NEW YORK — As big-time tennis and motherhood intersect again at the U.S. Open, Chris Evert and Pam Shriver flanked this male reporter this week on a sofa in an ESPN suite atop Arthur Ashe Stadium. As Evert recollected feeling stronger after giving birth than before being pregnant, her listener’s face must have lapsed into know-nothing surprise.
“Don’t,” she said with her long-established wit. “You don’t know what it’s like to have a baby. Take my word for it.”
Life is a mystery from moment one, including for mothers who exert to create moment one, and if Serena Williams wins her 24th Grand Slam title Saturday as the mother of a 2-year-old, she will notch more than a tie with Margaret Court atop the all-time chart. She will join a concise list of Grand Slam singles title-winning mothers alongside only Margaret Court (three, in 1973), Evonne Goolagong (Wimbledon, in 1980) and Kim Clijsters (three, from 2009-11). The particular feat does seem worthy of a singular level of impression, yet from hearing Williams and Evert and Shriver and others, it also appears that, like so many other areas in life, the hurdles vary in size and by person.
Clijsters, for one, won the 2009 U.S. Open and described the physical rigors, referring to “the core, the lower back area, that was always something that was very strong, but after pregnancy, that just — yeah, it just goes.”
She told of withstanding waves of “the most boring exercises ever,” beginning that previous winter.
Williams certainly has spoken of the physical while straining to three defeats in Grand Slam finals since Sept. 1, 2017, when she gave birth. Briefly unable to remember dropping a 2018 Wimbledon final against Angelique Kerber, Williams said Thursday night, “Oh. That doesn’t count. God, I had, like, an eight-month-old.”
Yet while moving into another final at 37 opposite the 19-year-old Canadian revelation Bianca Andreescu, Williams has mentioned the emotional roadblocks. At one point in a considerable description of what Shriver calls “a very unusual workplace juggle,” Williams told of a worry many might not have pinpointed:
“I don’t want her to forget me.”
“The first months are very difficult after the birth,” said Williams’s coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, soon adding, “She was feeling that the baby needed her a lot because a young baby is very weak, and I think as a mother you feel like you need to be here all the time to protect the baby. Whenever she was not here because she needed to practice or to play a match, she was feeling guilty … Not that it’s not a priority now, but now she feels less guilty about leaving to play tennis, because she feels [her daughter] doesn’t depend as much on her as when she was really small. So maybe this I would not expect.”
Unlike Court or Goolagong or Clijsters, who all gave birth in their 20s before resuming, or Williams, who gave birth at 35 before resuming, Evert and Shriver played long careers, stopped for good and then became mothers, Evert first at 36, Shriver at 42. Each has three children, Evert’s in their 20s, Shriver’s in their teens.
“I have to say,” Evert said, “I didn’t know what to expect when Serena got pregnant and was going to have a baby and come back because I thought, ‘Ohhhh, you have no idea.’ You don’t know the love. You’ve never felt that kind of love before and that tugging at the heartstrings. So, you know, it’s taken her a while. And it’s still tough for her. But at least she’s got a goal, so she’s going for it.”
Shriver marvels at the twin endurances going on as with Williams, calling motherhood “one of the most endurance-ridden assignments that you have in life.” She remembers finding it more routine as an 18-year-old in 1980, when Goolagong beat Evert, 6-1, 7-6 (7-4), in the Wimbledon final — “A fluke,” Evert joked — and forged a conversation as the first mother since Dorothea Lambert Chambers in 1914 to win Wimbledon. Shriver then remembers feeling surprise that when Clijsters resurfaced in 2009, it had been …
“Twenty-nine times four,” Shriver said, noting the interim between Goolagong and Clijsters. “We’re talking over a hundred, well over a hundred majors, and you think that, you know, not one mom won a singles major. Well, one of the things to me, it makes it difficult, is the choice women have to make is, if they’re going to play a long, full career, you’re missing prime time to have a baby.
“That ended up happening to me where, because of my tennis, it just got really late in the game, and I ended up needing a lot of help to try to have [a baby]. It didn’t just happen.”
Evert saw Goolagong, an athlete of rarefied ease, as a rarefied case: “Only Evonne, because she was just so carefree,” and had a supportive husband.
She said to Shriver, “Can you imagine playing?”
Shriver: “Some people would be better. Actually, I think about Martina [Navratilova], how she could compartmentalize, you know with whatever was going on.”
Evert: “Yeah. She’s perfect. She’s great at that. Yeah.”
Shriver: “I actually think she could have, had a difficult situation going on with your kid, whether it was a high fever or …”
Evert: “Whatever. Smoking weed, or whatever.”
Shriver: “Depending on the age. Smaller kids, smaller problems. Bigger kids, bigger problems.”
Evert: “And then there’s the sleeping issue. You have a baby. Or you have a young [child]. Hands-on. I had to be hands-on, 24 hours a day. That’s just how I’m different.”
Shriver: “You want a baby that sleeps well. You want a baby that’s easy to be put down to sleep and sleeps a lot.”
Evert: “And that’ll go with the dad.”
Even the decision to come back distinguishes those who do. “Once I had children,” Evert said, “I never wanted to do anything else but just be a mom. And I couldn’t envision myself, I actually remember, I felt like, when I was pregnant … every woman is like, ‘Oh, I’ve never felt so good! And my skin, and my hair! And I have so much energy!’ ”
“Okay,” Evert said. “I felt like … I don’t know what word to use here. I was the opposite. I felt big and bloated and I didn’t have energy and I just didn’t feel great. So I kept thinking to myself, When I have this child, I’m going to go play team tennis, because that was an option. I did. Yeah. I’m going to go play some team tennis. I had talked to Billie Jean [King], and there’s like three or four weeks in the summer, and I’m going to go play. Once I had that baby, I was like, ‘No team tennis. I want to be here 24 hours.’ You know, I just wanted to be a mom. My nesting instincts took over. So that’s why I admire Evonne, Margaret, Serena, I admire Kim Clijsters for being able to do that. I don’t think I could do that. I feel like I could only do one thing well.”
In that light, Williams didn’t sound cheeky when she said, on her way to the final, “Yeah, I think it’s cool that I’ve been in more finals than I think anyone on tour after being pregnant. That’s kind of awesome. That’s currently on tour [smiling]. I kind of look at it that way because it’s not easy to go through what I did and come back, and so fast. To keep playing, to also not be 20 years old, yeah, I’m pretty proud of myself.”