Evgeniya Rodina's daughter is always on her mind, but she was conspicuously out of sight on Friday when Rodina upset Madison Keys in the third round at Wimbledon. Anna, a rambunctious five-year-old, cannot sit still in the players' box, and her movements can distract Rodina from her business on the court. Rodina's husband, Denis Shteyngart, is also her coach, so he has to watch her, not their child.
Family portrait: Serena Williams takes a selfie with husband Alexis Ohanian and Alexis Olympia.
Rodina's solution typically is to leave her daughter in the players' lounge with stern instructions to watch movies on her tablet and behave. But at this tournament, she has a better option. Since 1983, Wimbledon has featured a fully staffed nursery.
While Rodina, 29, a native of Russia, played her way into the fourth round of singles in a major for the first time in her 15-year professional career, her daughter drew her a picture dominated by a luminous sun, made her a colourful friendship bracelet and pointed at her mother on TV.
"She doesn't want to go out from that room, she likes it so much," said Rodina, adding, "It's so helpful."
Overnight, Rodina took on seven-time Wimbledon champion Serena Williams, who has a 10-month-old daughter, in a rare grand slam meeting of mums. Australia's Margaret Court and Evonne Goolagong Cawley won grand slam titles in the 1970s after becoming mothers. But for decades afterward, they represented pregnant pauses on the continuum of compartmentalisation widely practised by female athletes, one in which a moneymaking career occupied one end, and maternity the other.
After Goolagong Cawley's Wimbledon singles victory in 1980, nearly 30 years would pass before another mother became a grand slam champion. Kim Clijsters won the 2009 US Open, the first of three grand slam titles she collected after the birth of her first child.
This year's singles draw featured a half-dozen mothers. Compared with the 20 fathers in the field, six is a minuscule number, but it includes Williams and Victoria Azarenka, former No.1 players and grand slam champions, which might be enough to effect change for other women in the sport who want to start families.
Rodina's compatriot Vera Zvonareva, the mother of two-year-old Evelyn, is reminded of her sport's ability to evolve every time she passes the passel of rooms at the All England Club dedicated to players' off-court conditioning activities.
When a 17-year-old Zvonareva played at Wimbledon for the first time as a professional in 2002, the tournament's weight room was spare, she said, and dedicated stretching spaces were nonexistent. That changed dramatically during the next decade, she observed, as players' off-court workout regimens did.
Why wouldn't tennis accommodate a motherhood trend the way it did a fitness craze?
"If somebody entered this facility 15 years ago, they'd say, ‘Why do you need so many gyms?'" Zvonareva said. "But, yes, you need them because everyone is thinking about the bigger picture now."
For many female athletes, the bigger picture includes issues such as maternity leave and child care that would have seemed nonessential — even ludicrous — when Zvonareva, now 33, was just another teen flag-bearer in the WTA Tour's youth parade. Back then, she could not have imagined a day when she would be on the front lines of the mummy brigade.
"When I was younger, I was thinking by the age of 27 I would be so tired of tennis that I wouldn't want to do it," Zvonareva said. "That was the first thought. The second thought was if I have a family, then for sure my career is over."
Williams and Azarenka, two of Wimbledon's newer mums, have clout, and no reservations about exercising it. Azarenka, 28, a member of the WTA Player Council, has championed giving top players returning from their maternity leaves seeding consideration at tournaments.
Wimbledon broke with the status quo by granting the 183rd-ranked Williams the No.25 seeding here, and the US Open last month announced it would revise its approach to seeding players coming back from pregnancy.
In announcing the new policy, Katrina Adams, the president and chairwoman of the US Tennis Association said, "It's the right thing to do," and not just because Williams is one of the game's all-time greats. Any player returning from pregnancy should not be "penalised," Adams said.
Azarenka applauded the discussions going on in tennis.
"I think it's an important conversation that has been started," she said. "This conversation has led to numerous meetings, numerous occasions where we are discussing the rules and how can we be a leader in sports to have the best maternity policy."
In addition to supporting policy changes, Williams, 36, has been open about the personal challenges she has faced coming back from pregnancy. In the HBO series Being Serena and in her news conferences, she has debunked the myth of postpartum bliss by speaking openly about her feelings of inadequacy as a new mother and about the depression that ensued, her "mummy brain" and her struggles to return to peak physical shape.
"Sorry to go on about that," Williams said after explaining last week how breastfeeding was not the weight-loss trigger that she had always heard it to be. "Everyone takes things different," she added. "I think it's important to share that message."
Two days before her match against Rodina, Williams divulged on social media another low moment that no doubt resonated with many other mothers: While she was at a training session at the All England Club, her daughter, who was not with her, took her first steps. "I cried," Williams said.
Every tennis-playing mother's circumstances are different. Azarenka shares custody of her 18-month-old son, Leo, with her ex-boyfriend. Rodina, who will make at least $290,000 for advancing to the fourth round, which is more than triple her year-to-date earnings, has leaned on her national federation for financial assistance because sponsorships have, for the most part, proved elusive.
Williams has sponsors that stood by her during her maternity leave, which is not a given.
Endorsement deals for women often don't make allowances for pregnancies, which could prevent them from fulfilling the appearance requirements. Some contracts do not make allowances for gender at all; in at least one instance, a female player was handed a contract that had clearly been drawn up for a man, as evidenced by the "he" pronouns sprinkled throughout.
By pressing for change while contending for championships, Williams, Rodina and all the other tennis-playing mothers are empowering younger players.
"Sometimes you try to see yourself in that position," said Kristina Mladenovic, 25, of France, "and you think, ‘Would I be able to do that? How is my life going to turn out to be?' Because we are all women and life is not just about tennis.''
New York Times
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