Last week Serena Williams did that new mum thing of taking the baby to work, or at least her place of employment for so many glorious summers – a thunderously triumphant reign as the Queen of Wimbledon which has yielded seven titles.
Yesterday the great champion had to be reminded that this year marks the 20th anniversary of her SW19 debut. “Was it 20 years ago? Wow,” she said when the maiden victory – 6-4, 6-3 in the first round over Italy’s Laura Golarsa – was dug up. “I’m definitely going to have to YouTube that.”
But while Williams was able to laugh as she admitted to suffering the baby-brain forgetfulness of all mums, do not make the mistake of assuming that her new status of parent has in any way taken the edge off her previous status of relentless winning machine. Serena is back at the All-England Club, but not for reasons of nostalgia. This is no roots trip for the 23-times Grand Slam champion, her husband Alexis Ohanian and ten-month old Olympia. Mommy is here to compete, like no one else in tennis competes.
“You know, my competitive desire is definitely the same,” said Williams, now 36, as she prepared for today’s return against the world No 107, Arantxa Rus of the Netherlands. “I don’t know if you saw [the documentary] Being Serena on HBO. It was hilarious! I was in the hospital and I said something about Olympia playing, I said: ‘Not if I’m still playing – I’m going to win.’ It was totally ridiculous. I was still on medication!”
Olympia’s arrival last September was more than a little difficult. Williams had to confront life-threatening health complications which resulted in her having an emergency caesarean and surgery for blood clots on her lungs. But again, rather than de-motivate her, the trauma has had the opposite effect. “I don’t think I ever actually lost that competitive side,” she said. “In fact, I feel like it’s stronger because I’ve been through so much. I put so much on the back-burner. I feel like I’m even more competitive.”
Does that surprise her? “It definitely surprises me because I thought I’d feel different. I thought it might be: ‘Hey, I have this amazing child, I have all these Grand Slams, this is all super-bonus.’ It is that, I definitely feel a lot less pressure out there, but I am a little shocked at how much I almost want that pressure. I want to feel the need to go out there and be the best that I can be.”
The return to Grand Slam action came in the French Open but was cut short with Williams being forced to withdraw from a fourth-round clash with old rival Maria Sharapova. “I was really down about that, to be honest – really, really, really down. Physically I was fine, I was working out every day. I just didn’t serve … not till I got here to be honest. Still I’m debating if I should go 120 or whatever. I haven’t yet. But it’s been good. You know, I often find the less I serve, the better I serve, which is totally weird.”
Williams also spoke about her decision to give up breast-feeding, a highly emotive one for the superstar who at the same time was trying to regain her fitness. “I had planned on stopping in January. Then January became March and March became April. In popular culture you hear that when you breast-feed you lose weight, you’re so thin. But that wasn’t happening to me.
“But once I got to six months I felt good about it. Then it was just emotionally letting go. That was a different thing. I sat Olympia in my arms, I talked to her, we prayed about it. I told her: ‘Look, I’m going to stop. Mommy has to do this.’ I cried a little bit [but] she was fine. Afterwards I lost ten pounds in a week. It was crazy. I just kept dropping. That’s when I learned that every body is different. Sorry to go on about that but I wanted to say it so women out there know. I think it’s important for us to share that message.”
The return to Wimbledon, where, along with seven singles titles, she’s collected another seven in the women’s and mixed doubles, hasn’t been altogether serene for Serena. She’s at loggerheads with US anti-doping authorities over what her camp have described as “invasive and targeted” testing while preparing for the tournament.
According to reports, a drugs officer arrived at her Florida home at 8.30am last month – outside her specified “window” for such checks – and refused to leave until Williams had been assessed. She said: “I’m totally okay with testing … and I despise having people in our sport who aren’t being honest. [But] it’s about equality. How is it I’m getting tested five times in June?”
Williams revealed that while Olympia had been with her at other Slams, her daughter’s first time “on site” had been Wimbledon last week, an occasion Williams marked by posting a photo on social media. “I took her to Centre Court and got a little emotional when I was telling her a story about a girl who had a big dream. I started getting choked up and didn’t expect that so it was really nice.”
That big dream turned into one of the biggest in tennis and it isn’t over yet.