Williams’ prolific influence has always stretched far beyond her talent as an athlete, and the past 24 months have been no exception. In truth, returning to the tennis circuit as a first-time mother has ignited a different fire in Williams’ belly– a new resolve which has resulted in a number of notable reforms undertaken by the International Tennis Federation as well as a higher degree of social awareness surrounding the unique issues faced by women in sport.
In her first tournament post maternity leave– the French Open– Williams was forced to compete unseeded despite her departure ranking of World Number 1. This decision caused tennis stakeholders and fans to begin questioning the fairness of traditional protocol and whether new rules protecting mothers should be established. In December, a rule was enforced enabling professional female players to return to the tennis circuit with their prior ranking for 12 tournaments over a three-year period.
It’s hard to imagine another player in history triggering such determined, social action.
Indeed, after returning to the game Williams has shied away from the usual approach of ‘business as usual’. Business isn’t usual. Motherhood has changed her perspective and she’s tasked herself with broadening the mindsets of others left in the dark.
At the same tournament she played unseeded, Williams wore a sleek, black, compression catsuit designed to reduce the chance of postpartum blood clots– a first for women in the game and one that drew derision from several eyebrow-raising officials.
Later in the year she bowed out of Wimbledon with a message of strength and support to mothers. “To all the moms out there, I was playing out there for you today and I tried. I look forward to continuing to be back out here and do what I do best.”
Her pursuits to make the game fairer were continued during the US Open, when she publicly faced off with umpire Carlos Ramos about his controversial call to dock her a game for backchat. Williams argued that leniency was extended to male athletes who acted the same and that clear gender bias was at play.
Critics accused Williams’ of being a sore loser– a petulant brat with a bad attitude– but nonetheless her accusation caused the world to pause for a second and take stock. Suddenly an issue which had been brewing for years, was at the forefront of discourse. Maybe she was right.
Tennis great, Billie Jean-King certainly thought so, posting on Twitter: “When a woman is emotional, she’s hysterical’ and she’s penalised for it. When a man does the same, he’s ‘outspoken’ and there are no repercussions. Thank you, Serena Williams, for calling out this double standard. More voices are needed to do the same.
This afternoon, Williams will face off against Germany’s Tatjana Maria at Rod Laver Arena; another mother at the top of her game who won’t be holding back. Win or lose it doesn’t matter, but we shouldn’t forget that Williams’ willingness to fight for equality has changed the game for them both.