Misguided Media Doubts Serena

Jackie McDermott, Sports Editor

Serena Williams has conquered the challenges of age, fatigue and emotional strife throughout her career. She won 10 of her 23 Grand Slam titles after turning 30, a feat that no one thought possible. She kept playing after her half-sister and personal assistant, Yetunde Price, was murdered in 2003. She overcame a life-threatening health scare in 2011 after developing a blood clot in one of her lungs.

Last week, Serena announced that she will take on a new challenge: motherhood. With that will come yet another unique test: returning to the tour after giving birth to add even more accolades to her legacy. I have no doubt that Serena will meet that challenge and perhaps come back as good as ever despite the immense physical and emotional challenges. I’m baffled that the media has doubted her will to return and unsure why her pregnancy has been met with such negativity. It’s time to change the tune about Serena’s pregnancy announcement and take the greatest player of all time at her word — that, come 2018, she will be back.

Word spread of Serena’s pregnancy seemingly by accident last week. She posted a Snapchat to her story that showed off her baby bump with the caption “20 weeks.” It was later deleted, but not before it reached enough fans and journalists to spark widespread speculation. Serena’s team confirmed the reports last Wednesday in a statement. Her publicist repeatedly emphasized that Serena planned to return to the tour. She will take the rest of 2017 off, as the baby is due in the fall, and make her return sometime in 2018. She wanted to make that absolutely clear.

Still, many articles followed up Serena’s publicist’s statement by questioning its validity.

Speaking of Serena’s legacy before switching to a doubtful tone, the New York Times article confirming Serena’s pregnancy wrote, “More major titles will have to wait, if they happen at all.”

Why won’t the Times and other media outlets take Serena’s statement at face value?

Most of the doubts about Serena’s return center around her age. She will turn 36 during her time off. No other top player has returned from maternity leave at that age.

Kim Clijsters gave birth in 2008 and famously returned to win the U.S. Open just a year later. From 2009 to 2011, she accumulated three more titles in New York and Melbourne. Margaret Court enjoyed similar success. Court, the only player with 24 Grand Slam titles (one more than Serena, although some of Court’s were won in the amateur era), won three of her titles after she had her son in 1972. But Clijsters was 24 when she became a mother, and Court was 29.

Despite her relative youth, Clijsters said the physical challenges to her comeback were even bigger than she imagined. She described feeling sluggish, much weaker in her core and back, and slower than ever.

“Your body just feels so different,” Clijsters said of the aftermath of childbirth in 2009. “Just moving was absolutely terrible. I felt like an elephant sometimes just trying to move.”

Serena’s age may make those physical challenges even more difficult.

“What is fascinating and different about Williams’ case is that none of those other women [like Clijsters and Court], amazing as they were, battled the confluence of challenges that Williams will have to overcome,” ESPN.com’s Johnette Howard wrote, citing both Serena’s age and the long-term physical stress she’s endured, as she turned pro at age 14.

And that doesn’t even cover the emotional challenges Serena has already faced. Last week, Ilie Năstase, captain of the Romanian Fed Cup team, was overheard at a press conference making racist comments about Serena’s unborn baby. Năstase wondered aloud about the racial makeup of Serena’s baby, as her fiancé, Reddit cofounder Alexis Ohanian, is white.

“Let’s see what color it has,” Năstase allegedly said. “Chocolate with milk?”

The International Tennis Federation is investigating Năstase’s comments, and he will likely be fined or suspended. Still, Serena expressed deep sadness at the comments.

“It disappoints me to know we live in a society where people like Ilie Năstase can make such racist comments towards myself and unborn child,” Serena said in a post on her Instagram. “Yes, we have broken down so many barriers — however there are a plethora more to go.”

During my tenure as Sports editor this year, I have written about the plethora of barriers that sportswomen work to overcome, as well as some monumental advancements in women’s sports. I am confident that no modern sports star has blown past as many age, gender and racial barriers as Serena.

The media should pay attention to those achievements, as they show that she is a truly unique athlete capable of moving forward despite any hindrance. I hope future coverage will stop challenging her assertion that she will be back. Serena can do anything she sets her mind to.

Still, perhaps the negative backlash she has received will fuel the fire. Her coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, expressed that sentiment.

“I do think she’ll come back,” he said in an interview with The New York Times. “And she will come back all the more if everyone thinks she’s done. So I encourage you to write that she’s finished. Please.”