How being a mom changes the game for elite tennis players

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Caroline Wozniacki’s return to tennis and the US Open has lived up to the hype.

On the first official day of the tournament, the former world-ranked No. 1 player defeated Russian qualifier Tatiana Prozorova, 6-3, 6-2. She bested Czech player Petra Kvitová, American Jennifer Brady and today she faces Coco Gauff, ranked No. 6, in the round of 16.

After retiring from tennis in 2020 and having two children, the Danish star — currently ranked No. 623 — is steadily working to reclaim the top spot.

Coming out of retirement this summer, she is entering a new chapter of her athletic career as sports leagues, trainers and exercise scientists are still developing best practices for pro-athlete moms.

Last year, Wozniacki made her way back onto the hardcourt — and surprised herself.

“When my dad visited me in Florida, I realized I needed advice,” she recently wrote in Vogue Magazine. “I hit for 20, 30 minutes — I’m not sure how long, but at one point I looked at him and said, ‘I feel like I’m hitting it better than I ever have. Am I making that up?’ “

She wasn’t.

In fact, she played so well, she accepted wild card entries into several tournaments including the final grand slam of the tennis season, the US Open, where nine other moms are also competing in the women’s singles division.

If she’s successful, Wozniacki, 33, would join a short list of mothers who have reached the finals of a grand slam, or won.

Serena Williams played in four grand slam finals after her daughter Olympia was born in 2018, two of which were at the US Open. Belgian star Kim Clijsters won the US Open in 2009, defeating Caroline Wozniacki, 7-5, 6-3. She claimed the US Open title again the following year, bringing her daughter, Jada, onto the court both times.

Australia’s Margaret Court was the first mom to win the Queens-based tournament in 1973. She also won the French and Australian Opens that same year, making her and Kim Clijsters the only mothers to win three grand slam titles in the Open Era. Four-time grand slam winner Naomi Osaka just had her first child in June and is expected to compete in the 2024 Australian Open.

Exceptional talent and drive are only part of the reason why these players were able to succeed as postpartum athletes. In 1984, the governing body for women’s tennis, the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA), implemented the “Terry Holladay Rule.” Named after a player who petitioned to compete after the birth of her daughter, the rule allows players to compete in the main draw of six tournaments — as long as they returned within one year of having a child.

Nearly three decades later, the WTA implemented a rule change that impacts how female players can earn money after maternity leave. It allows players to freeze their ranking in the event of injury, illness or pregnancy for up to three years. This ranking can be used to enter several tournaments, including grand slams, which tend to have the heftiest prize purses.

But the rule limits how many grand slams players can enter, something that tennis pro Taylor Townsend of Chicago would like to see changed.

“I wish we could have more opportunities to play (more) grand slams because for me personally, those were the biggest paychecks,” she said. Townsend, who is also competing in the US Open this year, has a two-year-old son.

No matter what level of income a player earns, the training required to compete and win at the elite level in tennis is intense. Adding motherhood to the mix, according to ESPN commentator and former player Rennae Stubbs, can add new challenges and perspective to the process.

“Serena … I think she wanted to win the grand slam as a mom more than anything,” she said. “You actually have an adjustment of your thought process whereas tennis is not the most important thing, your child is.”

Christine Stromberg, senior manager of Professional Tennis Operations and US Open Player Services said she’s seen more players with families at the tournament since she started in 2019. She’s been working to increase childcare services at the tournament, including hiring caretakers who speak a variety of languages.

There have also been major changes in the way the medical profession evaluates professional athletes during their pregnancies.

“In the old days, people were told not to exercise much during pregnancy, to not get their heart rate higher than a certain level,” said Dr. Kate Ackerman, an associate professor of medicine at Harvard University Medical School who heads up the Wu Tsai Female Athlete Program at Boston Children’s Hospital.

Serena Williams famously won her seventh Australian Open title in 2017 while eight weeks pregnant.

“That (advice) has sort of been thrown out the window as we see people carefully being monitored and pushing, pushing the level of exercise through their pregnancy,” Ackerman said. “We’re learning a lot from elite level athletes because they are the most impressive guinea pigs.

“The biggest thing that we try to let all our athletes know is not to beat themselves up, that we are trying to figure this out and each person’s situation is unique,” Ackerman added. “We have to meet them where they are.”

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