When Serena Williams was asked what had changed in her personality since the birth of her daughter Olympia, she suggested that she is now kinder to herself, less critical of her own mistakes.
Her words were put to the test on the final Saturday before Wimbledon, as she practised on court number five in a howling gale. She missed returns and shanked forehands; her feet remained rooted to the spot.
The calmness with which she dealt with her wayward form nearly made her comments believable.
It took Williams three games into a terse 7-5 6-3 victory over Aranxta Rus on Monday for that composure to depart as she set her side of the court aflame.
— Wimbledon (@Wimbledon) July 2, 2018
Her long, loud statement grunt periodically punctuated winners and soundtracked the match. When she wasn’t rallying herself to success, she admonished herself for her errors. She shook her head after winning the first set and was stone-faced upon victory.
“In the moment, you want to do so well, you want to win. Not only do I expect to win, I expect to win emphatically,” Williams said afterwards, emphasising the final word. “Sometimes, like I said, I put too much pressure on myself, I’m over-anxious.”
Many things have changed in Williams’ life over the past 18 months, but very little between the white lines.
Her first round win marked an unblemished 15 victories in a row at Wimbledon. The number 25 remains the dream; she is two major titles from forever eclipsing Margaret Court’s all-time record of 24 Slams.
To do so after having given birth through a caesarian section just 10 months ago, involving a second near-fatal bout of blood clots in the lungs that sees her now taking to court in compression tights, would be unthinkable.
After withdrawing before her fourth-round match at the French Open, Williams rehabbed her problematic shoulder twice a day, more than for any other injury she has had.
Against Rus, her serve peaked at a relatively tame 115mph, but she assured everyone she was pain free.
Williams’ fitness will take more time and, in her eight matches in 2018, only her straight-sets victory over Julia Goerges at Roland Garros exhibited the kind of form she will need to find consistently.
But with Petra Kvitova’s loss, she is now the tournament favourite.
The concept of female players ‘juggling’ pregnancy and the rest of their lives is still likened to wizardry in some tennis spheres.
Victoria Azarenka is competing in a second Wimbledon with her son, yet over half of her first-round press conference questions were about motherhood. There is always the suggestion that something is sacrificed by traveling as a family to tournaments.
But when Williams describes her motivation, she points to the sacrifices she made on behalf of her career in order to create her family. Her competitiveness needs feeding, and that has only been augmented by the fact that her career was temporarily halted in order to have her daughter.
“I feel like it’s stronger because I’ve been through so much,” she said.
“I put so much on the back burner, I feel like I’m even more competitive. I am a little bit shocked at how much I almost want that pressure. You know, I almost want to feel the need to go out there and be the best that I can be.”
This mentality appears to carry over into the rest of her life.
Since the beginning of her career, Williams’ entire existence in the country-club circles of tennis has been political. Her race, her gender and her muscles were endlessly scrutinised for their significance.
Press conferences from earlier years were awkward case studes in the predominantly male questioners attempting to elicit substantive comments from both sisters about their cultural significance, with little success.
The Williams sisters were aware of the paths they have blazed, but they reinforced their identities simply by living their lives.
Amid the backdrop of her pregnancy and health scares, at some point Williams decided that this needed to change. Today she embraces the significance of her identity and position.
The flurry of controversy surrounding unseeded players was initiated by her statements; she has invested in tech companies with the expressed goal of bringing diversity; after details of her complicated pregnancy were revealed, she released a statement on the disproportionate ways that black women suffer maternal mortality.
Away from politics, her old clothing brand, Aneres, launched in 2004 and inactive for years, was rebranded in March.
It’s easy to focus on the restrictive life of a new parent, but in many ways she seems freer than she ever has.
Williams says she wants another child. “We’ve got to have more,” she said on the eve of Wimbledon.
“If I weren’t working, I’d already be pregnant. I don’t know if I want to play if I have another baby, but you’re right. I need to talk to Alexis. We need a plan.”
But her goals remain as lofty as ever and her will, seemingly, even stronger. One day, her presence on the tennis court will amount to a sterile, pleasant knockabout. Until then, she’ll pursue the pressure and kindness can wait.
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