When Serena Williams strides on court for the Wimbledon women’s singles final this afternoon, her conflicting priorities will be familiar to every working mother.
This ruthless competitor will be determined to crush her German opponent, Angelique Kerber, and become only the second woman to win Wimbledon after having a baby since the start of the so-called ‘open era’, in 1968, when professional players were first allowed to compete.
Yet she will be keen to secure the victory she needs to equal Margaret Court’s record of 24 Grand Slam titles in double-quick time. Why? So that Serena can bath her baby, Olympia, and read her a bedtime story.
The 36-year-old American’s ability to juggle motherhood while playing brilliant tennis has added a heart-warming and inspiring sub-plot to the tournament.
Serena Williams will be keen to secure the victory she needs to equal Margaret Court’s record of 24 Grand Slam titles in double-quick time. Why? So that she can bath her baby, Olympia, and read her a bedtime story
Via her posts on social media, we have learned of the pride she felt when showing ten-month-old Olympia around Centre Court, and the fun of taking her daughter into the locker-room to ‘help her’ get ready for a big match.
Serena has also revealed how she wept, last weekend, because she was practising when her baby took her first steps. Her reproachful confession invoked sympathetic, supportive messages from many women whose jobs forced them to miss this maternal milestone.
‘Herds of moms miss that,’ one of her 10.9 million Twitter followers reassured her. ‘Don’t beat yourself up over it.’
Then there have been Serena’s comments on breastfeeding. Last week, contradicting the received medical wisdom that nursing a baby helps a new mother lose weight, she said she’d only succeeded in regaining her figure — and losing 10lb — after weaning her daughter on to a bottle. For many young women, her experience will carry more influence than the advice of medical experts.
The 36-year-old American’s ability to juggle motherhood while playing brilliant tennis has added a heart-warming and inspiring sub-plot to the Wimbledon tournament
For, in her new guise as tennis Tiger Mum, Serena’s performances this past fortnight have proved that having a baby can make a sportswoman mentally and physically stronger. Also, she appears to be on a mission to prove it is possible to be a hands-on parent while succeeding at the highest level.
As she said: ‘I’m adjusting well — I spend so much time with Olympia every single day. I don’t like being away from her.
‘But I also think it’s healthy, in a way, for me to do what I need to do. Be that working mum, then go back home to be the mum.’
Many mothers will concur. Others might feel a little inadequate by comparison — though, of course, they haven’t got £130 million in the bank. Nor can they call on the help of an entourage that includes a cook, personal assistants, and a full-time nanny.
Let’s take nothing away from Serena, however. Given the life-threatening complications she endured when giving birth, her performances at Wimbledon have been immense. The baby had to be delivered by emergency caesarean, and she herself then developed potentially fatal blood clots in her lungs, requiring a six-week stay in hospital. Her condition was so serious that, as she said, she ‘almost didn’t make it’.
Because of her long lay-off, she is now ranked 181 in the world, a laughably false rating for the most dominant (and highly-paid) sportswoman in history. A woman of huge magnetism, she will be cheered on today by her close friend the Duchess of Sussex from the Royal Box.
‘We always had a wonderful friendship,’ Serena said. ‘Every year for a couple years she comes out to Wimbledon and has supported me.
‘Now she’s supporting me in a different role but our friendship is still exactly the same. We always have supported each other, just been there for each other through a lot. I look forward to it.’ Asked if she herself was ‘tennis royalty’, Serena admitted: ‘If there was royalty, I probably would be.’
Also rooting for her will be A-list celebrities from the arts, music, fashion and industry. Along with her fitness mentor, coaches, physio, agent, publicist and various commercial reps — plus her mother, Oracene and other family members — they form the supporters she calls Team Serena.
Serena, her husband Alexis Ohanian, and Olympia on the day of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s wedding. Regardless of whether she wins her eighth title, she will remain a totemic figure for her generation
Whisper it softly in the hallowed halls of the All England Club, but given her tendency to show off Olympia (not least on social media, where she has posted cute photos of ‘Momma Bear with her baby cub’), she might become the first Wimbledon champion to parade her baby on Centre Court.
Regardless of whether she wins her eighth title, she will remain a totemic figure for her generation. The female equivalent, perhaps, of Muhammad Ali, 40 years ago.
Like Ali, Serena Williams’s influence transcends sport and she uses it to champion many issues.
Appalled by the prejudice she suffered from white spectators and officials early in her career, she supports the Black Lives Matter group and campaigns against racism — a cause that has helped cement her friendship with Meghan.
She also fights for parity of income between male and female athletes, equal educational and career opportunities, and speaks for the LBGT community. Her non-profit foundation has built three schools, in Africa and Jamaica and provides scholarships for under-privileged children. Meanwhile, she has played Hollywood screen roles and developed a business empire.
However, though her fortune was estimated at £130 million last year, she was still the only woman to rank among the world’s 100 highest-paid sports stars — a statistic which demonstrates the pay disparity she campaigns against.
Only about half of Serena’s wealth derives directly from tennis. The rest comes from endorsements with brands such as Gatorade, Beats by Dre headphones, JP Morgan Chase, Nike and Wilson. During this Wimbledon, she is advertising Tempur mattresses on ITV (sleep being a ‘critical component of her demanding training regimen’.) She owns a stake in the American football team Miami Dolphins. Then there is the fashion line, Serena, a range of sports and evening-wear sold online.
