Serena Williams Departed the French Open, But Not Before Making a New Impression

Photograph by Tim Clayton / Corbis / Getty

 

When Serena Williams’s long and unparalleled career is over—at, I hope, some distant future date—one of the first matches I will remember is her second-round match of this year’s French Open, against Ash Barty, an excellent, thoughtful point-constructor who seemed to be in the midst of dismantling Williams. Barty had taken the first set 6–3 and broke Williams at love to start the second set. In the next game, Williams muffed an overhead to go down 15–0. She was playing abominably, with twelve unforced errors in the first set alone. It was understandable—Williams came into the French Open without any matches on clay in two years, and only a short while after the difficult birth of her daughter, Alexis Olympia. Still, it was hard to watch. Finally, Williams hit a backhand return winner and gave a guttural roar. And then she started to close.

Again and again, Williams moved forward. She crowded the baseline and took balls on the rise. Her feet, which had looked flat, started dancing toward the net. She took the second set, and then raced ahead in the third. When she served for the match, she ended it with urgency: an ace down the T, a volley winner, a forehand winner whipped down the line, and, on match point, a backhand winner so authoritative that its path seemed to trace an exclamation point. My first thought was that Serena Williams was back. But then, I thought, you don’t “come back” from giving birth to a daughter. You start from somewhere new.

On Monday morning, Williams announced that she was pulling out of the French Open with a pectoral muscle injury. She had been slated to play Maria Sharapova in the fourth round—a matchup which, given the two players’ long and testy history, many fans had been dreaming of. Williams had followed up her win over Barty with a resounding defeat of Julia Görges, and Sharapova had trounced the sixth seed and former No. 1 Karolína Plíšková in the third round. Expectations were high—despite the fact that, so far, the rivalry has been entirely one-sided, in Williams’s favor. Now Sharapova moves on to the quarter-finals.

Even so, Williams’s performance, over three rounds, after a stuttering spring, was beyond what I had imagined it would be. It should never be surprising when Williams exceeds expectations, but, still, it was startling to see. The way that she has handled her off-court duties was equally striking: there was something particularly generous, something inclusive, about her manner. She has opened up not only about the complications that followed her daughter’s birth but about both the specific and general joy and fear that come with being a mother. She wore a catsuit that, she said, had three purposes: it helped protect her against the formation of blood clots, it represented the fierceness of new mothers, and it made her feel like a superhero. As a new mother myself, I know that becoming a mother is at once a common and an intensely personal experience. For me, watching Williams transform herself over the course of her match against Barty was inspiring. But watching her heed the limits of her body, and pull out with her head held high, was powerful, too.

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