When you think of professional athletes, you instantly imagine them as strong, ruthless, untouchable… it’s an image they strive to project as well.
They are coached from a young age not to show emotion, to conceal their weaknesses and portray an impenetrable façade. When they crack, it’s breaking news. When they break a racquet or scream or cry, it’s immediately GIFed and replayed thousands of times on the internet. The constant scrutiny discourages them from exhibiting how they really feel most of the time. To them, confessing to being vulnerable comes at a price they’re not necessarily willing to pay.
Last week, Serena Williams shared a revealing post on social media, where she admitted her struggles at balancing her life as a professional tennis player and a mother to 11-month-old Olympia. The message she posted came on the heels of her heaviest ever defeat on tour – a 6-1, 6-0 loss to Johanna Konta in her opening match in San Jose. She then pulled out of Montreal citing “personal reasons”.
“Last week was not easy for me. Not only was I accepting some tough personal stuff, but I just was in a funk. Mostly, I felt like I was not a good mom,” said the 36-year-old Williams.
She then went on to discuss “postpartum emotions” and assured that it’s “totally normal” to feel she wasn’t doing enough for her baby. She wanted other mothers to know they are not alone.
“I think it’s really important to just, first of all, whether it’s publicly or not, just to talk about it to someone. This is a whole new position that I’m in. I have been through a lot of stuff in my life, but I have never been through this, having a baby and feeling with the emotions and the ups and downs and the fears and the excitement, quite frankly,” explained Williams on Monday following her 6-1, 6-2 opening round win over Daria Gavrilova.
“I just love talking about it, because I feel like a lot of people have those same emotions and they don’t have the same platform as I have. And mostly I want women out there to know that if I’m going through it and, I know you’re going through it, then we’re in this together. Everyone, no matter who we are, kind of always have the same feelings.”
Williams has been praised by her peers on tour for being so forthcoming about her emotions and on Monday, Victoria Azarenka and Caroline Wozniacki stressed on how important it is for someone like the American 23-time Grand Slam champion to send out such a strong message.
Azarenka, a mother to 20-month-old Leo, has had her fair share of difficulty off the court over the past year as she continues to deal with a custody battle with the father of her child.
Even after a hard-earned 6-7 (5), 6-2, 6-4 win over Carla Suarez Navarro on Monday in Cincinnati, Azarenka looked visibly dejected and could not hide how she felt.
“I think I’m struggling a little bit with finding the joy on the court because it’s been such a tough time and it’s still a tough time for me. So I think it’s just not a very exciting time for me personally,” said the Belarusian ex-world No. 1, who is competing in Cincinnati courtesy of a wildcard.
“I have no idea, I honestly don’t know where I’m at.”
Azarenka, who has spoken openly in the past about how supportive she and Williams have been of each other, would not elaborate on what is upsetting her at the moment but said it was “a little bit of everything”.
She commended Williams on her recent social media post and concedes it’s not easy to be as transparent online.
”I think that it’s really amazing that she shared that and I think that we are always portrayed to be tough, that we’re fighters and everything but we’re all human and we all have feelings – I mean look at me right now,” said Azarenka.
“It’s pretty easy to just say ‘oh, they’re athletes, they’re tough, they need to be focused’, but we’re human beings and we have feelings. Our feelings sometimes get hurt, you feel insecure, you feel all those types of emotions, they’re there, and it’s just a matter of – I feel like stronger people can admit to those feelings and work through them and just not give up and keep going. And the weaker people are the ones who give up and don’t face that and just try to ignore the emotions.”
The 29-year-old added: “I think in society now, with social media and everything everybody’s life is so perfect and then you look and you’re like, oh God you feel so sh*** about your life, when you look on someone’s social media. The reality is different and I think there’s too much of fabricated happiness, like everything’s okay.
“I think it’s very important to share those things [like Serena has done] and important for players to express those feelings and hoping you’re not going to be judged for it. But I think that’s not going to happen. I just have to stay fighting through it and keep going.”
