Inside Serena Williams' Gratifying, Terrifying and Completely Life-Changing First Year as a Mom
Once upon a time, Serena Williamscouldn’t get enough of the Australian Open, or at least the city of Melbourne.
“I just have so many friends here; I have so many things that I can do,” she said. “It’s the only tournament that when I lose early, I hang out until it’s over. It’s like I never want to leave here.”
In 2013, while in town for the French Open, she kicked back in her cozy 2-bedroom pied-a-terre in Paris, within shouting distance of the Eiffel Tower. “I really fell in love with Paris six years ago,” she told USA Today. “A lot of Americans don’t like Europe, and I can understand. But I like a change.”
She certainly never minded going to London in preparation for Wimbledon—and that was even before she had an in with the royal family.
And Serena has always been the toast of New York, whether she’s here for the U.S. Open, the Met Gala, Fashion Week, shooting commercials, or otherwise just enjoying the city, and the home crowd just loves her.
But everything’s different now.
Australia now holds a particular place of honor in Williams’ heart, since it’s where she won her most recent Grand Slam title while eight weeks pregnant.
She had to pull out of the French Open’s fourth round with a chest injury, but she was too busy taking her daughter to Disneyland Paris afterward to dwell on the disappointment.
Williams lamented missing her baby girl’s first steps while training for Wimbledon.
And the U.S. Open, always logistically aggravating for her, is now Grand Slam non grata for Williams.
“I have to take an extra two hours in transit that I’m not going to see her,” she lamented this past week to reporters after her first-round win.
Suffice it to say, Serena Williams’ priorities have shifted since Sept. 1, 2017, when Alexis Olympia Ohanian was born.
Richard Shiro/Getty Images
“I’m in the locker room pumping before a match because my boobs are so big,” Williams explained to InStyle earlier this summer. “When I pump, they go down a size or two and I go out and play. It’s crazy.
“So I feed her, and then she snuggles with me, which is the best part of my day. Then we play, and after that I sneak away to practice, usually around 8 a.m. The only rule I have at practice is to be done at 1 p.m., because as much as I love tennis, I need to be with her. I want to put her above everything else I’m doing, so I take calls when she naps. I usually bathe her every night. We sing the ‘Rubber Ducky’ song, and then I ask her if she wants the express wax or the deluxe. Express is when I rub coconut oil on really fast and then I put her diaper on. Deluxe is when I do it a little slower and give her a little massage. It’s so cute. She’s in bed by 7:30 at the latest.”
This is the same woman who told Vanity Fair in May 2017, “I don’t know what to do with a baby. I have nothing…I’ve done absolutely nothing for the baby room”?
Funny how that works.
She’s still got the will to win and has whipped herself into top form in seemingly record time, making it back to the Wimbledon singles final in July and fully intending to dominate in New York this fortnight.
But for the first time in her 22 years as a professional tennis player, Serena Williams has other things on her mind, too, primarily of the bath time, snuggles and lullaby variety. And though she’s not planning on throwing a party for Olympia’s first birthday Saturday—because, as a Jehovah’s Witness, she doesn’t celebrate birthdays—every day is special. And every one of the last 365 days has been a celebration of Olympia’s life.
“You know, I feel a different joy. I’ve always been this joyful person, but now it’s just totally different,” the 36-year-old athlete, who will tie Margaret Court with 24 Grand Slam singles titles (and have the most in the Open Era) should she win the whole thing next weekend, told NBC News the week before the 2018 U.S. Open began. “I feel just light. I feel lighter and happier. And it’s just a great feeling.”
She continued, “Obviously I want to win while having Olympia. One day I’ll tell her that, you know, she was born and I still kept winning. But at the same time, I don’t have to win another match in my whole life. I’ve done so much in my career, and right now I want to just focus on having fun out there. And ironically enough, that’s when I started to play my best tennis.”
Which isn’t to say that the old killer instinct isn’t present. In fact, it’s only compounded now that she’s playing for Olympia—and for all the moms out there.