In this latest venture, she has enlisted the technological know-how of her husband Alexis Ohanian, a computer whizz who made his millions by selling the website Reddit and now runs a venture capital firm. Her story is all the more remarkable when we remember how she started.
Almost 20 years ago, when I first met Serena, there was nothing to indicate the character she has become. With her sister, Venus, then 19, already making waves in the game, and 17-year-old Serena being tipped to eclipse her, I interviewed them in a windowless film studio near their Florida home.
It was one of the rare occasions when they were not chaperoned by their controlling father. However, it proved an excruciating experience.
The Williams sisters were then so immature that they could barely manage to converse. Instead they giggled, like children, at my questions and texted silly messages to one another on their mobiles, then still a novelty.
Later, when I learned about their cloistered, in many ways dysfunctional upbringing, I understood why they behaved in this manner.
Legend has it that the sisters honed their tennis skills to the echo of gangland gunfire on the pot-holed public courts of Compton, Los Angeles. But that tells only part of the story.
In fact, when Serena was nine, her father, Richard, moved them to Florida, where — after taking them out of a renowned tennis academy because he thought he could coach them better himself — he shut them away in a high-fenced homestead which, perhaps ironically, he called ‘Leisure Acres’. There, they would practise until their hands blistered on a private court — beside which their dad erected a sign proclaiming himself ‘The greatest father on earth’.
Exhausted, they would retreat inside the gloomy house where their father studied videos and data of their performances.
They had few if any friends outside the family, and certainly no boyfriends. Dating, their parents decreed, would only be permitted when they were ready to marry.
The sisters’ personal development was surely not helped by their parents’ volatile relationship. At that time Richard and Oracene presented a united front, at least on the tennis circuit, but the truth eventually emerged.
In 1997, and again in 1999, Palm Beach County Sheriff’s officers were called after reports that he had assaulted his wife. On the second occasion, she suffered three fractured ribs.
However, she declined to press charges, and the investigator reported her saying: ‘I know you know what happened. But I am fearful for my daughters’ careers.’
Serena and Venus were at home at the time, but were ‘very evasive’ when questioned.
However, we can imagine how deeply the experience must have affected them. In 2001, their parents divorced. Richard Williams, now 76, subsequently remarried, to a shopkeeper half his age, but that led to another lurid divorce.
Whisper it softly in the hallowed halls of the All England Club, but given her tendency to show off Olympia (not least on social media, where she has posted cute photos of ‘Momma Bear with her baby cub’), she might become the first Wimbledon champion to parade her baby on Centre Court. Above, Serena celebrates her win over Julia Goerges of Germany in their semi final
Though he is still officially listed as Serena’s ‘coach’, he no longer attends her matches and is apparently in such poor health that he felt unable to walk her down the aisle when she married last year.
For Serena, there have been many more personal setbacks.
In 2003, her half-sister, Yetunde, was shot dead, supposedly in a random, drive-by murder (though her husband was caught up in the Los Angeles underworld).
Three years later, Serena bravely announced she had taken time away from tennis because she was suffering depression — long before it became acceptable to make such an admission.
She has also suffered a succession of injuries and ailments that might have finished the careers of less resilient players, among them a condition that makes her susceptible to the blood clots that threatened her life after giving birth.
Until Ohanian came along, her love-life had also been ill-starred. Among the procession of men with whom she was linked were various U.S. sports stars and the Hollywood director Brett Ratner, who is now accused of sexual misconduct against six women.
Through it all, however, Serena always retained her colossal self-belief and strength of purpose.
On court, as in life, she thrives on adversity, using it to make herself tougher. She speaks fluent French, passable Spanish, and is an avid reader with broad interests — knowledgeable on a wide variety of topics.
She is also blazing a trail for girls and women who don’t fit the reality TV show stereotype.
For, as she says, in one of the homespun mantras she posts online: ‘I’ve never been the right kind of woman. Over-sized and over-confident. Too mean if I don’t smile. Too black for my tennis whites. Too motivated for motherhood. But I am proving, time and again, there’s no wrong way to be a woman.’
Her husband would certainly agree. They met while staying at the Cavalieri hotel during the Italian Open championships in Rome, in 2015.
Team Williams were staging a private strategy meeting in the breakfast room and felt uneasy when the 6ft 5in American interloper — who was suffering a hangover — plonked himself down at the next table.
‘Look out! There’s a rat under the table!’ shouted one of Serena’s crew, trying to scare Ohanian into moving.
‘I’m from Brooklyn. I see rats all the time,’ came the entrepreneur’s nonchalant reply.
Intrigued by his attitude, Serena invited him to her next tournament, in Paris, never thinking he would go.
However, he did turn up, and romance blossomed.
The following year, he arranged a rendezvous at the Rome hotel, where he proposed — handing Serena a plastic model rat as a memento.
Though she frequently points out their differences — he is a white, unsporty, computer geek — he says they share the same values, notably their ‘work ethic and competitiveness’, and the burning desire to be the best at whatever they do. They also arrange their diaries so that he has business meetings in the cities where she is playing.
The couple live in a $2.5 million neo-colonial style mansion in Florida. Serena’s other homes include a Paris apartment and a palatial spread in Bel Air, California, which is on the market for $12 million.
However, they plan to settle their family — her husband says he wants five children — in San Francisco.
As for little Olympia, Serena’s husband says she already possesses her mother’s ‘grace and swagger’ and he reckons she will be ‘a super athlete and a super businesswoman’.
Doubtless so, and who would bet against her toddling on to the Centre Court, this afternoon, to be swept up in the arms of victorious Supermum Serena?