“Nothing is impossible. For women, that’s definitely true.”
That is Victoria Azarenka’s message to the world as she marches on at Wimbledon just seven months after having her first child, Leo.
The Belarusian ex-world No1 is into the fourth round at the All England Club in just her second tournament back from maternity leave.
And just as she was inspired by the likes of Kim Clijsters, who won three Grand Slams after having her first child, Azarenka hopes to serve as a strong example for other tennis players who may wish to follow suit and make a comeback to the professional tour with a baby in tow.
Azarenka joined a small group of tennis-playing mothers that includes world No74 Tatjana Maria, No80 Evgeniya Rodina and No112 Kateryna Bondarenko, on tour.
Serena Williams, who won the Australian Open during the early stages of her pregnancy, plans on returning to the sport next year, even suggesting that her comeback can be as early as January in Australia.
Luxembourg’s world No82 Mandy Minella played both singles and doubles at Wimbledon this week while four and a half months pregnant and also wants to come back to tennis next year.
She found out she was pregnant in Miami last March, the day before her match with Svetlana Kuznetsova, and after consulting with her doctors, who told her it was absolutely safe, she decided to continue competing on tour, with Wimbledon being her final event before she delivers her baby.
“I’m 31 now. I really thought I’d finish my career and I’ll have a family after. Now it happened, and my ranking was really good at the time, I think I was top-70, so it’s just a good opportunity to come back afterwards. I have an opportunity to play Grand Slams again, to play big tournaments,” explained Minella following her first round defeat in doubles alongside Anastasija Sevastova.
“I’d like to get back in shape also for me, and I would like to finish on my terms as well. We’ll see where it will bring me.”
Motherhood on the women’s tennis tour is not unheard of, but it’s also not too common. Three women have won Grand Slams as mothers in the past: with Clijsters winning three, Margaret Court also bagging a trio and Evonne Goolagong Cawley claiming two.
The world marveled at the fact the Serena won the Australian Open while pregnant and people were even more surprised to learn how far along Minella is in her pregnancy at Wimbledon this week.
“The doctors were really relaxed with it, I was surprised because I thought that maybe they would be cautious. Some said even ‘maybe at six months the belly will get in your way’ and I was like maybe six months I won’t do that,” said Minella.
“I think it’s different for every woman, everybody feels different, so I would really encourage pregnant women to do sports and to continue their activity – I wouldn’t say to start something completely new, but I think that pregnancy does not stop your lifestyle. I would like to be an example for (someone who was able to) keep going and I think it’s good.”
Azarenka, a two-time Grand Slam champion, says traveling with a child has been the trickiest part of her tennis comeback so far, but finds the whole experience quite amazing.
She said she drew inspiration from Kerri Walsh Jennings, the most decorated beach volley player in Olympic history who won gold at the London 2012 Games while five weeks pregnant.
“I just think that it’s not as scary as people think sometimes. It definitely has – it’s a lot of conscious decision that you have to make to give yourself that break and be able to work hard and start really, you know, physically, a little bit from zero,” explained the 27-year-old Azarenka.
“But I do believe that if you’re very passionate about what you do and what you love to do, that you can do that. The guys have the luxury to never stop their career and for girls it’s tougher.
“But I think it’s possible. Even before me, we had players do this. Like Kim Clijsters and a lot of girls who are maybe less ranked so their story isn’t as big.
“It is possible. One of my biggest inspirations was Kerri Walsh that came back after three kids and still playing for gold medal.”
Minella hopes people start realising how tough women are, not just in the sports world, but in the professional landscape in general. She watched Serena win in Melbourne and was full of praise for the American superstar.
“She’s amazing, pregnant or not pregnant,” said Minella of Serena.
“I think women are tough, not only on tour, just worldwide. I think in many countries, women are doing really tough jobs, working hard. In the first months when they find out they’re pregnant, they can’t put their foot on the table so I think it’s good to see what everybody’s capable of.”
While tournaments on the men’s tour have daycare facilities and other advantages for players who travel with their wives and children, the women’s tour is not as family-friendly. Azarenka says she’s in discussions with the WTA in order to negotiate the basic needs that would help tennis-playing mothers on the circuit.
“From my own power, I’ll do anything to make that happen, because I think it’s really important. The guys do have that luxury of having the nurseries and stuff at every event and I think it’s time for women to have the same benefit,” said Azarenka. “Because I think for women is much more important and harder.”
Germany’s Tatjana Maria, who has a three and a half year old daughter, returned to the tour just four months after having her baby. Her husband is also her coach, and they’ve been traveling on the circuit as a family for over three years.
Maria hopes conditions for mothers can improve at WTA tournaments and says even the Slams don’t all provide the same facilities.
“The best crèche (daycare) is here at Wimbledon. It’s like a real crèche, you bring your child, they eat together, they do activities, it’s like a real one here. It’s nice,” said Maria.