“I don’t think I ever actually lost that competitive side. In fact, I feel like it’s stronger, because I’ve been through so much,” she told reporters at Wimbledon. “It definitely surprises me a little, because I thought it would be different. I thought: ‘Hey, I have this amazing child. I have all these Grand Slams. This is all super-bonus.’ And it is. I definitely feel a lot less pressure out there. But I am a little bit shocked at how much I almost want that pressure. I almost want to feel the need to go out there and be the best that I can be. It’s weird, you know. I think it just speaks to who I am as an athlete and who Serena is.”
Williams added, when a Telegraph reporter asked what it’s like perennially being considered “the one to beat,” “But yeah, every single match I play, whether I’m coming back from a baby, or surgery, it doesn’t matter, because these young ladies bring a game that I’ve never seen before. That’s what makes me great. I always play everyone at their greatest, so I have to be greater.”
Getting back into shape last year didn’t just involve shedding a few pounds and building up her endurance. Williams developed a pulmonary embolism following an emergency C-section, one of a series of life-threatening complications that turned her planned HBO docu-series, Being Serena, into far more of a thriller than she intended it to be. Then she spent her first six weeks of motherhood in bed.
Understandably, she wasn’t quite ready to meet her original goal of returning to defend her title at the Australian Open this past January. Instead, her official comeback had to wait until March at the BNP Paribas Open at Indian Wells, where her husband, Alexis Ohanian, arranged for three billboards to welcome the “Greatest” “Momma” “Of All Time” to town along the I-10.
Speaking of which, Williams married Ohanian on Nov. 16, the globetrotting couple choosing New Orleans for their Disney-inspired destination wedding, which boasted a guest list that included Eva Longoria, Kim Kardashian, Colton Haynes, La La Anthony, Anna Wintour and Ciara and Russell Wilson.
“It was just magical though because Serena and Alexis are really a match made in heaven,” Longoria told Hello! afterward.
The newlyweds honeymooned in the Bahamas, Ohanian having some fun with drone photography that captured the beauty of their private getaway on Kamalame Cay (which runs $ 35,000 a week if you aren’t doing Booking.com a solid by staying there).
Ohanian, who’s been cheering Serena at the Open this week, took paternity leave to be there for his then-fiancée and daughter. “Dad life is the greatest,” he posted on Instagram when Olympia was a couple weeks old. “Entrepreneurship is all-consuming, it’s sleepless, we call our startups our ‘babies,’ we are ridiculously proud of them, and we pour all of ourselves into them —but she is already all that and more, she is my legacy.”
The 35-year-old entrepreneur, who as his own wealthy boss could afford to take as much time off as he needed, has since become an outspoken advocate for a law mandating paid family leave for mothers and fathers, noting in an op-ed for The Hill in July that “being able to be present with my family was a privilege that unfortunately many parents in this country are not afforded.” His companies, Reddit and Initialized Capital, offer 16 weeks of paid leave for new moms and dads.
“To have those moments and feel that closeness was just spectacular and there are things we have with each other that I’m grateful for,” Ohanian told CNN in June. “Being able to develop that connection to the little one, but then also to my partner, my wife was so valuable as well.”
Williams, meanwhile, despite not playing for most of 2017 was still No. 1 on Forbes‘ ranking of the top-earning female athletes, with $ 18.2 million, thanks to myriad other sources of income, including her burgeoning fashion empire and rich endorsement deals with, among others, Nike, Gatorade and Beats by Dre.
But during her year off, her world ranking plummeted to 453, so she was unseeded at the French Open, prompting an outpouring of support for Williams and backlash from critics who felt it was a punitive response to her taking time off to have a family. Wimbledon, in turn, seeded her 25th—prompting more controversy, because some of her competitors who had the points to be seeded (Williams ranking had risen to 183rd by then) didn’t see that as particularly fair, either.
Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)
“I think it’s more of a protection for women to have a life,” Williams told the New York Times in April. “You shouldn’t have to wait to have a baby until you retire. If you want to have a baby and take a few months off or a year off and then come back, you shouldn’t have to be penalized for that. Pregnancy is not an injury.”
The archaic quirks of the French Open continued just last month, meanwhile, when the French Tennis Federation announced that it was banning the Nike catsuit Williams played in this year—a medically necessary ensemble, Serena explained at the time, noting that the skin-tight outfit was an added precaution to help prevent blood clots.
