When Serena Williams steps out on Centre Court to play Evgeniya Rodina in Wimbledon’s fourth round on Monday, it will be a rare meeting of Mom vs. Mom.
Such matchups could happen with greater frequency as parenthood becomes increasingly popular on the women’s tennis tour.
There were a half-dozen mothers in the singles main draw at the All England Club this year: 23-time Grand Slam champion Williams; another former No. 1 and two-time major champ, Victoria Azarenka; Rodina, Kateryna Bondarenko, Tatjana Maria and Vera Zvonareva.
Two more moms entered the doubles event, Mandy Minella and Maria Jose Martinez Sanchez. A ninth, Patty Schnyder, lost during qualifying for singles.
“At different points, we’ve had one or two mothers at a time. And then it’s grown to three or four mothers. And now we’ve seen that we have more, at present, than we’ve had in the past. There was Margaret Court. Evonne Goolagong. [Kim] Clijsters,” said Kathleen Stroia, WTA senior vice-president for sport sciences and medicine, naming mothers who won Grand Slam titles.
“The difference,” she said, “is that now it’s certainly something that is becoming common.”
Williams is competing in her second major tournament since having a daughter, Olympia, last September. Motherhood is an important part of who she is now.
The 36-year-old American has spoken openly about a health scare during childbirth. About gaining weight while breast-feeding. About the joys of bringing her child onsite to a tournament for the first time. About the difficulty of dividing her time between family and forehands. About the precedent the All England Club set by seeding her 25th, based on past success that includes seven Wimbledon titles, even though she was ranked outside the top 150 after missing more than a full season, first while pregnant, then after giving birth.
“It will be really nice for these women to take a year off, and have the most amazing thing in the world,” Williams said, “then come back to their job and not have to start from the bottom, scrape, scrape, scrape.”
She tweeted over the weekend about missing the chance to see Olympia take her first steps, because it happened during a training session.
What working parent can’t relate to that?
Azarenka knows it can be difficult to reconcile parenthood and a career.
She skipped some tournaments, including last year’s U.S. Open, while working out a custody dispute with the father of her son, Leo.
“I really want to spend every second with him,” Azarenka said. “I feel guilty if I take 15 minutes for myself to stretch. I’m trying to run back to him and spend every second with him. So that’s the balance I think is the tough one.”
As a member of the WTA player council, Azarenka has been involved with discussions about how the tour can help the growing group of moms. Among the topics being looked at: The “protected ranking” policy, which allows players to enter a certain number of tournaments based on where they were ranked before taking time off because of an injury, illness or pregnancy; whether a similar rule should be established with regards to seeding.
One concern raised by some of the mothers in interviews during Wimbledon was that not enough tournaments offer childcare facilities, the way the four Grand Slams do.
While Maria was in action at the grass-court tournament, her 4-year-old daughter, Charlotte, spent her days at what the All England Club calls the competitors’ crèche – essentially a nursery for children of players and coaches.
It opened in 1983, was refurbished in 2015 and has space for 15 or so kids.
“It’s like a regular kindergarten. They eat together. They do activities. We don’t have to look after her at all. Normally, we check on her at the other Grand Slams: ‘Are you hungry?’ or ‘Do you want to leave?’” Maria said. “But she wants to be there from 11 in the morning until 8 o’clock in the evening, every day. She loves it.”
Maria said her daughter often plays with the daughters of Rodina and Bondarenko. Zvonareva’s 2-year-old, Evelyn, spent time at the crèche, too, while Mom played at Wimbledon for the first time since 2014.
Rodina, a 29-year-old qualifier from Russia with US$1.7-million in career prize money, said that at other tournaments, she’ll sometimes leave her 5½-year-old daughter in the players’ lounge with an iPad to keep her occupied. That’s better than having the child in the stands during a match, which makes Rodina too nervous.
The WTA leaves it up to individual tournaments to decide whether to provide childcare. Some that do, according to the tour: Madrid, Stuttgart, Acapulco and St. Petersburg.
Asked whether the WTA might require or encourage tournaments to provide such services, Stroia said the tour will “evolve with the growing needs of the players,” but more has to be known about what is wanted by the athletes.
“I hope something will change,” Maria said. “You need some big names to help. If Serena comes and says, ‘I want to have a crèche,’ maybe it’ll work.”