On Wednesday evening, Serena Williams finally confirmed what she’d teased, and then un-teased, hours before: The 23-time Grand Slam champion is pregnant with her first child. The official announcement came after an unusual seven hours in which Serena posted a baby-bump Snapchat picture with the suggestive caption “20 weeks,” un-posted the picture, was congratulated by the WTA on Twitter who then took down that tweet — all while sending the sports world into a tizzy and leaving the question open, with no confirmation coming from her camp. Finally, Serena’s PR rep, Kelly Bush Novak, ended the speculation by announcing Serena was expecting a baby this fall. She also announced Serena would be taking off the rest of 2017 and return in 2018.
While there are surely great things to come both on and off the court to come (Serena got engaged to Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian in December and their wedding is also expected this year), Serena’s historic start to 2017 becomes even more amazing in retrospect. According to the confirmed due date (or due season, as it were) and Serena’s “20 weeks” post, it means she won the Australian Open while two months pregnant. I’ll say it again: She won the Australian Open while two months pregnant. Not only that, but she won the Australian Open in dominant fashion while two months pregnant — not dropping a set and barely breaking a sweat en route to her record-breaking 23rd major title. Amazing. (And coming back in 2018 means she’ll return just in time to defend that title.)
It’s unusual, but not unprecedented, for athletes to experience great sporting success while expecting. Serena’s actually the third woman to make a Slam final while pregnant. Margaret Court (1971 Wimbledon) and Evonne Goolagong (1980 Wimbledon) also did so, with Goolagong winning the tournament in which she defeated two in-their-prime American superstars, Tracy Austin and Chris Evert, respectively, in the semis and finals. In her last two matches in Melbourne, Serena defeated players with a combined age of 70. (Translation: Everything else aside, in terms of draws, Goolagong’s win was far more impressive.)
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A number of women have competed in the Olympics while pregnant too, including Canadian curler Kristie Moore, who was five months into her pregnancy when she won a silver in Vancouver. Malaysian shooter Nur Suryani Taibi made double history in London, becoming her county’s first participant in the discipline and doing so while eight months pregnant in 2012. And the most famous pregnant Olympian — the beach volleyball star Kerri Walsh-Jennings — won a gold medal in the early stages of her pregnancy in 2012. But tennis is a more physically demanding sport, including the taxing volleyball in the sand.
It’s obviously impressive — but how much more impressive is it than any other Serena Slam title? Since I have no idea what it’s like to be pregnant, I went straight to the source, asking two women in my life about sports, Serena and the early stages of their pregnancy to get a gauge for just how extraordinary this is. The verdict: Very. However, since Serena Williams is Superwoman, it’s hardly shocking.
My wife, a tennis fan with one child: “There’s not a single universal experience for pregnancy. You know that, right? Right? Tell me you know that. Some women can’t get out of bed, others are doing P90x like it’s no trouble. There’s no rhyme or reason, like why some people are short and some people are tall. You remember my first two months. [Note: I have forgotten.] I didn’t feel well and my five food groups were the five ingredients on Wendy’s Spicy Chicken Sandwich. But Serena’s in great physical health and is the strongest, best and most athletic woman in the sport. Vastly inferior athletes do things like run marathons when they’re seven or eight months, so it’s great but not any more superhuman than she usually is.”
My sister, a former college tennis player with four children who did P90X with two of them: “If she wasn’t having any morning sickness, which is probably the case, the only real side effects at that point is being more tired and soreness. So, yes, it’d be more impressive than usual for most, but for Serena, not as much. She’s just so good that being 8 weeks pregnant probably didn’t hamper her at all, which is amazing in itself.”
Various notes from “The second month” chapter of What To Expect When You’re Expecting: “Women should get permission from their practitioner before exercising, just in case there’s a high-risk pregnancy … “Avoid long periods of standing” … “Get some exercise, such as a brisk 20-30 minute walk or swim every day” … “It’s likely you’re also still getting used to the idea of pregnancy, from the physical (so that’s why I’m so tired!) to the logistical (the shortest route to the bathroom is …) to the dietary (make it a double skim latte, hold the caffeine” … No sushi.
Serena seemed to take some of that advice to heart and others, not so much. She totally avoided long periods of standing at the Open — of her seven matches, six were under 90 minutes and the other one only went 1 hour, 45 minutes — but that was still far more than the recommended 20-30 minutes of “brisk” exercise.
In what has to be another tennis first, Serena will ascend to the No. 1 ranking on Monday despite not having played in nearly four months. Come to think of it, she should probably be on top the doubles rankings too.