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Serena Williams Opens Up About Her Complicated Comeback, Motherhood And Making Time to Be Selfish

20 minute read

On a bright, cloudless early-August day in Silicon Valley, Serena Williams opens the back door of the Spanish-style home she shares with her husband, tech entrepreneur Alexis Ohanian, and walks down a flower-lined path to her office. Lemon trees bloom near the entrance to the backyard tennis court; in the clear distance, airplanes slip over the San Francisco Bay. Serena–who long ago ascended into the pantheon of stars known by a single name–swaps her pink Crocs for sneakers, and grabs a broom and dustpan to sweep pine needles off the hard court.

Just three nights earlier, Serena suffered the worst defeat of her 23-year professional career, a 6-1, 6-0 drubbing at the hands of Johanna Konta in the opening round of a U.S. Open tune-up tournament down the road in San Jose. That it was only her fifth tournament since giving birth to her daughter in September–or that in the fourth, Wimbledon, she made it to the finals in one of the most spectacular displays of will, skill and grit in the history of the game–didn’t make the loss hurt any less.

Serena Williams Time Magazine Cover
Photograph by Alessandra Sanguinetti—Magnum Photos for TIME

Serena has won 23 Grand Slam singles titles, one short of Margaret Court’s all-time record. The U.S. Open, which begins on Aug. 27 in New York City, is her last chance to even the score this year. And with age and the demands of parenthood looming over her singular career, Serena knows every chance matters. So, time to work.

She pounds shots from every angle, moving side to side, sending one ball screaming crosscourt at a cone target near the baseline. After a few hundred swings, her fitness guru, a white-haired sexagenarian named Mackie Shilstone, suggests she take a 30-second break. She insists on 20. He offers her water. She refuses.

Finally, Serena calls time. She sits on a wooden bench and fiddles on her iPhone. She’s tinkering with designs for her new clothing line when Alexis Olympia Ohanian Jr. waddles out the back door. Mom’s thwops and grunts have woken her from her nap. Serena leaps up to guide Olympia down the stairs to the court, counting off the steps in French: “Un, deux, un, deux.”

The moment can’t last. Serena isn’t done with her workout. Shilstone’s waiting to chase her all over the court and make her dodge tennis balls he tosses at her midsection. Olympia is led back inside, and Mom digs into more ground strokes. But for the rest of the training session, she steals glances at the house. “I wonder,” Serena says between backhands, “what my baby is doing?”

Millions of working parents wrestle with this question every day. In cubicles and call centers, at restaurants and on assembly lines, a large portion of the world’s workforce consistently thinks about their children. That concern can be deep, gnawing, even painful for anyone, but no working mother on the planet is quite like Serena Williams.

Becoming one almost killed her. The pregnancy was easy, she says, but the delivery led to a series of complications, including a life-threatening pulmonary embolism and hematoma that required multiple surgeries. She spent the next six weeks mostly in bed, too weak to get up on her own, let alone swing a tennis racket. Even as she gradually regained her strength, Serena couldn’t shake a sense of sadness, a feeling that she had done something wrong or wasn’t doing enough. She had gone through hell to have Olympia, and she loved her like it. “I didn’t think I’d be this attached,” Serena says. “It’s difficult to leave her.”

That’s a tricky proposition for a world-class athlete. Professional tennis all but requires selfishness–the time needed to train, to travel and to maintain competitive focus blot out virtually all else. Parenting is essentially the opposite. You are no longer the point. Yet at 36, an age when even the greatest champions tend to lose a step, Serena is determined to show that it doesn’t have to be so. Maybe not everyone can do it. Maybe just her. In her two tournaments since Wimbledon, she couldn’t make it past the second round. But maybe trying will be inspiration enough.