Wozniacki, the No. 2 seed in Cincinnati and a close friend of Williams, echoed Azarenka’s sentiments.
“I think as a professional athlete, being in the spotlight all the time and being judged for everything you do. You can’t have a bad day because it’s instantly written about or talked about. I think that’s hard,” said the reigning Australian Open champion.
“You learn from an early age that you just kind of need to suck it up, you need to keep going, you need to not show weakness. We learn if you lose a tough match don’t show weakness, if you’re having a terrible day, don’t show everyone you’re struggling.
“It’s just how it is in sports and I think it’s nice for someone like Serena or other players that people really look up to and respect to show that even though we are who we are, we don’t always have perfect days and we don’t always know what the right thing to do is and we don’t always have everything figured out.”
Wozniacki continued: “It’s something that people I think were scared to talk about in the past but it’s great that we can actually take hand of that now and I think talking about stuff like that also makes it easier to find a solution.”
Last week was not easy for me. Not only was I accepting some tough personal stuff, but I just was in a funk. Mostly, I felt like I was not a good mom. I read several articles that said postpartum emotions can last up to 3 years if not dealt with. I like communication best. Talking things through with my mom, my sisters, my friends let me know that my feelings are totally normal. It’s totally normal to feel like I’m not doing enough for my baby. We have all been there. I work a lot, I train, and I’m trying to be the best athlete I can be. However, that means although I have been with her every day of her life, I’m not around as much as I would like to be. Most of you moms deal with the same thing. Whether stay-at-home or working, finding that balance with kids is a true art. You are the true heroes. I’m here to say: if you are having a rough day or week–it’s ok–I am, too!!! There’s always tomm!
Elina Svitolina believes the dramatic weight loss she has experienced this season is paying off, and responded to concerns over her body’s sudden transformation.
The Ukrainian world No. 7, who reached the semi-finals in Montreal last week and is seeded No. 5 in Cincinnati with a bye in the first round, acknowledges that she has lost a significant amount of weight during the spring and feels the decision to do so has helped her tennis.
Several pundits have noted the recent change and are worried it could negatively affect her game or health.
“We all can see the difference and everyone has their opinion on anything. We’re trying different things with my team,” Svitolina told reporters in Cincinnati on Monday.
“I’m trying to improve, trying to play better in the Grand Slams, that’s the main goal for me. We try to do something different, something that can help. If you don’t try, you cannot see the difference.
“I know there has been a huge difference between the beginning of the year and now. We try to learn from each step we do and I think it’s up to me and my team to see and decide what’s next.”
Svitolina is still in search of a first Grand Slam title, having fallen in the last-eight stage three times so far at the majors.
The 23-year-old, who plays Svetlana Kuznetsova in the Cincinnati second round, is 32-10 win-loss this season and has bagged three titles in 2018, triumphing in Brisbane, and defending her Dubai and Rome titles.
“I think I’m on the right path now already. I’ve been playing really well, I beat good players, I’m feeling much, much better now, on the court, off the court. You cannot guarantee the results even if you’re training for two months really hard, you cannot guarantee that you’re going to win all the next tournaments,” added Svitolina.
“The only thing you can have is a better chance to play better and to be prepared and be more fresh. For me, I think I gave myself a good chance to play well and we can see that I’m better.”
She added: “Everyone has a different opinion on this and for me, it was just that I wanted to try something different and that’s the only thing for me. Some people think it’s better to have maybe more muscle, some people think you’ll hit stronger, we’re trying and learning.”
Svitolina’s most recent Grand Slam appearance saw her lose in the first round at Wimbledon to German world No. 57 Tatjana Maria. Also this season, she fell in the quarter-finals at the Australian Open in January against Elise Mertens, and was stunned by Mihaela Buzarnescu in the third round at Roland Garros.
On the WTA tour though, Svitolina has kept up her strong results from last year (she won five titles in 2017), and is tied for ninth on the list of match win leaders this season entering Cincinnati.
