Imagine — if it is possible to imagine — what it would be like to move through the world with a '1' next to your name. Number one, as in the best. Now imagine that the '1' follows you everywhere, year after year, until you are no longer merely the best: You are the greatest of all time. The one becomes the only. Imagine — if it is possible to imagine — what it would be like to be Serena Williams.
It must have been lonely sometimes, life alongside that '1.' Williams’ path has been expansive: She learned French, designed clothes, did karaoke with her sister Venus. She made friends. She fell in love. But in some essential ways, being number one required a constrained perspective. Her life, and those of many around her, was oriented toward herself. There was not necessarily anything wrong with that. In fact, part of Williams’s singular achievement was to claim the right to have her own ambitions, and to inspire others to do the same. For centuries, someone like her — an African American woman — was not permitted, let alone encouraged, to follow her dreams. It was assumed that she would be subservient, whether to a husband and children or to those in power. Williams showed, powerfully, what could happen when a woman set her own goals and relentlessly pursued them.
But then something happened: Williams had a daughter, and the one, the only, became two.
Motherhood, like war or death, at once compels and resists the imagination. When I first became pregnant, I realised how hard it was to fathom what was going to happen to me. Suddenly, my body was repurposed. Before, it had been mine alone; now I shared it. Ligaments were loosened, blood was rerouted, vessels adopted a new architecture just below my stretched skin. Having a child was, on the one hand, a common experience. By the time I had mine, most of my friends were already parents. And yet, I was not — could not have been — prepared for the impact, for how it changed me.
Alexis Olympia Ohanian, Serena Williams’s daughter, was nearly four months old when my daughter was born. Bemused, I followed Williams on Instagram, and I felt deep sympathy when I learned of the difficulties she endured during childbirth. At first, though, her experience as a mother felt as distant as her Grand Slam victories — ironically, until she returned to the tennis court. Then I felt something shift. Perhaps I saw only my own projection — but she, too, seemed to have changed.
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A post shared by Alexis Ohanian Sr. (@alexisohanian) on Sep 1, 2018 at 3:37pm PDT
It’s easy to take this line of thought too far. Indeed, some have grumbled that too much has been made of Williams as a mother. Many of the big players of men’s tennis — Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray — have small children, but no one frames their matches as battles between fathers. Yet Williams has insisted on this emphasis herself — and not only in the delight that she’s seemed to take from her daughter on social media. She has publicly embraced her role as a mother, and not as a perfect one, either. As I watched her wobble through her early matches back on tour, streaming them on my iPad as I nursed my own child, I thought to myself, She is also still trying to figure things out.
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A post shared by Alexis Ohanian Sr. (@alexisohanian) on Aug 25, 2018 at 3:06pm PDT
She had come back too soon; that was obvious. But perhaps it was necessary. She had to test the new boundaries on her body, and the new negotiations and demands on her time. On her HBO documentary series, Being Serena, there were tearful conversations with her coach and admissions of fear. “I just want to be sure of myself, you know,” she says to her husband, Alexis, at one point. “I’m basically drowning myself and putting so much doubt in my mind.” I heard that and nodded. In press conferences, too, she has been open about the tidal pull that her child exerts on her, both due to the ceaseless flow of love and the banal daily challenges. “I work everything around her,” she explained after her first-round win at the French Open. “I want her to know that I really try to put her first in my life.” And yet, Williams returned to the court in order to win. The challenge was not to let her new identity eclipse her. She reframed the determination and strength that helped make her a champion as the inner resources that would help make her a good mother. She made herself an avatar and an advocate for new mothers. “I just feel like to tell all the moms — I had such a long struggle to come back and it was really difficult, and honestly I feel like if I can do it, they can do it,” she said after losing the final at Wimbledon. I laughed a little when I heard that — as if “coming back” for me meant making the Wimbledon final. And yet it felt genuine, and it felt rare — a show of vulnerability that helped me understand my own strange experience.
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A post shared by Serena Williams (@serenawilliams) on Sep 2, 2018 at 7:37pm PDT
She had wanted to win. She was Serena Williams, after all, the greatest of all time, the number one in history, if not presently in the rankings. But in that moment, it did not seem to matter. It was about enlarging her life to encompass another, without losing contact with something essential about her: her competitiveness, her bravery, her fire.
“To all the moms out there: I was playing for you today, and I tried,” she said after the match, her voice quavering. As a new mother myself, I wanted to say to her: You did not fail.
From: ELLE US