Serena William's Husband Ohanian Holding Olympia
Serena’s husband Ohanian, seen holding Olympia during a Fed Cup match in February, has brought their daughter to most of her mother’s matches since she returned to tennisRichard Shiro—Getty Images

Mothers the world over rallied around her remarkable run at Wimbledon, which Serena says has helped carry her through the low moments. “I dedicated that to all the moms out there who’ve been through a lot,” she says. “Some days, I cry. I’m really sad. I’ve had meltdowns. It’s been a really tough 11 months. If I can do it, you guys can do it too.”

Serena, as her vanquished opponents know, is different. And yet no modern athlete who has reached her level of stardom has ever returned from so difficult a childbirth, at her age, in a grueling individual sport like tennis, to claim a major global championship. And since Wimbledon, she’s faced a particularly rough stretch in her personal life. The man who killed her older sister Yetunde Price was released from prison. The postpartum symptoms haven’t fully gone away, and she says separating herself from Olympia has become even harder. Why keep at it?

“I’m not done yet, simple,” Serena tells me, as we drive into San Francisco one evening for a speaking engagement. She needs tennis as much as her sport needs her. It’s the one thing, as a mother, she can do solely for herself. “My story doesn’t end here.”

Serena was two months pregnant when she beat her sister Venus in the 2017 Australian Open final, a victory that broke Steffi Graf’s Open-era record of 22 major titles. (Unfair, Venus joked later: it was two against one.) Serena is convinced Olympia knows she’s a Grand Slam champion, describing her walk as a cocksure, “little bowlegged strut.”

Serena met Ohanian in Italy in 2015. They were engaged by the end of the following year and married in November 2017, in New Orleans, after Olympia was born. “I always assumed I’d marry a black guy,” Serena says. “I always felt that I could relate more with a black guy, that we’d have more struggles in common, you know?” But the pair clicked.

Their bond was tested fast. Olympia was born through emergency C-section. The next day, Serena began to feel out of breath. She suffered a pulmonary embolism in 2011, and thought this might be another one. Serena demanded a CT scan for her lungs. “If she doesn’t understand her body as well as she does, and the doctor doesn’t listen to her, I don’t necessarily think we’re sitting here,” says her agent, Jill Smoller, in the players’ lounge before Serena’s match in San Jose.

The scan showed blood clots. Coughing from the embolism caused her C-section wound to pop; in surgery, doctors found a large hematoma in her abdomen. Another procedure inserted a filter into her veins to prevent more clots. She kept the filter after it was removed, and puts it on her kitchen table as we talk. It’s shaped like a badminton birdie. “How was that in my veins?” Serena asks.

Ohanian remembers that harrowing stretch as a plunge from highest high to lowest low. “It’s a lot to change gears from being really happy and thrilled about bringing this life into the world to having to kiss your wife goodbye and praying she’ll be O.K.,” he says.

There were five surgeries, all told, and the first few months of recovery were particularly tough. The couple hunkered down at their home in South Florida, while Serena’s mother Oracene moved in to help. For weeks, Ohanian lifted Serena out of bed in the morning.

Olympia’s birth, and the frantic, fumbling bond of new parents, brought the family closer together. They now spend most of their time together in South Florida, and also have homes in Southern and Northern California, where Ohanian has installed a PlayStation near Olympia’s playpen. “Yeah, he’s a nerd,” says Serena. They also have a stocked bar in her playroom. “Sometimes,” she says, laughing, “you need it.” Serena even managed to implement “no cell phone” Sundays despite Ohanian’s full-time, device-dependent work life, but she’ll catch her husband in the act. “He doesn’t put it down until I look at him,” she says.

Her desire to play tennis again, however, never wavered. Williams began slowly, doing some light hitting in Florida. By early 2018, she felt strong enough to return to the pro tour. The results have been mixed. She lost in the first round in her second tournament, in March, and then reached the fourth round of the French Open in June before a pectoral injury forced her to withdraw.

Serena’s coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, says she made choices that put her family above her career, including staying home with Olympia and Ohanian rather than going early to Europe for clay-court prep. “I felt the decisions were taken through the angle of the family, where before, every decision was taken through the angle of tennis,” says Mouratoglou. “This is a big difference. Even if you are Serena, if you want to be successful in tennis, tennis has to be priority No. 1.”

