After three years, Serena Williams is a champion again. Sadly not everyone was too thrilled about a mother competing.
When Serena Williams won the ASB Classic women’s title in Auckland on Sunday, the sold-out crowd stood and cheered. As the organisers rushed the court to prepare for the trophy presentation, Williams left. She strode off the court so purposefully, many wondered if she was going home and bypassing the presentation entirely. Instead she walked to the players’ entrance, where her husband, Alexis Ohanian, and daughter, Alexis Olympia, were waiting. They had been watching the match from the coaching suite, courtside. Williams embraced them both, cuddled Alexis Olympia, then carried her back out to the side of the court where she conducted her post-match interview. Ohanian stood behind the reporters, proudly filming on his phone.
After the interview, Williams spoke again with Ohanian, said goodbye to Alexis Olympia, and returned to the court to receive her title. It was the first title win for Williams since January 2017, before she gave birth. The presenter mentioned this fact, the crowd roared, her family cheered, and Williams looked ecstatic to be back on top, this time as a mother.
And on a couch somewhere in New Zealand, sports columnist Mark Reason shook with rage and vowed to save poor Alexis Olympia from the hellish environment in which her parents were raising her.
Reason, a veteran sports columnist for Stuff, penned his magnum opus last week, pining for the days gone by when women were full-time caregivers at home. Great news for everyone with kids, there’s a new parenting blog in town. “Let’s not sanctify tennis mums and hold them up as some sort of role models” was the headline, immediately opening up questions for the reader, like “who is sanctifying tennis mums?”
Reason is no newcomer to the working mothers debate. At exactly this time two years ago, he wrote a column headlined “Serena Williams’ struggles raise serious concerns about Jacinda Ardern’s motherhood.” It made exactly as much sense as the headline suggests.
According to his online author profile, Mark Reason has written at least 180 opinion pieces about sport over the past two years. Of the more than 180, a whopping nine were about women. Of those nine, three were about Lydia Ko, three were about the Silver Ferns, one was about NZ Football in which Sarai Bareman (a woman) was positively mentioned, and two were about Serena Williams being a mother.
I hereby propose a fun rule for 2020. If you have the word ‘sports’ in your byline, meaning you write about all sports for a living, and less than 5% of your work covers women, you don’t get to branch out into mothering columns until you’ve started covering the basics. Work on your walking before you start entering marathons.
Reason argued that by taking their young children on tour with them, tennis greats like Williams and Roger Federer were raising their children in “a truly soulless, artificial place”. He suggested that Federer, the greatest men’s tennis player in history, should quit tennis for the sake of his children. “Isn’t it time he got a proper grown up job and spent more time at home with his family?” Yeah, Roger. Take your millions and your talent and go work at a bank like a grown up, Roger.
But Federer was simply an innocent bystander. Reason’s real target was Williams. It’s clear he’s not a fan, which is fine. I love cheering for the underdog which means I have spent most of my tennis fandom cheering for Williams’ opponents. I guess the difference is I don’t throw up in my mouth, like Reason apparently does, when she gets introduced before a match.
“The other day in Auckland another supermum strode onto court for her first round match. In tones of ecclesiastical awe, the announcer said; ‘And now welcome our top seed, the one, the only, please welcome from the United States of America, Serena Williams.’”
Sir, that’s literally how all players are introduced at the tennis.
Reason then did some real sports analysis of the day’s play, declaring Williams “not at her best”. “She doesn’t move anything like as well as she used to,” he noted, and “by the end of her second match she was puffing”. Sir, that’s literally how the body works.
Luckily for tennis fans, even a Williams who “doesn’t move anything like as well as she used to” can still win a WTA title, and comfortably. The ASB Classic was her 73rd title and first in nearly three years. And if her run of dominant wins over the past week was any indication, she’s just warming up.
That one woman could remain at the top of her profession for two decades, and make a successful return to a hugely strenuous sport after having a baby, is certainly worth admiration. But there’s something about people’s admiration of her, which she has earned ten times over, that irks Reason.
“Serena Williams threw a complete strop the last time she was in Auckland, but did not apologise on her return.” There it is. I am genuinely surprised that a sports columnist, of all people, would still buy into the notion that fans are owed anything from their sporting idols beyond the entertainment their talent provides and a basic level of morality. Reason wanted a heartfelt apology from Williams for a snarky press conference she gave three years ago. And I await my personal apology from Reason for this column that had absolutely nothing to do with me but which has lessened my quality of life.
Athlete mothers aren’t role models, says Reason. They’re too focused on being exceptional athletes that they ignore their children. What Reason missed by never actually being at the tennis last week (at least not as media) was just how much Williams thought about her role as a mother while competing. More than once she remarked to reporters after a match that she was glad to have won quickly so she could make it home to see her daughter before bed. Everyone knew that Williams was there with her husband and daughter because she made sure they were aware of it. In reality, Williams appeared to spend as much time with her daughter last week as the average parent working a nine to five job would.
Which means nothing to Reason, who revealed in his final paragraph that really his problem wasn’t with tennis mums but with working mums. “The mums who choose to stay at home and look after their kids are the ones I venerate.” Sir, the two are not mutually exclusive.
Applauding the very few women athletes who have succeeded in sport after having children is “surely not the sort of ‘progress’ we want to embrace,” argues Reason. “Taking them [children] on the road so that you can keep living out your own expiring dreams is selfish and pops the kids into an unnatural bubble.” Much like how a media organisation collecting cheap clicks by continuing to publish the transparent troll opinions of a columnist with rapidly expiring relevance is selfish. Don’t worry, Mark Reason, I will fight to save you from this torment. You shouldn’t be forced to write these terrible columns when you could instead be spending that time with your children.