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Mother Plays Best: Serena Williams

Williams and Azarenka, pictured at the 2019 BNP Paribas Open at Indian Wells, will meet for just the second time since April 2016 in the US Open semifinals. (Getty Images)
At this closed-set US Open, on-court interviews are conducted for television viewers, but the players’ words don’t travel through the stadium speakers. No surprise why. Yet pre-match introductions are still made over the public address systems. And on Wednesday afternoon, those who were able to hear these announcements at this otherwise vacant venue caught something unusual.

As Serena Williams walked onto the court, her impeccable credentials reverberated through a cavernous Arthur Ashe Stadium. But the announcer’s final descriptor of the consensus greatest of all time wasn’t about trophies, rankings or her playing history in New York City. Rather, “…from Palm Beach Gardens, a six-time champion and Olympia’s mom, Serena Williams.” It was a lovely touch, made more impactful given who Williams was facing. "…from Bulgaria,” the booming voice said, “Alexander’s mom, Tsvetana Pironkova.”

This US Open will be remembered for many unfortunate reasons, but it should be commemorated because of four women: Williams, Pironkova and Victoria Azarenka—all mothers who reached at least the quarterfinals in singles—as well as Vera Zvonareva, who will compete in Friday’s doubles final. Ten years ago in Queens, Zvonareva finished runner-up to Kim Clijsters, who returned to the tour after giving birth a year earlier. The Belgian’s sustained excellence—she won three Grand Slam titles in an 18-month stretch—was a breakthrough moment for tennis-playing moms, but the mom-entum at this year’s US Open is an example of both quality and quantity.

“I think times changed,” Zvonareva said after her semifinal win on Tuesday. “I think women are thinking about their careers a little bit more than before. Before you felt like you had to start a family at 25, but now you’re feeling okay to start your family at 35, or start a family but then still continue with your career. “I think it’s a tough challenge, but maybe we can be a good example for the next generation of moms.”

Even in defeat, Pironkova proved that talent never goes away. (Getty Images)
The 36-year-old and her singles counterparts have been exemplars of career advancement at Flushing Meadows. Williams and Pironkova—the latter remarkably playing her first tournament since 2017—opened the day with a gripping quarterfinal. A clash of playing styles and scintillating display of social distance, both mothers brought out the best in each other, with Williams recovering from a set-and-a-break deficit to reach her 11th consecutive US Open semifinal.

There was no such drama in the evening, with Azarenka flattening 16th seed Elise Mertens, 6-1, 6-0. Mertens had beaten Australian Open champion and No. 2 seed Sofia Kenin 6-3, 6-3 to reach the quarters; to that point, she hadn’t lost a set all tournament. Then she played Azarenka. “That was pretty good,” the Western & Southern Open champion deadpanned to ESPN’s Darren Cahill in the on-court, post-match interview. “Can it get any better? For me, it can’t.” Another win, over Williams on Thursday night, would make Azarenka rethink that statement. She’s just 4-18 against Serena, including back-to-back US Open final losses in 2012 and 2013.

As good as their shotmaking has been this tournament, Vika and Serena have just as importantly been moving extremely well. Azarenka acknowledged it after her rout, but it was plainly visible in how consistently she lined up her two-handed backhand blasts. As for Serena, Martin Blackman, the USTA’s General Manager of Player Development, pointed her movement out specifically after each of the American’s last two matches. “My biggest takeaway, over the course of this tournament, is how well she’s moving,” Blackman said after Williams’ three-set, fourth-round win over Maria Sakkari. “She’s moving really well in the corners, adjustment steps, into the court, backing up when she needs to.”

Physical conditioning is paramount to success for any athlete, but for mothers, it’s even more significant. Having children was once assumed to be as the logical end of a woman’s sporting career. As the aforementioned foursome have proven, that’s further from the truth than ever. There’s also the critical mental side of sport. Erin Hamlin, a 2014 Olympic bronze medalist in luge, believes that perspective world-class female athletes gain from major life changes can free them from an unwavering focus on their sports, and can lead to increased performance.

The 33-year-old upstate New Yorker, who is expecting her first child in December, found the last years of her racing career to be some of her most rewarding. “It physically changes you 100 percent,” says Hamlin, who cites former skeleton racer Noelle Pikus-Pace as an inspiration; the American won an Olympics silver medal as a mom. “But for athletes, you’re set up to have a great pregnancy because you know your body so well, and you’re active. “I’ve really leaned on my experiences as an athlete—you’re almost training for pregnancy and labor. And I think being able to pull from those experiences will only make you a stronger mother, and vice versa.”

While Williams has been unable to scale the heights necessary to capture a record-tying 24th Grand Slam singles title, her motivation has never been in question. (It may never have been this high—perhaps a pro or con.) Azarenka has never seemed happier on the court. Pironkova expressed how special this moment was. Zvonareva wanted to challenge herself. “No matter how many finals I played in the past,” the Russian told TENNIS.com, “it matters how I’m doing right now.”
Collectively, these four have shown what mothers can do at the highest level of any sport—another source of inspiration for the luger.

“I can’t even tell you how many female athletes I know, just in the past couple of years, have all started families with the full intent of continuing to be elite athletes,” says Hamlin.”“Seeing Serena do it on this stage, and normalizing female athletes being moms—and still owning it, and still being incredible afterwards—it’s really cool to see. It doesn’t mean that you’re forever tied to being a stay-at-home mom. It’s 2020, come on.” And at the 2020 US Open, the Come On!’s—from Serena and Vika, specifically—will continue to be heard.
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