Talking about it in France in May, she said, “It feels like this suit represents all the women that have been through a lot mentally, physically, with their body to come back and have confidence and to believe in themselves.” Moreover, she added, referencing Black Panther, “I call it, like, my Wakanda-inspired catsuit…I’m always living in a fantasy world. I always wanted to be a superhero and it’s kind of my way of being a superhero.”
Nike fired back at the FTF, tweeting, “You can take the superhero out of her costume, but you can never take away her superpowers.”
Williams insisted to reporters last weekend that it would be a non-issue. “The president of the French Federation, he’s been really amazing,” she said. “He’s been so easy to talk to. My whole team [including her coach, Patrick Mouratoglou] is basically French, so we have a wonderful relationship. I’m sure we would come to an understanding and everything will be OK. Yeah, so it wouldn’t be a big deal. He’s a really great guy.” For her medical concerns, “I wear tights that keep everything going with my blood, make sure that I’m staying pretty healthy out there. When it comes to fashion, you don’t want to be a repeat offender. It will be a while before this even has to come up again.”
So just add the controversy (which certainly had Twitter up in arms) to the list of issues Williams—as the face of women’s tennis—is always looked to to be a leading voice on.
“I’m lobbying and trying to break down all these double standards that we have to face on a daily basis,” Williams told NBC News. “And just let people know that we’re here to stay, obviously, and we deserve to be treated just like our male counterparts.”
With the help of her husband and a reliable staff, she hasn’t missed a day with her daughter since Olympia was born, toting the tot to North Carolina, all over California, Miami, France, England, Ohio and New York. The lucky little girl hung out with Novak Djokovic and Caroline Wozniackiin Paris, helped her mom get ready for Meghan Markle and Prince Harry‘s wedding in Windsor, has her own Instagram account, was on the cover of Vogue and has a 2017 Australian Open trophy on a shelf in her nursery at the family’s massive home in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla.
“I work around her. But I’m really fortunate,” Williams, who has joked (but not really) about not wanting to miss a day until Olympia turns 18, acknowledged. “A lot of women don’t have that opportunity. And, you know, in a weird way I’m kind of doing it for those women that can’t. Being around her every day is super important, and I want her to have just a great upbringing, the best way that I know how.”
“I thought I was the hardest-working person on the planet,” Ohanian told The New York Times in April. “I thought we [in tech] were the hardest-working industry. That’s what we tell ourselves. It’s all malarkey.”
Scott Barbour/Getty Images
Since becoming a mother, Serena’s been getting gobs of support from places expected—her husband, sister Venus Williams, mother Oracene Price and the rest of her sprawling family—and unexpected. Though surely not all the feedback can be positive (as so many other famous moms can attest), Williams has found a truly inspiring community of fellow moms and general well-wishers on social media.
“Kids humble us. The other day on a flight home Olympia had so much energy and insisted on running up and down the aisle. When I finally got her to calm down and sit still, she threw up all over me and in the aisle. #ThisMama wants to remind all mothers the importance of supporting one another through the highs, lows, laughs and tears,” Williams wrote this past week in soliciting others’ motherhood stories. (Of course on Twitter some guy immediately inquired, “Fatherhood stories not welcome?” but Serena graciously opened the forum to all parents.)
She added another installment on Wednesday, tweeting, “#Thismama eats with her left hand and feeds Olympia with my right. I usually finish my food in 4.7 seconds but somehow I end up just as dirty as my daughter. I’m still trying to master this.”
“Like, when I missed Olympia’s walking and I posted about it, and so many parents wrote in and said, ‘Don’t worry about it. I missed it too!'” Williams told NBC News. “And I didn’t realize that it was almost more normal to miss it than to make it. And so when I realized that, I was like, ‘Wow. This is great.’ So I really kind of rely on everyone’s help out there, and it’s been so, so, so amazing.”
No matter a person’s background, “We just want to help each other out. So I’m really using social media in a way to help me understand my struggles with my baby.”
Earlier this summer, Williams revealed that she was faced with an emotional choice when it became apparent that breastfeeding wasn’t helping her lose weight, something that was necessarily on her mind if she wanted to compete at the top level.
