I never had any doubt that Serena Williams could rock a catsuit — or even a tutu, as she did this week at the U.S. Open. And I definitely never doubted her ability to win another Grand Slam title one year — almost to the day — of becoming a mom. She is a superstar athlete who does everything with one goal in mind: winning.
Perhaps that’s why, in previous years, it never crossed my mind that Serena is just like me. But as she opened up about pregnancy, her harrowing birth story and the vulnerability of motherhood, we all started to feel that way. Last week, on the eve of her return to the U.S. Open, I sat down with Williams on "Today" to talk about her Grand Slam goals, embracing her critics and how she works through "mom guilt" with the help a few million friends on social media.
This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.
Walk me through your year.
Williams: Oh, it's been an amazing year. Having the baby and then coming back — it's so special to have Olympia turn one soon. Maybe I'll be playing on that day and I'll just have those memories of being in the hospital and giving birth to my daughter. It's been an amazing year, and I really look forward to getting back [to competing]. It's going to be great.
Do you feel joyful?
Williams: You know, I feel a different joy. I've always been this joyful person, but now it's just totally different. I feel just light. I feel lighter and happier. And it's just a great feeling.
You're back in New York and people are saying it's a comeback. You very eloquently stole a line from L.L. Cool J. and said, "Don't call it a comeback." Why?
Williams: I was gone so I guess it is a comeback if you break it down. But for me, I was always there mentally. I always was watching and being a part of it. And I never wanted to hang up my racket at that point. So, I'm just still trying to compete and win Grand Slams — and do it while I have a daughter.
Does it show how tough people are on women? I'm guessing when your husband went back to work after Olympia was born, no one called it a comeback tour for him.
Williams: Exactly. Right? But it is true. No one called his work a comeback, and he had to take time off, too. But, yeah, women definitely have a double standard in so many different things.
And that's what I'm doing now. I'm lobbying and trying to break down all these double standards that we have to face on a daily basis. And just let people know that we're here to stay, obviously, and we deserve to be treated just like our male counterparts.
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Is it more important to win as a mother than it was before?
Williams: You know, it's hard to say — I want to win, whether I'm a mom or not. Obviously I want to win while having Olympia. One day I'll tell her that, you know, she was born and I still kept winning. But at the same time, I don't have to win another match in my whole life. I've done so much in my career, and right now I want to just focus on having fun out there. And ironically enough, that's when I started to play my best tennis.
Most of us would have guessed, given your training and travel schedule, you would not have your baby by your side, but you have. And you're not taking it as a burden. You're taking it as a gift.
Williams: I am taking it as a gift. We spent every day together since she was born, and I work around her. But I'm really fortunate. A lot of women don't have that opportunity.
And, you know, in a weird way I'm kind of doing it for those women that can't. Being around her every day is super important, and I want her to have just a great upbringing, the best way that I know how.