Tennis Queen Serena Williams’s Coach Sees a ‘Fabulous’ New Challenge in Her Pregnancy
Paris, April 22: After Serena Williams won her 23rd Grand Slam singles title three months ago at the Australian Open, her coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, was surrounded by reporters in a corridor at Melbourne Park.
Full of optimism for the 2017 season after Williams’s commanding march to the title, he did not rule out the possibility of another run at the true Grand Slam — winning all four major tournaments in a calendar year.
Mouratoglou had no idea then that Williams was pregnant.
“I don’t know who knew, but I didn’t know, that’s for sure,” he said Friday in a telephone interview from Nice, France. “She told me 15 days ago.”
Williams, 35, announced her pregnancy publicly on Wednesday, with her spokeswoman, Kelly Bush Novak, confirming that Williams is expecting a child “in the fall.”
“Honestly, I was only half surprised,” Mouratoglou, 46, said of Williams’s revealing her pregnancy to him on the telephone. “I was actually expecting it, because I know her by heart. I know how to read between the lines, even if she had told me nothing.”
Williams and Alexis Ohanian, an American entrepreneur, announced their engagement in late December. Ohanian traveled to Australia and attended Williams’s matches in Melbourne.
Williams later withdrew from the tournaments at Indian Wells, Calif., and Miami in March, citing knee problems because, as Mouratoglou confirmed on Friday, she was not yet ready to announce her pregnancy.
“I imagine she wanted to wait to announce, like many women,” said Mouratoglou, who added that he had very little contact with Williams in the weeks after the Australian Open.
“Not much,” he said. “She wasn’t looking for the contact, and in light of the situation, if she didn’t want to announce it or talk about it, it was not in her interest to have much contact.”
Mouratoglou expressed delight for Williams and Ohanian. From a tennis perspective, he said he was not upset about missing the chance to chase more titles in the coming months.
“Honestly, not,” he said. “I am not disappointed because I know how important what is happening right now is for her, and I also know there’s a really good chance that she’ll come back afterward.
“What is fabulous is all these challenges, and now there’s a new challenge that’s incredible. She’ll be over 35 and a new mother trying to win Grand Slams.”
Mouratoglou, a confident and enterprising Frenchman, recently opened a large tennis academy near Nice after having operated an academy in the Paris suburbs for years. He is also a prominent television analyst and has been one of the biggest factors in Williams’s late-career renaissance.
When they began working together in 2012, Williams was 30, and Mouratoglou said she told him that she wanted to win one last major singles title.
She has far exceeded that. She won her first tournament with Mouratoglou — Wimbledon in 2012 — and has gone on to win 10 major singles titles and an Olympic gold medal in singles with him as her coach.
Once involved romantically, Mouratoglou and Williams have remained a team professionally. With Mouratoglou’s help, she has progressed from being a great player to making a strong case for consideration as the greatest women’s tennis player in history.
Her record outside the major tournaments has not been as consistently excellent as that of predecessors like Chris Evert, Martina Navratilova and Steffi Graf. Williams has, however, won more Grand Slam singles titles in the Open era than anyone, male or female; she broke Graf’s record in Australia. Williams won her first at the 1999 United States Open when she was just 17, and 18 years later she is just one short of the record of 24 held by Margaret Court, the Australian star whose career spanned the amateur and Open eras.
“The thing that was very, very important for her was to beat this record of Steffi Graf, which she had, by the way, a difficult time doing,” Mouratoglou said. “I know there was a form of decompression after that, which I can perfectly understand. She’s at an age where it’s perfectly understandable that she wants to start a family, and I know she’s had that desire, so it’s a very good thing for her.”
Paradoxically, Williams will return to No. 1 in the WTA rankings on Monday despite not having played a match since her victory in Australia.
It is unclear whether she will play another. She will turn 36 in September but has said that she intends to resume her tennis career. Mouratoglou said she told him the same thing and asked him to remain “on hold” to coach her when she returns.
“I will think that over,” said Mouratoglou, who added that he had no current plans to coach any other leading professional players.
“It lightens my calendar, that’s for sure,” Mouratoglou said of Williams’s hiatus. “But I do lots and lots of things, and it will allow me the time to develop some of my other projects more quickly and more efficiently.”
Meanwhile, he sees it as “opening doors” for those who will play for big titles in Williams’s absence, among them Victoria Azarenka, who plans to return to the tour in July after having given birth to her son, Leo, in December. Maria Sharapova will return from her ban for a doping violation on Wednesday in Stuttgart, Germany.
“Of course she can be a factor, especially in the context of the moment,” Mouratoglou said of Sharapova. “She will need time. She will win lots of matches 7-5 in the third, 6-4 in the third, but I think she’s aware of that. There’s no reason she can’t be competitive.”
Numerous women have successfully resumed their professional athletic careers after childbirth. In tennis, the most prominent recent example was Kim Clijsters, who won three major titles after giving birth to her daughter, Jada, in 2008.
But with Williams due in September, she will most likely be 36 ½ before she can resume competition, and she has set the bar so high that she may not be content at lower altitudes.
“Age is important for everyone, but I think Serena is unique,” Mouratoglou said. “She has done, throughout her career, things that lots of people repeatedly said were impossible. So there’s no reason to think this won’t be possible, too. I think it is, but that said, it will all depend on her motivation. After she has a baby in her arms, we’ll see.”
As someone who knows her “by heart,” does he genuinely believe she will come back?
“It’s difficult to say, because it’s a situation that’s completely new and that she has never been through,” Mouratoglou said. “It’s very difficult to imagine in advance how someone will react when they are a mother. It’s so special and such a life change.
“I do think she’ll come back, and she will come back all the more if everyone thinks she’s done. So I encourage you to write that she’s finished. Please.”