By Candice Lingam-Willgoss and Jessica Pinchbeck
A glance at the top seeded men and women at Wimbledon this year reveals an interesting contrast in terms of family. While Djokovic, Federer and Wawrinka all have young families none of the top ten seeded women in this year’s tournament have children. While sporting mothers are not an uncommon concept, it seems within the world of tennis motherhood and being a professional athlete are a harder combination to balance, with research in the field recognizing how pregnancy and motherhood are key reasons why female athletes may end their career. (Nash, 2011). There is no hidden reason why so few female players give birth during their career, and these are in no way unique to tennis, very few women want to harm their career in their twenties whether that is sporting or otherwise, but perhaps more importantly for an athlete is the physical impact that pregnancy and having a baby can have on a woman. For the better part of a year if not longer the competitive regime is gone, add to that the return to playing which sees huge demands on an athlete in terms of time and travel which can prove almost impossible to handle, with tennis involving if not the most travel demands of any sport.
There are however, examples of tennis players who have managed to successfully combine the two worlds of motherhood and professional tennis, one such player is Lindsay Davenport, a player who is reported to have planned her first pregnancy and only retired when pregnant with her second child. While the demands of tennis may mean it is difficult for a woman to continue to have a competitive career after children there seems to be little negative impact on actual performance. Take Kim Clijsters, who retired from tennis to have a family but made ‘The Mother of All Comebacks’ when she won the 2009 US Open a couple of years after retiring just 16 months after giving birth to Jada Ellie.
It is clear that women who do return to sport following their pregnancy come back as different athletes. Of the women who have made it to the third round of Wimbledon Dellacqua is possibly the only player to spend a night on the floor, taking a turn lying next to her son’s cot the night before a crucial 2nd round match. Dellacqua has highlighted how having her son has led to a shift in priorities and even credits being a mother as “helping me in lots of ways” saying that having another mouth to feed had only made her more focused on her career.
This change in focus is something echoed by Heptathlete Jessica Ennis-Hill, “Before I had Reggie, it was all about me, me, me,” she said recently. “Now Reggie comes before everything else, but I’m still really competitive. I want to be there, and be at my best again.” But she also recognises that it is hard to do, “I’d be lying if I said there hadn’t been days when I thought, ‘I’m not sure I want to do this, because this is really, really hard.’ I thought, ‘I’ve already become Olympic champion. Do I want all the stress again?’ But I have to give it a go. I don’t want to look back and think, ‘Oh, maybe I could have done it.’ This could explain why some women wait until they retire until they have a family as it makes the job of professional athlete so much harder. As Palmer and Leberman (2009) note it isn’t just the sleepless nights often it is the management of the multiple identities of athlete and mother that can prove difficult, with constraints such as guilt, lack of time and lack of support all being potential barriers to a smooth transition back into sport which explains why more elite female athletes choose to wait until they retire to have a family.
Although men don’t experience the physiological repercussions of having a baby, as evidenced by Federer returning to tennis 6 days after the birth of his twin boys, they are still subject to the psychological impact of becoming a parent and having to balance family life and the demands of being a professional tennis player. In the last 25 years there are only nine players that have won grand slams as fathers. Federer however has accomplished winning grand slams and holding the world number 1 ranking since becoming a father and the key to his success may well lie in the fact that his wife and children frequently travel to tournaments with him, thus alleviating the psychological stress of having to spend long periods of time away from his family. Djokovic became a father in 2014 and won his first grand slam as a father earlier this year beating Andy Murray to win his fifth Australian Open Title. Replicating the views of Ennis-Hill and Dellacqua Djokovic feels fatherhood has benefitted his career and his approach to tennis claiming ‘I think it has a deeper meaning, more intrinsic value now to my life because I am a father and a husband’. Taking advice from Federer and his methods of balancing fatherhood and tennis Djokovic’s family often travel with him to tournaments and this year he took time off before Wimbledon to spend time with his family.
This all sounds like an easy solution however it should be noted that both Federer and Djokovic became fathers while already having established careers and are typically wealthy and successful enough to travel with their family to various tournaments or to take short breaks from the sport. Other professional tennis players with less lucrative earnings aren’t quite as lucky. Ivo Karlovic has an ATP ranking of 25 but talks of the struggles he experiences spending time away from his wife and daughter and relies on Skype to keep in touch.
In a 1984 study of analysing magazine articles on leading male and female professional tennis players for males the status of star professional athlete superseded other statuses such as husband and father, however for the women players the status of female took priority over the status of athlete. However after watching and reading the Wimbledon media coverage the role of the father has become more prominent in male tennis with increased media coverage on stars such as Nadal and Federa and their role away from the court as fathers and husbands.
John McEnroe admits that having children brought out the best in him, describing how often on the tennis circuit players lose touch with reality but having children changes that. Karlovic acknowledges that having a child does change things for a father stating that before having a child everyone is a little bit selfish but once you have a child life completely changes and everything is about the child. Research also suggests that fatherhood ‘may lead to a decrease in the output of cultural displays (behaviour used by males to compete for potential mates, such as the competitiveness in sport) which could have a negative effect on sports performance. Studies also document that married men and in particular married fathers have lower testosterone levels but to date there is no research on the effect of this on tennis performance. There is also a lack of sufficient data on fatherhood and the role that social and familial status has on sporting performance.
So whether you are a professional tennis player and a mother or a professional tennis player and a father it would appear that parenthood brings about change and challenges men and women in different ways. Some of the change incurred has a positive effect on a player’s career and some of the transitions to being a parent may be difficult to manage alongside the lifestyle of being a professional athlete.