Serena Williams proves you can do almost anything while pregnant
The tennis star was two months pregnant when she won this year’s Australian Open. Are there rules for pregnant women playing sport?
Serena Williams poses with the Daphne Akhurst Trophy after winning the Australian Open in January 2017. Williams announced this week that she was two months pregnant during the tournament. Photograph: Clive Brunskill/Getty Images
We now know Serena Williams won the Australian Open tennis tournament at the end of January this year while she was two months pregnant. The tennis star announced on Tuesday that she is now 20 weeks pregnant, with her baby due at the end of the summer.
Williams will not compete again this year but says she will return to competitive action in 2018.
It’s not just that Williams won in the unforgiving heat of an Australian summer, she also didn’t drop a set during the whole tournament, had to play her sister, Venus, in the final and managed to break Steffi Graf’s previous record for the most grand slams won in the Open era.
Pregnant women have contested Grand Slam tennis finals in the past – both Margaret Court and Evonne Goolagong were expecting when they competed, so Serena’s ability to dominate in Australia earlier in this year was no surprise. Also, as one of the fittest athletes in the world, even being two months pregnant would not have hindered her physical ability.
“Rather unbelievably there are no rules about physical activity – intense or otherwise – during pregnancy,” says Maria McHale, health journalist and editor of Sláinte fitness magazine. “In Serena’s particular case, she might not have even known she was pregnant when she was playing in Australia. It’s also possible she did know and was experiencing morning sickness, but either way all the medical thinking is that unless you’ve got some underlying condition you can do most anything while pregnant. The worry here of course is she could have fallen over while playing, but a woman could fall over at anytime during pregnancy. If the best advice available is to carry on doing what you were already doing physically, then Serena did just that by playing and winning.
“Obviously in the second and third trimester of Serena’s pregnancy, she would not be out competing. Tennis is a high-impact sport where there is a heightened risk of collision or falling.”
There can be a bit of needless sensitivity about pregnant women exercising strenuously or competing at the very highest level of their sport when expecting. Women have won Olympic medals at differing stages of pregnancy – including the beach volleyballer Kerri Walsh-Jennings, who won a gold medal at the London Olympics when pregnant.
Irish runner Sonia O’Sullivan won the Great North Run in Manchester in 2001 against a very competitive field when four months pregnant with her second child. Speaking at the time she said: “There’s no laid down time [for stopping during pregnancy], I’ll train and run for as long as I can. There will become a point when I will have to stop but I think I will slow down gradually”.
There is no one universal rule for physical activity during pregnancy. One woman’s pregnancy may floor her for the whole nine months while another’s may not interfere with picking up an Olympic gold medal or winning a tennis Grand Slam.
“You can be super fit and super healthy and still have a horrendous pregnancy,” says McHale. “Equally, pregnancy can make you more focused and determined when competing. Some women are capable of doing anything while pregnant. Obviously the two most important stages are the beginning and the end of the pregnancy but unless you’re medically advised not to, it’s carry on as normal for most women”.
Equally, returning to sporting action after giving birth carries with it an incredible amount of variation. Former world number one tennis player Victoria Azarenka is getting ready to compete professionally again this summer just months after giving birth last December.
Another tennis player, Kim Clijsters, returned after having children to win Grand Slams and dominate the game. From Sonia O’Sullivan to British athlete Jessica Ennis-Hill, many top athletes seamlessly rejoin the physical fray after childbirth.
Serena Williams has the pull of one last tennis record when she returns to the sport in 2018 (most likely to defend her Australian Open title). She may currently have an Open era record of 23 Grand Slam victories, but Australian tennis player, Margaret Court won 24 Grand Slams over the Open and Amateur eras.
Given her supreme physical fitness and competitive nature, her coach talked last year about Serena being capable of hitting the 30 Grand Slam mark. The odd child or two is hardly going to disrupt her plans.