Breastfeeding was another tension point. Serena nursed Olympia for the first eight months, even though she believes it made it harder for her to get back into playing shape. “You have the power to sustain the life that God gave her,” she says. “You have the power to make her happy, to calm her. At any other time in your life, you don’t have this magical superpower.”

Once Serena did arrive in France for clay-court training, Mouratoglou told her she should stop nursing, for the sake of her game. “It’s absolutely hard to take from a guy,” Serena says. “He’s not a woman, he doesn’t understand that connection, that the best time of the day for me was when I tried to feed her. I’ve spent my whole life making everyone happy, just servicing it seems like everyone. And this is something I wanted to do.”

But Serena also wanted to get back on top, and she says she came around to the idea that she needed to stop nursing Olympia in order to make it happen. “I looked at Olympia, and I was like, ‘Listen, Mommy needs to get her body back, so Mommy’s going to stop now.’ We had a really good conversation. We talked it out.”

Serena then committed to Mouratoglou’s training plan. “I’ve never seen her work like that before,” says her coach. In July, Serena made her thrilling run on the Wimbledon grass, before falling to Angelique Kerber in the final. The tennis world was floored.

“I’ve never met an athlete that can just produce the highest level of hunger, desire and mental determination other than her,” says Chris Evert, who won 18 Grand Slam singles titles in her career. “I’m in awe that she got to the finals.”

Still, Serena feels like she let the opportunity slip away. She stopped scouting her opponents so closely, since they tend to bring their game to another level against her. But she decided to prep for Kerber. “I really wish I hadn’t done that,” she says. “Because she played much, much harder than she’s ever played in her life. Hit nothing like she normally does. I was like, O.K., this is classic. Why did I do this? Just focus on Serena. That’s when I do my best.”

Back in Silicon Valley, Serena is behind the wheel of her white Lincoln Navigator, maneuvering the tank-size SUV into a metered parking spot outside her local Equinox. After her backyard hitting session, she agreed to a 30-minute strength and agility workout with Shilstone. But every minute at the gym counts as lost time with Olympia, and she sets the timer on her phone, promising to vanish after a half hour.

She means it. Olympia is almost always on her mother’s mind. On the ride to the gym, Serena spotted a deer and her fawn in the front yard of someone’s house. She stopped the car, rolled down the window, and gasped. “Oh my God, are you serious? That’s me, that’s Momma, that’s Serena.” She then looked toward the fawn. “That’s the baby, that’s Olympia.” She gazed at the deer for a few beats more, then wondered aloud if the baby deer had a “Qai Qai.” That’s the name of Olympia’s favorite doll.

Like so many new parents, Serena still marvels at how strongly she feels pulled to her daughter, finding joy in how Olympia washes her hands in the dog bowl, smooshes avocado into her hair and shot puts Tupperware across the kitchen. “Sometimes she just wants Mommy, she doesn’t want anyone else,” Serena says, nearly choking up. “I still have to learn a balance of being there for her, and being there for me. I’m working on it. I never understood women before, when they put themselves in second or third place. And it’s so easy to do. It’s so easy to do.”

Early on, eager to bond with Olympia, Serena was hesitant to let others even hold her. “She was a bit of a baby hog,” says her sister Isha Price. “She was putting way too much pressure on herself. But that’s what she does.”

Serena says now it was born of a deep insecurity that she was somehow failing as a mom. “It was crazy to hear her in a state of, ‘I just don’t know what to do with the different emotions,'” says the singer Kelly Rowland, part of a small group of moms Serena leans on for advice. “It was hard to wrap my head around it. I’m like, She can do everything.”

