Grand Slam winners hoping to emulate Serena Williams after becoming mothers – ‘She paved the way’

Naomi Osaka smiles during a match in Doha
Naomi Osaka reacts during a match in Doha

Since Serena Williams won her last of 23 Grand Slams while pregnant with daughter Olympia, several tennis stars have shown it’s possible to manage a family life without sacrificing a successful career in the process.

This year’s Australian Open marked a return to elite competition for several Grand Slam champions who took time off the WTA Tour to have a baby, following in Williams’ footsteps.

Naomi Osaka, Angelique Kerber, and Caroline Wozniacki all returned to Melbourne Park in January – in Osaka and Kerber’s case playing their first major tournament back after becoming mothers – but experienced mixed results.

Margaret Court and Evonne Goolagong Cawley have won Grand Slams after giving birth, but no one has achieved the feat since they did so in the 1970s and the 1980s. However, the likes of Osaka, Kerber, Wozniacki and Victoria Azarenka have potential to achieve similar feats.

We take a look at several high-profile mothers on the tour and their routes back to success.

Naomi Osaka

Japanese player Naomi Osaka has been at the forefront of several difficult conversations in tennis about wider issues, from mental health to racism, and has been active in Black Lives Matter and other social justice campaigns.

She made history as the first Asian man or woman to become world No 1 after winning titles at the 2018 US Open and 2019 Australian Open, and becoming the first player since 2001 to win the following major title after her first Grand Slam win. She won again in New York in 2020, but at Roland Garros the following year was fined for skipping mandatory press conferences, which she explained was to protect her mental health.

Writing on Twitter, she said: “I’ve often felt that people have no regard for athletes’ mental health, and this rings true whenever I see a press conference or partake in one. I’m just not going to subject myself to people that doubt me.”

The 26-year-old dropped out of the French Open after suffering from depression and withdrew from the remainder of the tennis season after struggling at the US Open, referencing depression, anxiety, and being in therapy.

Her return to the tour in 2024 after having a child and falling out of love with the sport marked a new approach from her, as she appeared visibly happier and under less pressure than in her days at the height of women’s tennis. She currently has four Grand Slam titles and could yet win more, but appears to be more relaxed in her treatment of the circuit’s demands and keen to make them work for her.

Since giving birth to daughter Shai in July 2023, Osaka has spoken about feeling “more motivated” and having “every minute matter,” but also been candid about the difficulties of being away from her child.

She added: “I find myself feeling really bad because I want to do better in the tournaments to make it worth it when I am gone, so I have to juggle the mindset and know that this takes a lot of time.”

She reached the second round at her first tournament back, the Brisbane International, before losing a high-quality first round match at the Australian Open to former world No 4 Caroline Garcia.

Elina Svitolina

Ukrainian-born Elina Svitolina is another player who has been outspoken about issues outside of tennis, continuously advocating for her home country amidst the ongoing war with Russia. She has raised over €640,000 for Ukraine

She gave birth to daughter Skai – with fellow tennis player, husband Gael Monfils – in October 2022 and has since enjoyed some of her best results, winning the WTA Comeback Player of the Year award in 2023. A memorable run at Wimbledon last year saw her defeat four former Grand Slam champions, including world No 1 Iga Swiatek, to make the semi-finals.

Since returning from maternity leave Svitolina, who has won 17 WTA titles, has been a dangerous presence in Grand Slam draws, but she was forced to retire from her Australian Open fourth-round match this year due to a back injury.

She has also spoken about the difficulties of juggling parenting with being an elite athlete. When Skai became ill at the start of the year, Svitolina and Monfils pushed back their flights to start their season in order to make sure she was well enough to come with them.

In a column before the Australian Open she said: “I read there were eight mums in the draw at the Australian Open this year and I thought it was great there were so many.

“I would say that four or five years ago, a lot of players wouldn’t even think about coming back after pregnancy.
But we have seen it is possible and I think it is really inspiring to see so many mums coming back after their first or second child. It shows you can push your body.”

Angelique Kerber

Former Australian Open winner Angelique Kerber made her return to competitive tennis at the same tournament this year, following 18 months off the tour to have baby daughter Liana.