She insists she didn’t feel pressure at the start of 2018, despite being in the position of having to defend many points from the previous year.
“I was not nervous about it, I don’t know why. My coaches were more nervous than me because every time I defended a title, they were really surprised,” admits Svitolina.
“I don’t really think about the past so much. Because tennis is the kind of sport that if you go back, going back in the situation that you didn’t do well or you did well, you lose this momentum because every week we’re in a new place, new tournament, new challenge, and that’s why you lose the momentum sometimes.
“So that’s why I learned a lot that you have to stay in the present. That’s the most important thing because you can win big tournaments then next week you’re playing in one day and you have to be ready to play well, otherwise you get knocked out.”
Djokovic emerged from a difficult two-year period to make a stunning run to the Wimbledon title last month, adding a 13th major to his tally, and shooting back into the world’s top-10.
Murray, who spent nearly a year away from the sport dealing with a hip injury that required surgery, played just his seventh match of the season on Monday in Cincinnati but built some momentum by making the quarter-finals in Washington earlier this month.
Cincinnati was supposed to be the first reunion for all members of the ‘Big Four’ (Rafael Nadal, Federer, Djokovic and Murray) since Wimbledon last year but Nadal made a last-minute withdrawal after he clinched the title in Toronto on Sunday.
Still, with the quartet all set to contest the US Open – which starts on August 27 – Federer is expecting a scorcher in New York.
The Swiss was shocked by Kevin Anderson in a marathon five-setter in the Wimbledon quarter-finals last month and witnessed Djokovic secure the trophy from afar. He believes the Serb’s triumph can only mean good things for tennis.
“I think that’s why we have an exciting draw here. Of course it’s a pity Rafa is not playing, which would add massively to that section of the draw there now, that he’s not there, it’s a bit of a bummer. But other than that you have still these amazing draws, with [Milos] Raonic floating, [Kei] Nishikori floating a little bit, Stan [Wawrinka], Murray, even Novak who is not quite in the top-four yet in the rankings. So you just don’t know where they’re going to be situated in the draw,” Federer told reporters in Cincinnati on Monday, where he is looking to win the title for an eighth time.
Djokovic began his Cincinnati campaign overnight, against Steve Johnson, and is seeded No. 10 in the Masters 1000 event. He was initially drawn in Nadal’s quarter of the draw but the Spaniard has now been replaced by Tunisian lucky loser Malek Jaziri.
“Novak winning Wimbledon obviously that was massive, I don’t think he expected it,” continued Federer.
“I remember the press conference he gave after Paris [losing to Marco Cecchinato] when he was like ‘I don’t know yet I was frustrated, I just want to get out of here’. And people were asking him ‘What, you’re not going to play the grass?’ And then he should have won Queens and goes on to win Wimbledon, so things can turn very quickly, regardless if you’re positive or not, sometimes when you just put yourself out there and then you get excited in a quarters of semis of a Slam you can start playing your best tennis.
“I thought it was great for the sport, I’m happy for him because I know it probably it hasn’t been easy the last couple of years for him but then again I don’t think anybody should be feeling sorry for him, like people feeling sorry for me or Rafa, we’ve had so much success that it’s just more beautiful when you do come back after a tough time.”
Djokovic’s Wimbledon success ended a streak of six consecutive Grand Slams captured by either Nadal or Federer and the trio will have all eyes on them at the US Open in two weeks’ time.
“Novak can play with less pressure again I guess, to some extent, but you can always get caught up in the pressure, the media saying ‘well clearly now you’re going to win the US Open’, and you’re like ‘Well, I guess so, yes’. And then rather than you being able to say ‘Well, we’ll see what happens’, perspective changes from your side but also from the media. But definitely exciting times, a lot of the best players are back in the game and I think the US Open is going to be epic,” said the 37-year-old Federer, who plays Germany’s Peter Gojowczyk in the second round in Cincinnati.
Murray fell to France’s Lucas Pouille in the first round on Monday 6-1, 1-6, 6-4.