Precedents abound for return from pregnancy

Serena Williams on the way to beating her older sister Venus to win the Australian Open in late January. Now 20 weeks pregnant, the 23-time Grand Slam singles champion was already with child when she triumphed for the seventh time in Melbourne.
Serena Williams on the way to beating her older sister Venus to win the Australian Open in late January. Now 20 weeks pregnant, the 23-time Grand Slam singles champion was already with child when she triumphed for the seventh time in Melbourne. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Williams flags return to WTA circuit after giving birth, looking at how others did it

NEW YORK • Earlier this month, Serena Williams spent a week visiting her trainer Mackie Shilstone in New Orleans. She went to his home, rode a bicycle around the city and worked in his gym. Never did she reveal she was four months pregnant.

He learnt that secret on Wednesday, just like everyone else, when a photo of the No. 1 women's tennis player with a baby bump appeared on Snapchat with the words: "20 weeks."

Looking back at Williams' visit, Shilstone now can see the signs. She did not talk a lot about upcoming tournaments, or how her January Australian Open win - presumably while pregnant - put her at 23 Grand Slam singles titles, just one from the all-time record.

Instead, she headed for a vacation with her fiancee Alexis Ohanian.

But, even as Shilstone processed the news of her pregnancy, he was thinking about the challenge of meeting her goal of returning to tennis next year.

"Without a doubt I think she will come back and be even stronger - because she will be playing for two," he said. "If she sets foot on the court she will come to play. I hate using the word "star" but Serena is a star in the true sense. She is just unique."

Several athletes have had children and come back as effective or even better than before.

Belgium's Kim Clijsters had a baby in 2008 and then won the US Open in 2009 and 2011, as well as the Australian Open in 2011.

Margaret Court Smith, whose Grand Slam record Williams is chasing, won three of her 24 championships after having a child in 1972 at age 29.

Britain's Jessica Ennis-Hill won gold in the heptathlon in the 2015 World Championships at 29, a year after her son Reggie was born, adding a silver Olympic medal a year later in Rio.

A SPECIAL PLAYER

What I've learnt over the last several years is that Serena has some of the best discipline that I've seen.

MACKIE SHILSTONE, tennis star Serena Williams' trainer, who has no doubt that she can learn to play all over again after giving birth and be as good if not better.

Liz McColgan won the 10,000m at the 1990 World Championships at 26, a year after having a child, while Paula Radcliffe won the 2007 New York Marathon at 33, only 10 months after giving birth.

But the return is not easy. Many athletes feel like they are starting over and find even the simplest exercise tough. The come back, they learn, is agonising.

"Your body just feels so different," Clijsters said during her 2009 US Open run describing her first tennis sessions after childbirth. "I had a good feeling when the ball was coming towards me, but just moving was absolutely terrible. I felt like an elephant sometimes, just trying to move."

Williams has a goal of returning next year, roughly matching Clijsters' path from nearly a decade before.

The difference between her and Clijsters, however, is that the Belgian was 26 when she returned to tennis. Williams will be 36 in September - an age at which many top players have already retired.

Not only will she be trying to defy time, she essentially will be learning to play all over again.

  • Can she do it?

  • MOTIVATION IS EVERYTHING 

    Wim Fissette, Kim Clijsters' former coach: "With the right motivation, anything is possible. Science is at a point where you can be very fit at 37 or 38. If she has that goal to come back next year she will be fine but, personally, I don't see her coming back.

    "She's achieved everything. She's the best tennis player of all time, who will be 36 in September and is about to have a baby. She will realise, when she gives birth, that being a mum will be a better feeling than all her Grand Slam wins put together and she will enjoy the family life."

    SHE'S FIT FOR THE JOB 

    Toni Minichiello, coach of former Olympic heptathlon champion Jessica Ennis-Hill: "She's a superbly fit athlete. She's head and shoulders above other female tennis players, she is a different class. If Jess can come back and medal in an Olympic Games, in a very physical sport, then I can't see why Serena can't.

    "But regardless of what she may have planned, it's very different when the little one arrives."

    DEPENDS ON HER PRIORITIES 

    Margaret Court, the first mother to win a Grand Slam as a professional: "I think you've got to know physically what you can do and how you can do it. You put the baby first and that to me was everything at the time. But we're all different.

    "I don't know (if Serena can win another Grand Slam title). It will depend whether she still feels like doing it. It'll depend on her. It depends who's coming through, too."

Not that Shilstone believes this will be an impediment. "What I've learnt over the last several years is that Serena has some of the best discipline that I've seen," he said.

Since she has still not told him about her pregnancy, he did not want to detail a definitive plan for her return to tennis.

But he has run wellness programmes at a New Orleans hospital for new mothers, and, assuming that Williams will take about three months after giving birth to bond with her baby, he described a general approach to getting her into peak condition by early next year.

He said he will first work to "reestablish (Williams') female physiology", reversing the cardiovascular and metabolic changes that will have taken place in her body before and during birth.

Next he will "re-establish baseline fitness", building back the strength and endurance she will have lost.

Then, once she is in shape again, he will work on her fine motor skills - the eye-hand coordination that allows her to place a ball almost anywhere she wants.

Shilstone, who started working with Williams in 2008, has pushed her through other comebacks in the past, the most significant being in 2010 after she cut herself on a piece of glass and developed blood clots in her legs and eventually her lungs, nearly killing her.

She missed nearly a year of tennis and lost a great deal of strength and stamina. He worked her hard in the months leading up to her 2011 comeback, using tactics devised for US Navy Seals.

When challenged, Serena always responds, says Shilstone. "I know how she can come back," he said. "I know what she can do."

British long distance runner Jo Pavey, who had her first child in 2009 at the same age as Williams will, said she could not wait to return to running, starting just three weeks later.

Clijsters found yoga helped her body recover as she came back to tennis. But what frustrated her the most was how she could not do things that once seemed natural.

As Shilstone suggested in his basic recovery plan for Williams, the Belgian former world No. 1 was startled at how much core strength she lost. Her lower back and stomach had always felt muscular. But, after a baby, they had grown weak.

"So you have to reteach all those muscles to contract when they're supposed to, especially with each shot that you hit," she said during that first US Open back. "I mean everything just has to get reminded of: 'OK, this muscle has to move at that time'."

Shilstone thought about this as he remembered something that happened during Williams' visit earlier in the month.

They were riding bicycles on a pothole-filled road and at one point Williams wobbled, nearly falling. Oblivious to her pregnancy, Shilstone laughed. "Are you an athlete?" he called to her, jokingly. "Well, maybe you know I can play tennis," she shot back.

Somehow, he figures that even after she has a baby at 36 she will still know how to do that.

THE GUARDIAN

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on April 23, 2017, with the headline 'Precedents abound for return from pregnancy'. Print Edition | Subscribe