Some weeks on from Serena Williams’ thrilling run to the Wimbledon final, another former world #1 and mother, Victoria Azarenka, was battling it out on the Stadium Court in San Jose. Her opponent Kateryna Bondarenko is also a mother, and the two played out a thrilling three-set encounter lasting nearly three hours. Eventually Azarenka came through, reaching the second round a 6-3 6-7 7-5 winner.
Unsurprisingly, there was little of the media and fan attention that hailed Williams’ excellent run at Wimbledon. The San Jose Classic is not one of the larger tournaments on the WTA Tour, although it has attracted a star-studded field, including Williams, her sister Venus, Garbine Muguruza and Madison Keys. But it’s primarily a warm up event for the two Premier events in Canada and Cincinnati and then the US Open, which begins late in August.
But Azarenka’s efforts, both in California and in Wimbledon, deserve attention precisely because of their unspectacular nature. Indeed, so too do the efforts of Bondarenko, who returned from maternity leave to re-establish herself in the top 100. They, and the other mother’s on Tour, deserve enormous credit for their comparatively unheralded, but tireless work in continuing to pursue their dream of glory on the tennis court.
A unique challenge
Ernests Gulbis, one of the ATP Tour’s resident mavericks, attracted deserved criticism for his comments in 2014 about his desire to prevent his sisters becoming professional tennis players. He opined that 'a woman needs to enjoy life a little bit more. Needs to think about family, needs to think about kids. What kids can you think about until the age of 27 if you're playing professional tennis? That's tough for a woman, I think'.
His comments were classless and Maria Sharapova offered the timely rejoinder that same day that her career as a professional had given her and her colleagues untold opportunities. But his final words did perhaps strike at a truth that the tennis world has done too little to address. Which is that for the women in the sport, starting a family and continuing to play as a Touring professional throws up countless challenges that their male colleagues can neither experience nor truly understand.
It is not to impugn on the parenting skills of the ATP’s most prominent fathers, Federer, Djokovic and Murray, to suggest that their beginning a family had a limited impact on their careers. They have been particularly fortunate in being able to travel with large entourages and thus incorporate the addition of children into their lives as seamlessly as is possible. Even those lower down the tennis hierarchy have surely been able to continue their careers after only a fairly limited interruption.
The same cannot be said of the WTA’s parents. The potentially life-threatening complications that arose during Serena Williams’ pregnancy have been well-documented, with Williams using the experience to draw attention to the United States’ high maternal mortality rates. But even without complications, pregnancy and child birth place stresses on the body that rule athletes out of training, let alone competition for well-over a year.
A different kind of victory
Williams said in the aftermath of an emotional loss to Kerber in the Wimbledon final that she was playing for mothers everywhere. One can only hope that she can continue to inspire for years to come. But the careers of Azarenka, Bondarenko and others, should be equally inspiring even if they fail to achieve the same standout successes as Williams after returning to the Tour as mothers.
After what they have been through, particularly Azarenka who endured a lengthy custody battle which forced her to stay in California until its conclusion, playing tennis at the highest level is a huge achievement in of itself. Every time they step onto a court they provide a definitive rejection of the beliefs of those such as Gulbis and the countless others that would belittle women and their sporting achievements.
So whilst the nature of sports reporting ensures that the spotlight will remain, for the most part focused on the great champions, it’s also only fitting that Azarenka and every mother on the WTA Tour receive the acclaim they deserve for their own particular triumph.
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