“In Roland Garros they don’t give food. In Australian Open you have only a little room and no windows, you can be maximum eight kids. So you bring her when you play a match then you take her out because there’s not enough space. At the US Open, they don’t really care so much.”
Azarenka used her maternity leave to make changes to her serve and she admits she probably would have never had time to work on such things had she been on tour during that time. Maria also made a drastic change in her game when she was out, switching from a double-handed to a single-handed backhand.
She was more concerned about how she was going to play with her new backhand than how it would be traveling the tour with a baby daughter.
“I was never scared to come back with a child, this was not a scary part for me, it was more about how I was going to play, how I was going to hit my backhand, how I was going to feel on court,” explains Maria.
“But it wasn’t that I was scared to have a child on tour or to not manage to have her with us all the time.
“It’s the most beautiful thing in the world, it’s so nice if you play a match and after you go to her and you see her, it doesn’t matter how you play, she’s always happy. If you win, she says ‘aaah mama she won a tropy’, if you don’t she says ‘oh it doesn’t matter’. She’s learning also how to win and to lose so it’s nice.”
Maria is hoping that the fact high-profile players like Azarenka, and possibly Serena, competing on the circuit as mothers can encourage tournaments to better accommodate children.
She finds that it gets a bit trickier as the child gets older because they require more entertainment and are much more active.
Minella is not worried about her return to the sport, and believes tournaments will soon make the necessary improvements for mothers.
“I think it will come little by little because I think the women on the tour are getting older so it will be natural that a lot of women will have children and come back,” says Minella.
“I think the tournaments will adapt. They did already adapt a lot because also the men travel with their families now so I think when I come there will be already many improvements.”
Right now, the tour offers discount on medical insurance if you’re a full member to cover the birth.
Players can return to the sport with the same ranking within a year from the date of the child’s birth.
And while it is not a rule, tournaments are encouraged to offer car seats as part of official transportation and accommodate players in kid-friendly hotels.
But it’s fair to expect tournaments will start doing more for mothers in the future, with Azarenka and others raising issues with the WTA.
Lindsay Davenport, who played for a year after having her first child before retiring, is thrilled to see the support the likes of Azarenka and Serena are getting.
“I played for about a year, but it was different even then. I love the atmosphere that is around now, it’s a much more building up atmosphere for these players,” said the ex-world No1.
“Still it is amazing, I think Azarenka got the question yesterday ‘was she inspired to come back from Roger?’ in her press. Women still face these fascinating questions about still managing – it’s very different for a woman and a man. Obviously physically but also just in terms of having children then going off to work.
“I love that these women are being so celebrated. The message that Serena is giving is the most phenomenal message and I can’t wait to see how her story writes itself in the next couple of years.”
Lindsay Davenport believes Maria Sharapova and Victoria Azarenka can qualify for the WTA Finals in Singapore, where the best eight players of the season are set to do battle.
Davenport, who has been announced as a WTA Finals Legend Ambassador, will not be surprised if either one of the former world No1s goes on a strong run over the next few months and books herself a place at the prestigious season finale.
Sharapova returned from a 15-month doping ban at the end of April, reaching the semi-finals in Stuttgart, before falling in the second round in both Madrid and Rome.
The Russian five-time Grand Slam champion pulled out of Wimbledon qualifying due to a thigh muscle injury she picked up in Rome and plans on competing next at the WTA event in Stanford (starts July 31).
Sharapova is currently ranked No180 in the world and is No110 in the Porsche Race to Singapore.
Meanwhile Azarenka is back from her maternity leave and is contesting just the second tournament since her return. The Belarusian, who had her first child, Leo, last December is into the Wimbledon fourth round, where she is playing Simona Halep.
“I would never count out Sharapova or Azarenka from anything,” said Davenport, a former world No1 and three-time major champion.
“These players are competitors. They know how to win. Either one could go on a tear and win a bunch of tournaments in a row. I’m not sure of the deficit they’re under in terms of Race to Singapore and points but either one of them could be holding the US Open trophy (this September) and with that, a lot of confidence, a lot of swag going into the fall as well.
“I think they’re both going to make big runs in the next 12 to 18 months. It’ll be interesting to see how Maria now handles almost the second part of this comeback. It seemed like it was a lot for her in the beginning.
“It’s so good that that’s out of the way — the media, facing the players, being at a tournament. It was a lot of matches for her to start off, her body wasn’t ready. But I think she’s back now training to what her body needs to move forward.”
Davenport, who coaches world No18 Madison Keys, feels the women’s game is in a great place at the moment and is also eagerly anticipating the return of Serena Williams, who is pregnant and plans on coming back to the sport after her delivery.
Williams, who won the Australian Open during the early stages of her pregnancy, has been posting videos of herself playing tennis while seven months pregnant.
