Wimbledon semi finalist Tatjana Maria has gotten some pretty good press for her run at this year’s Grand Slam on grass. “Mother of All Wins” headlined the Times of India as Maria defeated Jelena Ostapenko to reach the tournament quarterfinal.
Her run came to an end today, losing in the semis to Ons Jabeur,and with that her chance to advance to the Wimbledon finals.
There are many reasons Maria is a good story. She was not in the top 100 before the tournament, and she’d never gone this far at a Grand Slam event. But the most notable one was that she was a mother of not one but two children, the youngest being born 15 months ago.
Women’s tennis has had its share of notable mothers over the last few decades. Australia’s Margaret Court lost to Bobby Riggs before The Battle of the Sexes, and that earlier match was called The Mother’s Day Massacre. (Court later became a vocal opponent of trans inclusion and same sex marriage, while Billie Jean King, who won the Battle of the Sexes, ascended to lead a movement of inclusion and civil rights.)
And in the open era, there have been several notable mothers on the tour; Kim Clijsters and Serena Williams both won big matches after having children, and Victoria Azarenka and many others continue to compete at a high level.
So the bigger question is this: How do we know what athletes are physically capable of after giving birth?
In our current era, long-distance runners in their 30s who have had a child, routinely win women’s marathons. In 1967, when Kathrine Switzer was nearly yanked from the course of the Boston Marathon, for daring to officially enter under her first initial — and effectively mask her gender — these modern victories would have seemed impossible. Doctors cautioned women at the time against running, thinking it would damage reproductive organs.
So are there other assumptions about athletes and longevity that are still inhibiting them?
Sport loves its conventional wisdom. Take for example, that only pre-teen and teenage girls will excel at Olympic gymnastics. And yet, a 47-year-old named Oksana Chusovitina, who started to compete for the Soviet Union as a girl, continues to win as a German gymnast. Chusovitina had a son in 1999, and is training to compete in Paris in 2024.
Chusovitina is certainly an exception. But we are starting to get a sense that perhaps athletes competing in women’s sports don’t decline in the same way that those who compete in men’s sports do. The longitudinal studies of women’s athleticism and strength haven’t been done. There is some indication these athletes, as they age, may be better at certain endurance sports even than men.
As for trans and nonbinary athletes, there is even less data, although that hasn’t stopped Republican state legislatures from making assumptions about trans bodies and creating laws to keep those athletes from playing.
Sports science has made amazing strides in the last 50 years. Rotator cuffs and kneecaps can be rebuilt in such a way that maintains precision movement. And data analytics can measure fast-twitch responses in myriad sports. Stats can tell us about athlete performance in the most specific of circumstances. And yet, the ability of an athlete to return to sport after giving birth eludes any combination of medicine and analysis.
Is Chusovitina an exception simply because her frame hasn’t varied as much as other bodies? Or is it because she was on the vanguard of an era when women began to make money in professional sports, and could get support for training, and when cultural ideas about who was mainly responsible for child rearing began to shift?
(I wrote in May about the importance of Roe and the availability of birth control, in conjunction with Title IX, as a moment when athletes in women’s sports were able to put aside reproductive potential when making decisions about their professional aspirations.)
And that brings me back to Maria.
When she was learning to walk, far too many athletes were washed up at 28. They had put off the real business of motherhood for long enough. Thankfully, attitudes have changed, and women in the WTA can find a workplace in an office building or on a grass court.
Since that time, Williams, now 27 years into her professional career, has helped redefine the idea of longevity along with many of her peers. No one has to be erased from the sports pages after having a baby.
So maybe now, with some of the cultural barriers around domestic roles beginning to shift, we can truly see the heights of athlete performance.