Look no further than her return to greatness at the 2020 Auckland Open for proof of Serena Williams’ excellence.
“It feels good,” said 23-time Grand Slam winner and four-time Olympic gold medalist Serena Williams. “It’s been a long time. I’ve been waiting two years for this moment. I think you could see the relief on my face.”
One might be forgiven for assuming that Williams was speaking to the press about her stepping away from the tennis world. But that couldn’t be further from the truth; she’s actually confessed to feeling a “great deal of pain” about her decision in a viral Vogue profile piece. Rather, the event Williams is referencing took place in 2020 right after that year’s edition of the WTA Auckland Open––or in other words, the first tournament she won since her return from maternity leave.
Williams’ status heading into Auckland was complicated, to say the least. She’d played rather well in 2019––even by her high standards––and reached the final of the U.S. Open before falling to Bianca Andreescu in straight sets. But she hadn’t won a title since 2017, and hadn’t won the Auckland Open trophy since … well, ever.
This isn’t even mentioning the elephant in the room: the trauma she suffered while giving birth to her daughter, Alexis Olympia Ohanian Jr. After Williams began to experience numbness and pain post-birth, she had to repeatedly plead with her nurses to take her claims of agony seriously and run tests. By then, the blood clots had already spread to her lungs. She underwent four separate surgeries in total to stop the complications; through this entire ordeal, only one of her doctors bothered to check in with her multiple times.
Williams’ harrowing experience sadly isn’t anything new for pregnant Black Americans––per the CDC, the maternal mortality rate for Black women is nearly three times higher than that of their white counterparts. Part of this disparity may be due to the medical gaslighting of expecting people of color in the United States, who are often rendered extremely vulnerable and disoriented during labor. This type of treatment can affect anyone who is Black and pregnant, whether it’s through the minimization of concerning symptoms or the racial profiling of birthgivers and supporters. With that threat in mind, it becomes clear that the tennis world came horribly close to an avoidable tragedy of unimaginable consequence.
And yet, Serena was in Auckland less than three years later ready to compete and dominate. “Oh man, I want to win that title so bad,” she said ahead of the tournament. “I have such amazing memories that are really special to me from Auckland. I would really like to add some on-court memories to that list.” And add memories she did: she battled her way through the top half of the bracket, splattered Amanda Anisimova in the semis, and won her seventy-third title against Jessica Pegula in the Championship match (yes, you read that right: seven-three). In doing so, she became the rare tennis player to win titles across four decades. For yet another shining moment, Serena Williams was on top again––even after an unimaginable roadblock.
The events at the Auckland Open should show fans and casuals alike where the true brilliance of Serena Williams lies: in her ability to power through the impossible. That’s how she reacted to not-so-implicit hatred from a colleague with a doubling-down on her previous advocacy. That’s how she grew out of her legendary sister’s large shadow to win four consecutive Grand Slams against her … and in the process, completing what is now referred to as a “Serena Slam.”
And that’s why she’s continuing to dive head-first into Serena Ventures in the coming months––despite the pain she feels in evolving away from the sport. Black female athletes like her are all too often expected to bear the weight of the world on their shoulders––all while still being “strong” and “brave.” But make no mistake: Williams may be a strong Black woman, but that doesn’t mean that she’s a played-out stereotype, or a tragic statistic. She is a champion who consistently rose above and beat lopsided odds––on and off the court.
“The way I see it, I should have had 30-plus grand slams. I had my chances after coming back from giving birth. I went from a C-section to a second pulmonary embolism to a grand slam final. […] But I didn’t get there,” she said to Vogue. “I didn’t show up the way I should have or could have. But I showed up 23 times, and that’s fine. Actually it’s extraordinary.” Serena Williams is the epitome of greatness in a world that consistently tried to keep her quiet. Extraordinary doesn’t even begin to cover it.