Serena Williams will win an eighth Wimbledon championship. She will win a 24th Grand Slam title.
It just didn’t happen today.
Williams, 36, fell to Angelique Kerber, who took home Germany’s first Wimbledon singles title since Steffi Graf beat Arantxa Sanchez Vicario in 1996. Kerber, 30, defeated Williams 6-3, 6-3, earning applause from everyone on Centre Court – including her American opponent.
“She’s an incredible person, and she’s a really good friend,” Williams said of Kerber, who she embraced after the match ended. “I know she’s really going to enjoy it and enjoy the moment.”
In her post-match interview, the commentator told Williams: “There are moms everywhere who are saying, ‘How has she done this? You are superhuman, supermom.’ ”
Williams’s response was genuine, and so needed. So often today, when someone excels because of hard work, we put them on a pedestal, labeling them as “superhuman” when such a thing does not exist.
“No, I’m just me, and that’s all I can be,” said Williams, who is an advocate for mothers and gender equality, particularly for female athletes. “To all the moms out there, I was playing for you today, and I tried. But Angelique played really well. … I look forward to continuing to be back out here and do what I do best.”
Williams’s message is the kind girls and women everywhere should hear – and one she’ll likely instill in her 10-month-old daughter, Alexis Olympia Ohanian, Jr.: Put in the effort. Try. And as you go through the motions, be yourself. Sometimes, it will pay off. Other times, you’ll come up short.
Of course, we can still marvel at Williams’s accomplishments, keeping in mind the mountains she had to climb to play in the Wimbledon finals on Saturday.
While Williams was on her 13-month maternity leave, the tour missed her. I did, too. But I also loved seeing her live her life, which included wearing sneakers beneath her wedding dress and dancing to New Edition. Despite her absence, the women’s tour continued to flourish, and I was curious to see how it would operate without its reigning queen.
I hoped that Venus Williams, Serena’s sister and sometimes doubles partner, would continue winning after making it to the 2017 Australian Open final. She lost to Serena, who, very few knew, was pregnant at the time. (Like journalist Bim Adewunmi, I was secretly rooting for Venus.)
Venus, a strong competitor who holds seven Grand Slam titles and battles an autoimmune disease, made it to the Wimbledon championships last year, but she lost to Spain’s Garbine Muguruza. At the U.S. Open, fellow American Sloane Stephens stopped her roll. Venus’s loss resulted in Stephens’s first Grand Slam win. (The photo of her holding her $3.7 million check is worthy of a T-shirt.)
Before Olympia was born in September, I read that Serena had ambitions of returning to the court by the 2018 Australian Open. She didn’t. As we later found out in a Vogue profile, Williams almost died after giving birth to her daughter. She’s spoken about the complications that followed her emergency C-section since, but they’re perhaps best documented in the five-part HBO series, “Being Serena,” which shows her pregnancy, wedding and comeback. It’s an emotional docuseries; one that made me feel extremely protective of a woman I’ve never even met but value for the fortitude she has demonstrated throughout her career.
We witness the moment Williams sees Olympia for the first time, through a plastic shield in the operating room. Olympia stretches her arms out, and Serena mirrors her new daughter’s movements with her hands, waving to her new best friend. “Is she okay?” Serena repeats. When nurses put Olympia onto her mom’s chest, Serena says, “Forever. Glad we made it.”
The cameras take us into Serena’s hospital room, where Richard Williams, her father and former tennis coach, comes to visit his new grandbaby. Everything seems generally fine – until it isn’t. Serena has trouble breathing as her mom, Oracene Price, tries to comfort her. Serena’s stitches break. They test for blood clots. She fights for herself, demanding a CT scan with dye to detect a pulmonary embolism in her lungs.
Then, about three surgeries and five days later, Serena is getting into a car with Olympia and her future husband, tech entrepreneur Alexis Ohanian, to go home.
In “Being Serena,” she engages in the same battles mothers everywhere do. She struggles to achieve “balance” – whatever that is – has to choose between breastfeeding and work, and faces scrutiny about her body, which is gaining weight overnight despite constant exercise. And she bares it all on camera, allowing us to see what we all know exists but rarely get to watch on screen: Women who know their bodies best and have to fight to be heard by medical professionals; strong women who cry and are sometimes playful; dedicated women who get defensive when they’re questioned about their work ethic; black women who are conscious of how they’re perceived by a system with racism baked in, even when they have won more Grand Slams than anyone else in the Open era.
In the fourth episode of “Being Serena,” she loses at the Miami Open in the first round. “I was so mad at myself,” Williams recounts. “Honestly, I couldn’t have played worse. I was appalled.”
Later, Williams’s longtime coach Patrick Mouratoglou rants to the camera while driving, explaining that he didn’t see the “motivated Serena he used to know.” He’s on his way to the tennis star’s house in Palm Beach, Fla., to have a frank discussion about her comeback.
“One year ago, she had one thing in her life,” he says. “She was waking up for tennis. She was going to bed for tennis. All her day was about tennis. … Suddenly her family becomes the most important thing in her life, and it’s something I completely understand.”
I don’t know Mouratoglou, but I’m confident that he does not truly understand. Sure, Mouratoglou has four children, one who is barely a toddler. He has been supportive of Williams’s new life as a mother. But he is far from completely understanding, as he shows in the next scene, when the two are recalling their No. 1 rule: They only go to tournaments if she is ready to win.
Mouratoglou also asks her to spend one month training in France ahead of tournaments in Rome, Madrid and Paris, to which Williams says, “I am not going anywhere without Olympia.”
Mouratoglou’s response is cutting: “Find a solution where family adapts to tennis rather than tennis adapts to family.”
It’s in this moment that the viewer, regardless of their level of tennis fandom, has no choice but to feel for Williams, a woman who is doing what many deem to be impossible. What people call superhuman. What’s worse? We know the pressure Mouratoglou is putting on her is nothing compared to the pressure she’s putting on herself. The expectations are high, and Williams isn’t interested in meeting them. She is only interested in exceeding them.
After her chat with Mouratoglou, Williams compromises. She spends more time at home than Mouratoglou had envisioned but goes to his training facility in France with Olympia. There, she remains laser focused on tennis. The series ends right before her first match at the French Open, marking her postpartum return to Grand Slam season.
Now, it’s all unfolding in real time on tennis courts, at news conferences – and on her Instagram and Snapchat, which are worth following if you like cute babies, dogs and jokes about her husband’s lack of focus in the gym. And it’s all a delight to watch. Win or lose, Serena Williams is an icon who demonstrates humanity and womanhood, on and off the court.