It is back-to-school season across the country — albeit during one of the most uncertain and daunting times in American history — and, if harkening back to the innocence normally surrounding this occasion of new beginnings and challenges, one can only imagine the attention-grabbing stories some of the kids at the nursery school of the 2020 U.S. Open would tell their classmates, specifically stories surrounding what their mothers did while writing their “What did you do this summer?” assignments.
Alexis Olympia’s mom continued to pursue and create history at one of her favorite summer hangouts; Leo’s progenitor saw her become the most-accomplished performer at her workplace for the month of August while being rewarded with an elegant 12-pound piece of pottery; and Alexander’s mom, after taking a three-year break from her job after giving birth to him, came back to the office and stunned so many of her peers — and the world — by performing beyond everyone’s expectations on her first days back on the job.
A third of the nine mothers who appeared in the main draw in women’s singles became quarterfinalists in New York this week, the first time a triad of mommas has made the final eight in the same major. Serena Williams, Victoria Azarenka and Tsvetana Pironkova have garnered almost all of the tennis-related attention and intrigue of this tournament with resilience and grit that all child bearers can relate to, all while making sure that every bit of their attention away from the court is dedicated to their little ones.
“I think when you’re a mom, you overcome so much just to become that and to be that,” the 38-year-old Williams said after her three-set win over fellow mother Pironkova on Wednesday afternoon. “And then I feel like, you know, age is really how you feel mentally and how your body is doing and how you physically are able to keep up.”
Serena has been able to keep up — and win — more than any person in the history of tennis, and her first-round triumph against fellow American Kristie Ahn marked her 102nd victory at the tournament, breaking a tie with Chris Evert for most singles match victories at the U.S. Open, male or female. Two rounds later, she struggled out of the gate before earning a 2-6, 6-2, 6-2 victory over another former champion at the U.S. Open, 2017 winner Sloane Stephens.
During the on-court interview after her win against Stephens, Serena, not expecting company in the afternoon of her match, was surprised by the sight of her husband, Alexis Ohanian, carrying little Alexis in his arms as they arrived in the stadium after the start of the match. As tough as coming back from a set down was against another Grand Slam winner, seeing little Alexis almost always puts many other challenges in their proper perspective.
“I’m not with her, I’m not around her. It’s hard for me,” Serena said. “It’s hard, because I spend a tremendous amount of time with her.”
As Serena continues her pursuit of Margaret Court’s record of 24 major singles titles, the woman who was Serena’s main non-Venus rival almost a decade ago has finally found the form post-motherhood that once took her to the sport’s pinnacle. Azarenka’s long climb back was halted by, first, the birth of her son, Leo, in December 2016 and then, subsequently, a lengthy custody battle during which she was prohibited from traveling with Leo out of the state of California, where the custody case was filed.
Her limited time on the court over the past two years, along with the contentious legal case, almost brought an end to the career of the two-time Australian Open champion (2012, 2013) and two-time U.S. Open runner-up.
“I was prepared to start [playing tennis] if the consequences of a certain situation were going to turn out one way. I was ready to stop,” said the 31-year-old Azarenka, apparently referring to the custody dispute. “But they turned out a different way. I made a really conscious decision to try one more time to play.”
Admitting that she did not touch a tennis racquet for five months earlier this year, Azarenka, who currently is staying at a home that she rented in Long Island with her mother and Leo, won her first WTA Tour match in a year when she won in the first round of the Western & Southern Open tournament last week, the lead-up to the U.S. Open also staged at the USTA National Tennis Center. She has yet to lose since, including winning the Western & Southern altogether after her finals opponent, Naomi Osaka, withdrew from the match with a hamstring issue. Going into her match against Williams on Thursday night, Azarenka has won 10 consecutive matches, and she has been able to have Leo on the grounds of the tennis center to enjoy in her on-court success.
“It feels amazing that I can share this moment, and hopefully be a good role model to my son,” Azarenka said. “When you have tough moments in your life, you still persevere with holding your head high and a smile on your face.”
Pironkova can relate to Azarenka’s maternity-induced ring rust and, astonishingly enough, made the quarterfinals after not playing a competitive match since 2017. After having her son, Alexander, in 2018, she seriously contemplated retirement and transition into full-time motherhood, and only started seriously training earlier this year to get back onto the tour. Using her protected ranking to enter this year’s draw, she has now turned an inquiry into whether she still has what it takes to be a top-level tennis player into an emphatic exclamation point about her level of play, defeating top players such as Garbiñe Muguruza and Donna Vekic in the second and third round respectively.
“At one point I was like I do not want to miss that opportunity, I’m going to start training,” Pironkova said. “I’m going to do everything I can, and it’s going to be different this time because, first and before all, I kind of enjoy it because tennis is before all a game.
“Of course, the biggest thing is that I am now a mother. My focus is primary on my child and my family, of course,” Pironkova continued after her win against Vekic. “I know that tennis is not everything in life. As I said, it’s a game that I have to enjoy.”
Not to be outdone by her counterparts in the singles draw, former World No. 2 Vera Zvonareva, mother to four-year-old Evelina, is in the U.S. Open women’s doubles final with partner Laura Siegemund. No stranger to U.S. Open success, Zvonareva won the 2004 mixed doubles title and the 2006 women’s doubles crown, along with reaching the singles’ final of Wimbledon and the U.S. Open in 2010. It is only fitting then that her losses in those finals a decade prior came to a mom-to-be (Serena at 2010 Wimbledon) and a mother at the time of the match, one who successfully defended her previous year’s title (Kim Clijsters at 2010 U.S. Open).
While living out and/or continuing their dreams on the court, the moms of the U.S. Open are inspiring their children to do the same. Mothers are resilient, strong, and compassionate. They lead by example; and, the fact that there are so many of them present in this year’s open show just how incredible and strong mothers really are.
“I’m so happy that there are so many moms in the event, obviously because I’m one. I just have a totally new respect for moms,” Williams said.
Alexis Olympia, Leo, Alexander and Evaline may not know it yet, but their mommas are changing the world so that one day they can do the same.