Tennis great Martina Navratilova thinks more women will continue to play professional tennis after having children – thanks largely to Serena Williams.
When she retired from tennis last month, the 41-year-old Williams left behind a legacy that stretches well beyond her 23 grand slam titles, the last of which she won at the 2017 Australian Open while pregnant with her daughter Olympia.
She made her return the following year and went on to contest four grand slam finals – eschewing the notion that motherhood and a successful tennis career can’t go hand-in-hand.
According to Navratilova, Williams has inspired a different mindset compared to when she dominated the sport in the 1970s and 80s.
“For women it was either-or, but now Serena proved you can have both. There are plenty of other mothers on the tour who have done really well,” the former world No. 1 tells CNN en Español’s Elizabeth Pérez.
“The biggest reason we didn’t see it – there are a couple – the care wasn’t there, the money wasn’t there, and also women just chose to have babies and then they didn’t come back.
“But now I think Serena kind of paved the way for motherhood and to still be an athlete. I think you will see more and more women playing well into their 30s, maybe into their 40s.”
Williams isn’t alone in blazing a trail for mothers hoping to continue their tennis careers.
Earlier this year, Tatjana Maria, a mom of two, reached her first grand slam semifinal at Wimbledon 15 months after the birth of her second child, while Victoria Azarenka has ranked consistently inside the top 20 in the world since the birth of her son Leo in 2016.
Navratilova, who holds the WTA Tour’s all-time record of 167 titles, enjoyed a long career, during which she won 18 grand slam singles titles, 31 grand slam doubles titles and 10 grand slam mixed doubles titles.
After retiring from singles in 1994 at the age of 38, she continued playing doubles – and winning titles – in her 40s.
She has remained involved in the sport as a coach, broadcaster, and ambassador for the WTA Tour, highlighting the importance of preventive checkups to combat specific diseases such as breast cancer – with which Navratilova was diagnosed in 2010.
Following her retirement, she has observed a sport constantly evolving, particularly when it comes to players’ longevity.
Navratilova believes it will be more common for players to enjoy longer careers than in her day, following the trend set by Williams and Roger Federer, who recently played the final match of his career at the age of 41.
“With the money that’s in tennis, people can take better care of themselves,” she says. “Most of all, with the knowledge that we have about how to take care of our bodies much better – that will prolong players’ careers.
“Maybe (players will) not play as much every year but play longer and better quality as well. The care is there, the mental health, all of that is being addressed now much better than it was in my day.”
Navratilova adds that Williams’ retirement will leave a void in tennis – “the electricity that she brought to the stadium was amazing,” she says – but thinks the future of the sport is in “great hands” with world No. 1 Iga Swiatek.
The Polish star won her third grand slam title – and second of the year – at the US Open in September, and at the age of 21 looks set to only add to her grand slam tally – particularly on her favored surface of clay.
“We cannot replace a Roger Federer or a Serena Williams,” says Navratilova, “but we can bring in new faces that will make us feel better about ourselves and keep us entertained hopefully for decades to come.”