Expecting her first child next month, Serena Williams told Vogue magazine she hasn’t lost anything from her game: “If anything, this pregnancy has given me a new power.”
So much so, she’s backing herself to launch a title defence in January at the 2018 Australian Open.
“It’s the most outrageous plan,” said Williams, 35. “I just want to put that out there. That’s, like, three months after I give birth. I’m not walking anything back, but I’m just saying it’s pretty intense.”
Serena, just you wait. It’s blowtorch-intense.
While there have long been stories about a spike in post-pregnancy performance for elite athletes – pregnancy leads to increased blood flow, oxygen-carrying capacity and growth-hormone levels – the reality of being a new mother is less clinical, and way more emotional.
While Serena knows better than anyone the mental and physical demands that come with being the world’s best tennis player, motherhood is a whole new ball game.
No matter how many trainers, nutritionists, chefs and masseuses you have in your camp, it’s one enormous challenge for which you can’t prepare before it happens.
You can have all the onesies in the world washed in Lux soap flakes, the nursery set up and the car seat buckled in the safest car you can afford. It’s all just window dressing.
When your own baby slips into the world and into your heart, everything tilts on a giant, wonderful axis of perspective.
Things you thought were important − holidays, real estate, even your partner − are instantly relegated.
Bunkered down in a Melbourne hospital room with my firstborn in 1993, I was so helpless in the face of shocking love that ticking the boxes on the lunch menu was akin to reading Ulysses.
Navigating the TV remote control was a visit to a far-flung land, the task of talking to breezy visitors daunting and even annoying. And so it went on, the adventure of motherhood, from the challenge of satisfying a tiny, mewling mouth to the weird fascination with curled fingers.
Days were a blurry rush of reverse fairytale magic: empty fridge, bursting emotions. Even now, having gone through it three times, it seems nuts that a tiny, screaming scrap of a person who spends their days in the mode of an outraged orange wearing a fright wig could derail me so totally – in the best way.
Like Serena, I went back to paid work when all my babies were three or four months old. I probably sucked; I was certainly exhausted and distracted.
Unlike Serena, I didn’t have to be in peak physical condition, back on a spotlit tennis court, maybe worrying about how my pelvic floor would stand up to three sets or whether my match time would clash with my baby’s breastfeeding needs.
Playing in a grand slam takes huge concentration and selfishness. It takes sleep, it takes single-mindedness and desire. In Melbourne in January, new mother Serena might find those things hard to access.
And because she’ll have to have decreased the intensity of her workouts before giving birth, she might take a couple of months to get back to her usual killer aerobic shape.
The club of players who have clinched grand slam titles after giving birth is exclusive. Margaret Court and Evonne Cawley did it − with the former winning the Australian, US and French tournaments the year after having her first child in 1972 − and so did Kim Clijsters.
It would be unreal to see Serena join their ranks. But it would be just as awe-inducing for her to have other priorities.