Being a mother and a professional tennis player is not an easy task, as Victoria Azarenka is learning at Wimbledon this week but she is still on track at The Championships.
After her first round match, Vika complained about the complicated scheduling when she had to spend the whole day away from her six-month-old son Leo waiting for a match court to become free at the All England Club.
Azarenka was one of four players whose match was ‘to be arranged’ in Monday’s Order of Play.
“I had to be here the whole day, which, for a new mom, is a little tough,” Azarenka said, after defeating CiCi Bellis in a match that lasted until 9pm. “Hopefully I won’t play like this again.”
She won the match against the American, but it took her one hour and 45 minutes to wrap it up, 3-6 6-2 6-1.
Organisers must have heard her plea and taken pity on her because she was first up on Wednesday, starting at 11.30am on Court 3 against Elena Vesnina, a sterner test since the Russian is seeded 15 for the title.
Azarenka, a former World No 1, is a dangerous floater in the draw and she stepped up her bid to become the first mother to win Wimbledon in 37 years, cruising to a 6-3 6-3 victory in the second round of her first Grand Slam since taking a year off to have her first child in December.
She had never lost to Vesnina, beating her seven times on the trot, back in the day when Azarenka held the top spot for most of 2012 and part of 2013, and this was only her fourth match since her return to the tour.
She got into the main draw due a protected ranking of No 6 but in reality, she did not have a point to her name when she made her comeback in Mallorca two weeks ago.
She began this contest with the very clear game plan of keeping the ball away from the Russian’s penetrating forehand and while Vesnina ran around her backhand at every chance, she was still outgunned.
Azarenka struck eight aces as she effectively flattened the World No 16, who could only generate one break point that was immediately snatched away from her.
The Belarusian, currently ranked 683rd, broke the Russian’s serve in the sixth game on her way to taking the opening set, and then broke Vesnina’s serve twice more in the second to secure the match.
Vesnina, a Wimbledon semi-finalist in 2016, needed medical attention in the second set as she was struggling with a hip injury, but was subsequently able to complete the match.
The 27-year-old Azarenka hopes to become the first mother to lift the Wimbledon women’s singles trophy since Evonne Goolagong in 1980.
Only Goolagong, Margaret Court and Kim Clijsters have won a Grand Slam singles title after having a child.
Back in 1973, Court won the French, Australian and US Opens after having her son, while Clijsters became the third mum to take a Grand Slam title in 2009 when she won the US Open in front of a crowd that included her 18-month-old daughter.
It seems pregnancy has become a major talking point at this year’s Championships after Mandy Minella, somewhat controversially, competed in the first round four and a half months into her term.
Minella, who is a 31-year old from Luxembourg, posted a black and white photo on Twitter after the match, showing her holding her bump on court.
World No 1 Serena Williams is also expecting her first child this autumn, ramping up pressure on Wimbledon organisers to be more child-friendly, and create an environment that is supportive of young mums.
Azarenka has already spoken to Williams about the challenges of returning to play at the highest level after giving birth.
“The guys have the luxury to never stop their career and for girls it’s tougher,” she noted.
“One of my biggest inspirations was Kerri Walsh that came back after three kids and still playing for a gold medal. Nothing is impossible. For women, that’s definitely true.”
There is a creche for the players’ children at the All England Club, but Azarenka said earlier this week that the delay in her match meant she did not want to keep Leo there.
“It’s tough to know what time I was going to play, and this is way past his bedtime. So I wouldn’t do that to him,” she said.
In fact, four mums have won Wimbledon – the first of them was Blanche Hillyard (nee Bingley), who won Wimbledon for the first time in 1886 when she was single and again in 1889 as a married woman and then, as a mum of two she came back to win the title in 1894, 1897, 1899 and 1900.
Charlotte Sterry (nee Cooper), won three titles as a single woman in the 1890s and again as Mrs Sterry in 1901, before starting a family.
She then came back to win in 1908 and her child-bearing had another Wimbledon consequence: daughter Gwen played at the championships in the 1920s and 30s.
The third mum to win was Dorothea Lambert Chambers (nee Douglass), who won three times before she was married and then four times in five years between 1910 and 1914 as a mother.
The year she didn’t win, in 1912, was when she gave birth to her son Graham, making her the only woman to come back from maternity leave and win a Grand Slam twice.
With athleticism increasing and professionalism eventually emerging, the barriers to mothers repeating the feat were physical, not social and, since the first world war, only one mother has won Wimbledon, the aforementioned Evonne Goolagong-Cawley in 1980.
There may be other reasons behind the phenomenon, not least that women now tend to have children at later ages and, indeed, Serena Williams is now 35 when many players would have retired by that age.
All this might appear to suggest Serena’s Grand Slam-winning days are behind her, but who would bet on that?
After all, she has confounded age and smashed the open-era record, so past history counts for little.
Before she gets the chance, though, two-time Grand Slam winner Azarenka is stepping up her bid to become the next mother to win Wimbledon.
Twice a semi-finalist, Azarenka will play British wild card Heather Watson for a place in the last 16 to further her quest.
Asked if she remembered Watson’s famous match against Serena here, Azarenka replied: “I don’t think Heather is defined by that only match.
“I think she’s a great player. She definitely is going to be a crowd favourite. I think she played really well last week in Eastbourne. It looks like she feels really comfortable coming into this match.
“To me, it’s just another match. I don’t want to put any of those aspects into, pay a lot of attention to it. I’m just going to go out there and play my match. I obviously have a lot of respect to every opponent that I play and not take anything for granted.”