Serena Williams is determined to defend her Australian Open title in January. Photo: Aaron Favila/AP

Serena Williams revealed her latest and greatest trophy to the world in September 2017 – her daughter Alexis Olympia. But the holder of 23 grand slams swiftly declared her clear intention to return to the tennis court as a mother. 

She would, she said, look forward to seeing her daughter watching from the players’ box soon.

The organisers of the Australian Open have now indicated that Williams hopes to be back in Melbourne in January 2018 to defend the title she won when she was eight weeks pregnant.

No one who has witnessed Williams’ panoply of accomplishments will doubt her ability to return to tennis. But you don’t collect all those trophies by being satisfied with merely participating. The 36-year-old has said herself: “Either I win, or I don’t play.”

So what are the historical, psychological and physical hurdles she will have to conquer as she eyes more silverware?

She would not be the first athlete – nor even the first tennis player — to return to elite competition as a mother. Evonne Goolagong dominated the women’s game in 1980, and became the first mother to be crowned Wimbledon champion since Dorothea Lambert Chambers in 1914.

Kim Clijsters won two US Opens and an Australian Open after the birth of her first daughter, making her the only WTA player to win more majors after motherhood than before. More recently, former world number one Viktoria Azarenka returned to Wimbledon six months after giving birth to son Leo, joining a handful of mothers currently on the women’s tour.

Away from tennis, Paula Radcliffe reaffirmed her superhuman status by re-lacing her running shoes just 12 days after the birth of daughter, Isla, in 2007. She went on to win the New York City Marathon later that year.

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Williams herself has become a doting new mum, recently tweeting how difficult it was to post about anything other than her daughter. No one is suggesting that fathers are any less close to their children than mothers, but the fact is that men are privileged with an uninterrupted career path throughout childbirth that women cannot replicate.

This biological imperative carries psychological and physiological question marks for female athletes. Mentally, there is the necessary break from the sport which was previously all consuming. Then there is the introduction of a life entirely dependent on you for survival. It must be transformative to say the least.

Not much research has been done around the cognitive factors of returning to competition postpartum. But one study found that motivation and self belief were the most frequent mediators for success in female athletes.

The only unanswered question for Williams is how pregnancy, motherhood and returning to top level competition in her mid-thirties will take its toll.

The Conversation

The Conversation