The three-time Grand Slam champion announced her pregnancy on the eve of the 2022 US Open in a post on Instagram, saying “I really wanted to play the @usopen but eventually I decided that two against one just isn‘t a fair competition”. Although who knows what may have happened – Serena Williams won the Australian Open in 2017 while between eight to nine weeks pregnant.

Ex-world No 1 Kerber won at Melbourne Park in 2016 but faced a tough draw against big-hitting 2022 Australian Open runner-up Danielle Collins. Kerber put in a good showing despite her absence of almost a year and a half from competing, losing in three sets over almost two hours.

And that champion’s mentality was present despite her hard-fought loss, as she told the press afterwards: “Of course, you have played here, you have won the tournament and you want to get far in the draw. But on the other side, it is my first real tournament and I know that it needs time.”

It’s been a tough start to the year for the 35-year-old, who also played a part in Germany’s United Cup bid earlier this year. She has lost six of her seven matches, only earning a victory over Australia’s Ajla Tomljanovic at the mixed-gender tournament. But with her famous tenacity on show in her first few matches back on tour she’s likely to get back to her best.

Victoria Azarenka

Double Australian Open champion Victoria Azarenka has in some ways paved the way for other mothers returning to the tour since having son Leo in December 2016. Her return to the tour in 2017 was disrupted by a lengthy custody battle with her ex-partner, which also forced her to pull out of the 2018 Australian Open.

But after she won custody she climbed back up the rankings through 2018, entering the top 100 again, and started to achieve deep runs at major tournaments again. In 2019 she made the women’s doubles final alongside Ash Barty, and she claimed her first title since giving birth at the 2020 Cincinnati Masters.

Her run to the quarter-finals at the 2020 US Open, alongside Serena Williams and Tsvetana Pironkova, marked the first time that three mothers had reached that round at a Grand Slam. And her semi-final against Williams was the first time two mothers met in a major semi-final. Azarenka’s victory in that match was her first ever against Williams and it propelled her to her first Slam final since 2013.

If she had retained her lead of a set and a break against Osaka in the New York showpiece, she would have made history as the first mother to claim one of the four biggest tennis tournaments. Despite the loss, she has continued to make impressive runs at tournaments, reached the semis at the 2023 Australian Open for the first time in 10 years.

Caroline Wozniacki

Caroline Wozniacki won the 2018 Australian Open and retired in January 2020, but she announced a comeback to the professional circuit in 2023 after having two children.

She clearly had unfinished business at Flushing Meadows, where she reached two finals, and made her return at the Montreal Open, a warm-up tournament in the hard-court swing.

She made it to the quarter-finals of the US Open in her first major appearance in three years, losing to eventual champion Coco Gauff. The 32-year-old took another brief break from competition to prepare for the Australian Open this January, but endured an early exit, losing in the second round to eventual quarter-finalist Maria Timofeeva.

In an interview with Vogue Wozniacki said: “You’re so selfish as an athlete. Your entire focus is being the best competitor that you can possibly be. But then having a child turns your world upside down.”

Wozniacki is a personal friend of Serena Williams and credited her for inspiring her to pick up her racket again, saying: “Serena doesn’t get nearly enough credit for getting to so many Grand Slam finals after having Olympia.”

“She paved the way for so many of us – she showed us that anything is possible.”

Wozniacki explained her reasons for returning to competition on Twitter, saying: “I became a mother and now have two beautiful children I am so grateful for.

“But I still have goals I want to accomplish. I want to show my kids you can pursue your dreams no matter your age or role.”

While her return to a high level of competition and juggling a family at the same time is impressive, she also pointed out that it’s easier for her, having a support network. She said: “I’m so lucky to have a supportive husband and supportive parents, and the help of a nanny, but I think it’s possible.”

In a sport where it’s difficult to break even financially for the vast majority of players, who never experience Wozniacki’s success, having a child and returning to compete may not be possible for lower-ranked women.

But Wozniacki and others are at least getting it into the wider conversation of women’s sport and raising awareness and understanding. As the former champion said: “I want to prove that to myself and to those women. You can have both: you can be thrilled with your family and with everything at home and still have a career – and be great at it.”

By Flo Clifford