Asked if Serena’s absence changes the landscape of the women’s game, Davenport said: “Totally, it changes everything. And I think some players look at it like a big opportunity, I think other players might look at it as a little bit more pressure because they feel like their time is this year.
“It’s amazing to hear her talk about quotes that she plans to be back in January in Australia. I love to that kind of enthusiasm and motivation. Serena posting pictures of her practicing pregnant is obviously a message to everybody of ‘I’m coming back’.”
Serena captured the opening Slam of the year but the second one was clinched by 20-year-old Jelena Ostapenko, who had never won a title before on tour prior to Roland Garros.
Davenport predicts we’ll have four different Slam champions this season.
“I think we saw it at the French Open final with Simona Halep, this is her biggest dream and she was so close, she wanted it so badly that it almost got in the way of her being able to play her style of tennis, the thoughts overwhelmed her,” said the American legend.
“But there’s so many players right now, Halep, (Karolina) Pliskova, (Elina) Svitolina, that are so good. It will be interesting when the US Open is over, who the four Grand Slam champions are this year, I’d be surprised if a player won two.”
One player Davenport can see is constantly improving is Great Britain’s Johanna Konta, who came through a huge battle with Donna Vekic to reach the third round at Wimbledon on Wednesday.
Konta, ranked No6 in the world, has enjoyed a meteoric rise over the past 20 months or so thanks to a transformation in her mentality.
“I absolutely do (think she’s good enough to be No1),” said Davenport of Konta. “I think yesterday’s match was a great example of that. I always look at players and look at their weaknesses and look if those are improved upon. To see her yesterday to be a mental rock out there under some really difficult circumstances was in a way inspiring.
“We’ve seen her on the court maybe crumble more emotionally than anything else, and in the biggest court with the whole stadium packed for her, you’ve seen other players kind of crumble under the pressure of their home country, she stood up time and time again, 0-30 down, she never panicked, never blinked… she never had that look that I’ve seen before like looking over with almost scared eyes, that was gone.
“So you get a sense that that’s something she’s worked incredibly hard on, the discipline, being just focused on each point of her routine, she’s talked about, and it proved itself in one of her biggest moments here.
“It’s only the first time she’s been to the third round here. But all you need to do is walk around and watch her practice, watch the discipline that she brings, watch the intensity that she brings, it’s hard to see success won’t come for her.”
Thursday was a day where tennis suddenly didn’t matter.
The heartbreaking scenes on Court No. 17 at Wimbledon where Bethanie Mattek-Sands fell and suffered a horror knee injury overshadowed everything else that happened and left us all shocked and struggling to focus.
The sound of Mattek-Sands’ screams were echoing in our minds all night.
Her opponent Sorana Cirstea was shook-up and distraught when she spoke to us in a press conference. The Cirstea, who is a friend of Mattek-Sands’, recounted the whole experience to us, explaining how the American went into a state of shock as she lay on the ground in pain.
“She went into shock. She kept saying, ‘Sorana help me, Sorana help me, Sorana help me’.
“I said, ‘I’m here, I’m here, I’m here’.
“I think was tough because she was stuck on this, ‘Sorana, help me, Sorana, help me’.
“I said, ‘I am here, you are strong, you can do this’.
“I was trying, but of course I felt useless. In this kind of moment when she was screaming so loud, you watch the knee, it was a very uncomfortable moment.”
Asked about how she was feeling, the Romanian added: “It’s not about me. It should be at this point zero about me, it should just be about her. She’s the one suffering, in hospital right now.”
Mattek-Sands’ doubles partner Lucie Safarova was watching the match on a TV screen when the incident happened and rushed to the court to go see her friend. Just before Mattek-Sands fell, Safarova’s second round was called for a court change and she was heading to the locker room to get ready for her match.
After seeing her partner in serious pain like that, Safarova had to go play her own match in the state of mind she was in, and ended up losing to Shelby Rogers in three sets after being up by a set and a break.
Speaking to the press afterwards, Safarova’s voice was barely audible, and her eyes were red from crying. Almost whispering she said: “It’s a shocking few hours obviously. I mean, it’s just terrible what happened. Obviously I’m very sad for her. Doesn’t matter about whatever goals we had. It’s just about her being healthy.
“I know what she has been through with the injuries. Everything was going so well for her. We’ve been going, like, we had amazing run. I’m just, like, really hurt for her that she’s hurt again like that.”
Mattek-Sands and Safarova had won the last three consecutive doubles Grand Slams and they were going for four in a row. But at times like these, tennis takes a backseat and even talking about a match is insignificant.
It was brutal for Safarova to have to go step on a match court after witnessing the scenes on Court No. 17 and it seems her defeat was the last thing on her mind.
“Shelby is also her good friend. It was not nice situation for any of us. Obviously it’s been on my mind. I wasn’t playing the greatest. But, yeah, it is what it is,” said Safarova of her second round with Rogers.