That’s the thing about being a parent, though, particularly a working mom. No matter your resources–and Serena, who has won more than $86 million in prize money, and Ohanian, a co-founder of Reddit and a prominent venture capitalist, have far more than most, including child-care help–it’s still easy to feel like you’re somehow failing. The stress of juggling family and career has brought out the same insecurities in Serena that other parents feel. “I don’t think I’m doing it right,” she says.

She fell prey to peer pressure on social media, posting a photo of her post-pregnancy body on Instagram. She says now that she used a waist trainer to push in her stomach. “I hated that I fell victim to that,” she says. “It puts a lot of pressure on women, young and old.”

Serena Williams at the Cincinnati Masters
Serena’s comeback has been mixed; she lost in the second round at the Cincinnati Masters, here on Aug. 14John Minchillo—AP/Shutterstock

Her vulnerability as a mom is a stark contrast to her poise on the court and, increasingly, off it. Since returning to the tour, for example, Serena has spoken out about gender discrimination in the workplace, questioning why women coming back from maternity leave should lose their seeds in a tournament draw. Williams was the top-ranked player in the world before she had Olympia. At the French Open, she did not receive a seed–a penalty that could dissuade other players from having children.

“It would be nice to recognize that women shouldn’t be treated differently because they take time to bring life into this world,” Serena says. She’s not the first player to come back after giving birth, but it wasn’t until she did that the U.S. Open pledged to incorporate maternity decisions into its seeding process.

Another sore spot: discrepancies in drug testing. The United States Anti-Doping Agency has tested Serena five times in 2018, according to its records. Meanwhile Sloane Stephens, who won the U.S. Open a year ago, has been tested once. Serena called such differences “discrimination” on Twitter and thinks it’s because some people won’t accept that she’s clean. “Look at me,” she says, glancing at her herself in a mirror at home. “I was born this way. They’re like, ‘Oh, she can’t be that great, she must be doing something.’ I don’t even lift weights.” Serena laughs. “It’s all God, you know,” she says. “But whatever.”

Serena is used to being a target. It began when she and Venus started rising up the ranks of a predominantly white sport, and has continued even as she became the face of the game. Last year, while Serena was pregnant, the former top men’s player Ilie Nastase made a racist comment about her child, and in the spring, the owner of a pro tournament in Madrid took a shot at her weight.

“They sure don’t throw a dart at other people, huh?” Serena says after I ask what accounts for the hate. She says, rightly, that the vitriol is far outweighed by her millions of fans, before considering the question again. “I’m a black woman,” she says. “Women in general are not treated the same as men who’ve had the same amount of success. And then, being a black woman, doing something historically that’s never been done, it’s easy to feel like, ‘We’ve always picked on people of this color. So I’m O.K. to continue to do it.'” Serena says she thinks black men have it even tougher. In February, NBC released a documentary she narrated on the 1968 Summer Olympics, and she marvels at Tommie Smith and John Carlos, who famously raised their fists during the national anthem to protest America’s civil rights record. “They sacrificed everything,” Serena says.

So did Colin Kaepernick, I mention. Serena owns a small stake in the Miami Dolphins, and she supports the right of NFL players to protest during the national anthem.”He hasn’t lost his joy,” she replies.

Serena has met the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback twice: once before he started his protests in 2016, and once after he became Donald Trump’s bogeyman. Since taking a knee during “The Star Spangled Banner,” Kaepernick has raised $1 million for various nonprofits. “Colin is happy with what he’s doing,” she says. “Some people are different. He’s just different.” She doubts an NFL team will hire him, especially after he filed a collusion grievance against the league. But she’s convinced Kaepernick would win a Super Bowl. Few believe in the power of determination like Serena. “He’d have so much to prove,” she says. “I would. I can’t imagine he would be any different. ‘Man, I’m about to show out. Y’all gonna see stuff you’ve never seen before.'”