“I literally sat Olympia in my arms, and I talked to her, and we prayed about it,” she recalled to reporters at Wimbledon. “And I told her, ‘Look, I’m going to stop. And Mommy has to do this.’ And I cried a little bit, not as much as I thought I was. And she was fine.”
It was only then, she said, that the weight started to slip off. “It was crazy. And I just kept dropping,” Williams said. “That’s when I learned that everyone was different. Sorry to go on about that, but I wanted to say that, so women out there know that’s not true. Everyone takes things different. I think it’s important for us to share that message.”
While Williams tends to strike us as someone who’s sublimely comfortable in her own skin, it wasn’t always that way.
Thinking about the time in 2004 when she publicly expressed the desire to be a size 4, the 5-foot-9 champion mused in Harper’s Bazaar U.K. July 2018 issue, “Why would I want to do that, and be that? This is me, and this is my weapon and machine,” she said, gesturing toward her bicep. “But I love that I said that, because I can understand. I can show Olympia that I struggled, but now I’m happy with who I am and what I am and what I look like…Olympia was born and she had my arms, and instead of being sad and fearful about what people would say about her, I was just so happy.”
And while most of the conversation about Serena Williams for the past two decades has been about how extraordinary she is—and she’s certainly not going to be the one to dispel you of that notion—this year she’s experienced perhaps more than ever what it feels like to be just one of many women who still loves her job but can’t stand to be away from her kid, if only for a few hours.
“To be honest, there’s something really attractive about the idea of moving to San Francisco and just being a mom,” she mused to Vogue about a week before she got married, San Francisco being where Reddit is headquartered and where Ohanian relocated to after years based in Brooklyn.
That was before she had resumed playing.
But then she told InStyle earlier this summer that if she weren’t working, she’d be pregnant again already, and that if she had another baby, she couldn’t say for sure whether she’d still want to play.
But that was before she made the Wimbledon final.
“It definitely surprises me a little, because I thought it would be different. I thought: ‘Hey, I have this amazing child. I have all these Grand Slams. This is all super-bonus.’ And it is,” she said during that tournament. “I definitely feel a lot less pressure out there. But I am a little bit shocked at how much I almost want that pressure. I almost want to feel the need to go out there and be the best that I can be. It’s weird, you know. I think it just speaks to who I am as an athlete and who Serena is.”
Then, however, she experienced the worst defeat of her professional career—a 6-1, 6-0 loss in the first round in San Jose—and she confided that even though she hadn’t spent a night away from her daughter in Olympia’s whole life, she still felt guilty.
“Last week was not easy for me,” she admitted on Instagram after the loss. “Not only was I accepting some tough personal stuff, but I just was in a funk. Mostly, I felt like I was not a good mom. I read several articles that said postpartum emotions can last up to 3 years if not dealt with. I like communication best. Talking things through with my mom, my sisters, my friends let me know that my feelings are totally normal.
“It’s totally normal to feel like I’m not doing enough for my baby. We have all been there. I work a lot, I train, and I’m trying to be the best athlete I can be. However, that means although I have been with her every day of her life, I’m not around as much as I would like to be. Most of you moms deal with the same thing. Whether stay-at-home or working, finding that balance with kids is a true art. You are the true heroes.
“I’m here to say: if you are having a rough day or week—it’s ok—I am, too!!! There’s always tomm!”
And now, she is fired up, starring in Beats by Dre’s “Queen of Queens” ads with Nicki Minaj and chipping away at the U.S. Open competition—most recently sister Venus, whom she dispatched yesterday afternoon in the third round—in a $ 500 one-shoulder dress with a tutu-style skirt designed by Louis Vuitton’s Virgil Abloh for Nike.
It’s from the Queen Collection, naturally.
Meanwhile, though we’re by no means discounting Williams’ prediction that she’ll be battling Olympia for titles in 15 or 20 years, we at least know she plans to keep heading into battle for the foreseeable future.
“I’m not going be gone after the Open,” she told NBC News. “I’m going be in the next Grand Slam and the next and the next and the next and the next. It’s just going to keep going. And so yeah, I’m going for this one, but if not, there’s one in January and there’s four more. And there’ll be eight more. So, for me, it’s just the beginning…”