different beasts, particularly when your metric for success is as absolute as it gets: win Grand Slams. (Williams already has more titles than any other player in the Open era with her 23 singles trophies, but if she can win two more, she’d move past Margaret Court as the all-time best.) Williams could have straight-up retired after winning the Australian Open in 2017, and her legacy and legend would have been impressive and intact. Instead, when someone in Being Serena mentions that maybe Olympia will be winning Grand Slams someday, Williams bristles: “Not if I’m still on tour,” she says.

Given the absence of Williams from tennis over the past year and the effect it had on her ranking—when she announced her pregnancy, she was no. 1 in the world, and now she’s no. 453—Williams will be an unseeded player at the French Open, a decision that raised some debate and even caught the attention of Ivanka Trump. “@SerenaWilliams is a formidable athlete (best ever!) and loving new mother,” Trump tweeted. “No person should ever be penalized professionally for having a child! The #WTA should change this rule immediately.”

Immediately is not happening, but the WTA is said to be mulling some sort of future implementation of protected seeding for women returning from maternity leave. For now, though, Williams avoided the worst: In Thursday’s draw, in which she could have theoretically wound up facing, say, no. 1 Simona Halep this weekend, she instead drew a sensible first round match against no. 70 Kristyna Pliskova.

Williams may not be entering the French Open with any sort of on-court momentum—she won two matches at Indian Wells, and none in Miami—but at some point, the only way to prepare for a Grand Slam is to play in one, like diamond sharpening diamond. In early May, to coincide with the premiere of Being Serena, Williams answered questions from fans on Twitter. What is one habit, someone asked, that Olympia gets from her mother? “She never quits,” Williams answered. “And I mean NEVER quits. I love it.”

Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.