After her workout at Equinox–30 minutes, on the dot–Serena drives the SUV back home and lingers in her attached garage. She’s beginning to talk, for the first time publicly, about a painful discovery from three nights earlier. She was in a players’ area before her match in San Jose, with about 10 minutes until showtime, when she pulled out her phone and checked Instagram. There, she learned that the man convicted of fatally shooting her sister Yetunde Price, in 2003, had been released on parole earlier this year. “I couldn’t shake it out of my mind,” Serena says. She laughs, which she sometimes does during uncomfortable moments. Price had three children, who were 11, 9, and 5 at the time of the their mother’s death. “It was hard because all I think about is her kids,” she says, “and what they meant to me. And how much I love them.”

Serena Holding Olympia
Serena, holding 11-month-old Olympia at their home outside of San FranciscoAlessandra Sanguinetti—Magnum Photos for TIME

She takes a deep breath. “No matter what, my sister is not coming back for good behavior,” she says. “It’s unfair that she’ll never have an opportunity to hug me. But also …” she pauses, the thought hanging in the air. “The Bible talks about forgiveness.” Does she forgive the killer? “I’m not there yet,” she says. “I would like to practice what I preach, and teach Olympia that as well. I want to forgive. I have to get there. I’ll be there.”

Serena will bring all of this onto the sport’s brightest stage at the U.S. Open in late August, the final Grand Slam tournament of the year. She’s playing for something bigger than herself now, which can bring outsize expectations. “I really hope she gets to 25,” says Billie Jean King, a pioneering 12-time Grand Slam singles champion. King says she’s seen signs that the fire is back in Serena’s belly. “It’s in everything she’s telling the world,” she says. “She gets this look, then she puts that leg up and she gets that fist going. I love it when she gets like that.” King even thinks Serena could be President one day. Serena laughs off the suggestion.

The bright lights of Flushing Meadows have been the site of some of Serena’s greatest triumphs–she’s won the Open six times–but her last two appearances ended bitterly. In 2015, Roberta Vinci shocked Serena in the semifinals, denying her bid to become the first player since 1988 to win all four major tournaments in the same year. The next year, she again was upset in the semis, falling to No. 10 seed Karolina Pliskova. “I’m trying to get a new vibe there,” Serena says, “but I’m not going in there thinking I’m going to lose. That’s not being Serena. That’s being someone else.”

Serena wants Olympia to see and remember her mom winning a Grand Slam title. When I mention that some kids might not begin recalling specific events until around age 5, she says she hopes Olympia’s memory will be more advanced. Or maybe she’ll will keep going, long past when her peers have given it up. “I don’t plan on that,” Serena says. Then again, she never figured she’d still be playing at 36. If someone would have asked her a decade ago if she’d still be swinging a racket in 2018? “I would have said, Absolutely no, impossible, no chance,” she says. “I’d bet my life on it.”

Priorities have changed. She wants Olympia to have a sibling. She’s learning on the fly, like all parents. She still gets down, and has moments when she doesn’t want to hang out with Olympia and then feels terrible for it. And then there’s all the time she can’t bear to pry herself away, despite knowing that her game will suffer for it. But mostly, Serena is learning to recognize the swings, tell herself they’re normal and fight the urge to beat herself up. “Nothing about me right now is perfect,” she says. “But I’m perfectly Serena.”

Sometimes a good cry helps. And sometimes lessons come the hard way. San Jose was one of her first nighttime matches since she gave birth. Before Olympia, the day of a night match was all about Serena. Practice early, nap, focus. But this time, she tended to her daughter. She took a little rest, but woke up when Olympia did. She fed her, made sure she’s O.K. “I need to be more selfish for just those couple of days,” she says. “I keep telling myself she’s not going to remember that I spent an extra two hours with her. I should be taking that two hours and focusing on my career.”

Earlier, Serena says as much to Olympia in the kitchen. She wipes yogurt off the baby’s face and swings her around the room, much to Olympia’s delight. “Momma’s going to make you very sad right now,” Serena tells her. “Momma has to go to the gym. But it hurts me more than it hurts you.”

Serena then steps into the garage and heads out. Back to work. Again.

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Write to Sean Gregory at sean.gregory@time.com