Serena Williams, Caroline Wozniacki and Victoria Azarenka discuss what it's like for a professional athlete to openly admit to being vulnerable.
When you think of professional athletes, you instantly imagine them as strong, ruthless, untouchable… it’s an image they strive to project as well.
They are coached from a young age not to show emotion, to conceal their weaknesses and portray an impenetrable façade. When they crack, it’s breaking news. When they break a racquet or scream or cry, it’s immediately GIFed and replayed thousands of times on the internet. The constant scrutiny discourages them from exhibiting how they really feel most of the time. To them, confessing to being vulnerable comes at a price they’re not necessarily willing to pay.
Last week, Serena Williams shared a revealing post on social media, where she admitted her struggles at balancing her life as a professional tennis player and a mother to 11-month-old Olympia. The message she posted came on the heels of her heaviest ever defeat on tour – a 6-1, 6-0 loss to Johanna Konta in her opening match in San Jose. She then pulled out of Montreal citing “personal reasons”.
“Last week was not easy for me. Not only was I accepting some tough personal stuff, but I just was in a funk. Mostly, I felt like I was not a good mom,” said the 36-year-old Williams.
She then went on to discuss “postpartum emotions” and assured that it’s “totally normal” to feel she wasn’t doing enough for her baby. She wanted other mothers to know they are not alone.
“I think it’s really important to just, first of all, whether it’s publicly or not, just to talk about it to someone. This is a whole new position that I’m in. I have been through a lot of stuff in my life, but I have never been through this, having a baby and feeling with the emotions and the ups and downs and the fears and the excitement, quite frankly,” explained Williams on Monday following her 6-1, 6-2 opening round win over Daria Gavrilova.
“I just love talking about it, because I feel like a lot of people have those same emotions and they don’t have the same platform as I have. And mostly I want women out there to know that if I’m going through it and, I know you’re going through it, then we’re in this together. Everyone, no matter who we are, kind of always have the same feelings.”
Williams has been praised by her peers on tour for being so forthcoming about her emotions and on Monday, Victoria Azarenka and Caroline Wozniacki stressed on how important it is for someone like the American 23-time Grand Slam champion to send out such a strong message.
Azarenka, a mother to 20-month-old Leo, has had her fair share of difficulty off the court over the past year as she continues to deal with a custody battle with the father of her child.
Even after a hard-earned 6-7 (5), 6-2, 6-4 win over Carla Suarez Navarro on Monday in Cincinnati, Azarenka looked visibly dejected and could not hide how she felt.
“I think I’m struggling a little bit with finding the joy on the court because it’s been such a tough time and it’s still a tough time for me. So I think it’s just not a very exciting time for me personally,” said the Belarusian ex-world No. 1, who is competing in Cincinnati courtesy of a wildcard.
“I have no idea, I honestly don’t know where I’m at.”
Azarenka, who has spoken openly in the past about how supportive she and Williams have been of each other, would not elaborate on what is upsetting her at the moment but said it was “a little bit of everything”.
She commended Williams on her recent social media post and concedes it’s not easy to be as transparent online.
”I think that it’s really amazing that she shared that and I think that we are always portrayed to be tough, that we’re fighters and everything but we’re all human and we all have feelings – I mean look at me right now,” said Azarenka.
“It’s pretty easy to just say ‘oh, they’re athletes, they’re tough, they need to be focused’, but we’re human beings and we have feelings. Our feelings sometimes get hurt, you feel insecure, you feel all those types of emotions, they’re there, and it’s just a matter of – I feel like stronger people can admit to those feelings and work through them and just not give up and keep going. And the weaker people are the ones who give up and don’t face that and just try to ignore the emotions.”
The 29-year-old added: “I think in society now, with social media and everything everybody’s life is so perfect and then you look and you’re like, oh God you feel so sh*** about your life, when you look on someone’s social media. The reality is different and I think there’s too much of fabricated happiness, like everything’s okay.
“I think it’s very important to share those things [like Serena has done] and important for players to express those feelings and hoping you’re not going to be judged for it. But I think that’s not going to happen. I just have to stay fighting through it and keep going.”
Wozniacki, the No. 2 seed in Cincinnati and a close friend of Williams, echoed Azarenka’s sentiments.
“I think as a professional athlete, being in the spotlight all the time and being judged for everything you do. You can’t have a bad day because it’s instantly written about or talked about. I think that’s hard,” said the reigning Australian Open champion.
“You learn from an early age that you just kind of need to suck it up, you need to keep going, you need to not show weakness. We learn if you lose a tough match don’t show weakness, if you’re having a terrible day, don’t show everyone you’re struggling.
“It’s just how it is in sports and I think it’s nice for someone like Serena or other players that people really look up to and respect to show that even though we are who we are, we don’t always have perfect days and we don’t always know what the right thing to do is and we don’t always have everything figured out.”
Wozniacki continued: “It’s something that people I think were scared to talk about in the past but it’s great that we can actually take hand of that now and I think talking about stuff like that also makes it easier to find a solution.”