The 2020 US Open has been, among others, a celebration of women doing the jobs they do. As many as nine women who entered the draw this year are mothers. And, on Labor Day, there was an historic first -- three of these nine made it through to the final eight for the first time, at least, since 1968, the beginning of the professional era of tennis.
Serena Williams, Tsvetana Pironkova and Victoria Azarenka all won fourth-round matches at Flushing Meadows and remain on course for the tournament title. Mandated as a federal holiday in the United States since 1894, Labor Day is considered a less radical, more celebratory, holiday marking the achievements of labour movements in that country. There could not have been a more symbolic day on which the three could have achieved their feats, in the American context.
Williams, a former world No.1, is looking for her 24th Grand Slam title. She gave birth to daughter Olympia on September 1, 2017, and, despite complications during and after pregnancy, was back at work three months later. Since then she has competed in four Major finals, twice each at the US Open and the Wimbledon. This year Olympia, now three, was among the handful of spectators in the bubble at Flushing Meadows.
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“I just have a totally new respect for moms,” NBC quoted Williams after her third round victory. “I would never have thought I would be playing as a mom. The pluses is that, one day your daughter can say she was there. Whether she remembers or not, we can always have pictures. But other than that, it’s just minus, like, I’m not with her. I’m not around her. It’s hard.”
Pironkova had her baby boy, Alexander, in April 2018. It’s been three years since she has played competitive tennis and she might not have been in this position were it not for a WTA rule change that came into effect last year. The rule, in simple terms, protects the ranking of players on the tour who go on maternity leave. It allows them to return as additional seeded players which means they do not have to face seeds in the opening rounds of majors such as the US Open. The rule also ensures no other seeded players get bumped on account of a returning mother.
Williams, and several others on tour, have lauded this progressive move by the WTA and suggested that it may encourage younger players who want to become mothers to do so, at whatever age they want, without the fear of ending their career prospects. The Bulgarian Pironkova feels motherhood has been a positive; that she is mentally stronger now and knows her body better as well.
Azarenka is also a former world No.1, multiple medallist at the 2012 London Olympics (where she lost to Williams in the singles semis) and a former Grand Slam champion. This year, she entered the tournament unseeded and battled past 20th-seed Karolina Muchova in the fourth round, 5-7, 6-1, 6-4. The Belorussian’s approach is slightly different and, perhaps, fed by the media focus on her being a mom more than what she was doing on court.
“Identifying myself or other players just as mothers, I think that's not the only thing that we are,” she was quoted saying. “We are also tennis players. We are also women who have dreams and goals and passions.”
Azarenka made it clear that she neither feels different just because she is a mother, nor does she identify herself as anything but a tennis player when on the job. “Because I think for the kids, and I hope for my son, it's inspiring that I still want to do what I want to do, and I work really hard for that," she shared.
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The three are on course to join some great names in tennis history. Evonne Goolagong Cawley won Wimbledon in 1980 when her child was three. The legendary Margaret Court won three Majors as a mom and, closer to the present, there is Belgian Kim Clijsters, who won the 2009 US Open less than a year after returning to the tour after the birth of her first child, beating Williams on the way. In 2010, she did it again.
This year, Clijsters was back at the US Open, 17 years after she became world No. 1 for the first time. The 37-year-old ITF hall of famer lost in the first round but clearly knows what’s up. “It’s a process, that’s what I told myself at the start when I took this challenge on — that it's going to take a lot of hard work and losses,” she told tennis.com.
When she announced her second comeback last year (eventually delayed by a tropical storm and then the Covid-19 pandemic) she told reporters, “For the past seven years, I’ve been a full-time mom, and I love it. I really, really do. But I also loved being a professional tennis player. And honestly, I miss that feeling. So … what if I tried to do both? Could I be loving mum to my three kids and the best tennis player I can possibly be? Let’s do this.”
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