By Brittani Sonnenberg
Where were you when you heard Serena was retiring?
I was on my way to the park, listening to a podcast, urging Penny, our basset-terrier teenager, to give up on sniffing a bush already. “I don’t like the word [‘retirement’],” Catherine Whitaker, host of The Tennis Podcast, read aloud from Serena’s Vogue article. “I get an uncomfortable lump in my throat and I start to cry.” I paused and let the leash go slack, to Penny’s delight. “I know that a lot of people are excited about and look forward to retiring, and I really wish I felt that way.” I took out my earphones and stared at the silent Austin street, already 90 degrees at 9 a.m. Penny lifted her head from the bush and looked at me dubiously. I tossed her a treat and we continued to the park. In two sentences, Serena had summed up what I have spent the past two years trying to explain to myself. Just substitute the word “motherhood” for “retirement.”
I am the same age as Serena: 41. The year Serena had her first child, Olympia, I began dating my now husband, Alejandro. When Olympia was 2, in 2019, the year Serena would face and lose to Andreescu in Serena’s most recent Grand Slam final, I picked up a tennis racquet for the first time. It began as a casual hobby, Ale and me rallying with another couple, a writer and a musician, around our age, also childless. We played from 8 to 10 on Wednesday nights and went out for burgers and cocktails afterward.
Tennis soon became an obsession, as if the racquet were gripping me. Learning to smash my first overheads, I felt newly powerful, but also called back to an earlier self. I had played basketball in high school and the occasional pickup game since. But basketball doesn’t age well, and I had grown up playing in Shanghai and Singapore, where my mediocre moves and 5’10” stature were met with outsize admiration. In Austin, at a neighborhood court, I tended to miss layups and hide on the wings. I’d always been a nervy player: solid on defense but streaky when it came to shooting, especially free throws. My dad had played at Georgia Tech and coached me as a kid. I learned to dribble before I learned to ride a bike. But even though I loved the sport—the deep curtsy the net gave your best swishes, the darting physicality of defense, the cheeky glory of an opponent falling for your pump fake, shooting in the driveway with my dad—it also made me ache. I wasn’t as good as I could be, as I should be, as he had been. I had the height, but I didn’t have the belief, or the skill. In college I played JV for a year, befriending the other girls on the bench, and then left sports behind for acting and creative writing. On stage, and on the page, you could at least be another character. On the basketball court, I was upsettingly myself.
I never watched Serena or Venus play in their prime. Nor, for that matter, Federer. When I watched sports, I watched NCAA men’s basketball with my dad, or later, when I moved to Germany in my late 20s, World Cup soccer. Now I watch a WTA match nearly every day, more if my favorites—Swiatek, Sabalenka, Gauff—are playing. I play tennis every day, too, even though my doctor tells me I need at least one day off. These days, it’s where I’m happiest. Aside from being at my desk, writing; or snuggling with Penny and Ale; or hanging out with friends, it’s where I feel most myself. I feel unequivocally called to tennis, and I am surrounded by women who feel the same. We’re fiercer, craftier, and more confident than we were in our teens, playing to impress our dads and our coaches. Most of these women are mothers, some with young children, some with teens or grown kids who play tennis too. They know I just got married; they tease me when an opponent’s blistering approach shot catches me in the abdomen, say I’d better watch out if I want kids. But I just want to play, I think. Throughout my 30s, I was juggling three jobs, exiting a doomed marriage, moving continents. I’m newly settled and happily partnered. What if this is the new life that’s stirring, and it’s not in my womb? I want 10 more years of this, and then I’ll think about babies. But the gynecologist reminded me last week that the chances of a woman getting pregnant after 45 dwindle to 10 percent. A low-percentage shot.
Yesterday I went to my favorite café, ordered a glass of sparkling rosé, and wrote, reveling in the sultry playlist, the black-and-white tile, the other women around me, all my age, all free, at 4 p.m., for whatever lucky reason, be it a babysitter or a friend’s birthday, to make this escape. I said a silent prayer of thanks for my own reprieve and asked for the bill. On the way home, I saw a small ponytailed girl, no older than 6, riding a bike with training wheels on an empty street, and felt my heart—what? Leap? Sink? That early-40s female agony that Serena described: I get an uncomfortable lump in my throat. Do I want a daughter? Do I miss being 6? Do I miss friends who don’t have kids? All of the above? I turned away, and turned up the radio, trying to shake off the sadness like a double fault.
“I like my life and I don’t see a reason to change it,” asserted Venus in an interview with Cosmo last year, when asked about having children. My husband, like Venus, is satisfied with what we have now: a dog, a cat, writing careers, tennis, a pool league (for him), an improv troupe (for me). Manuel, our adorable nephew, will be one in December. Last weekend, Ale and I won our first 3.5 mixed doubles tournament. In October, I’ll travel with my 3.0 team to nationals in Scottsdale, Ariz. He’s willing to try to have kids if I want to. I keep waiting for the certainty to come, the hunger I feel when I chase a ball.
I prefer clinics and hitting with friends to tournaments and league matches. I love my USTA teammates, but I dread the officialdom, the expectations, the inevitable failures and falters, even with a win. Is that what this fear of pregnancy is? Performance anxiety? Or staving off the inevitable disappointment if it’s too late?
And what of the other fear: FOMOOM (fear of missing out on motherhood)? And how can I distinguish it from the fear of not becoming the mother that my mother, and Ale’s mother, and all the mothers I know, want me to be? Whenever I come across a woman without children whom I admire, I add them to a secret list, like a bead on a heretic’s rosary: Venus Williams, Bonnie Raitt, Kate McKinnon. One reason I adore The Tennis Podcast is that Catherine Whitaker, one of the three hosts, in addition to being a hilarious feminist, is consistently vocal about not having kids now, rather than silent and vaguely ashamed, which is what I pick up from so many women without children. She gushes about the dogs and cats she loves instead, a segment of the podcast that I suspect feels like a balm to other child-free listeners.
“Just get off birth control and see what happens,” my girlfriends say. “You’ll always regret it if you don’t try.” But there are so many potentially rewarding paths I’m glad I never pursued. The diplomat’s career my father thought would suit me. TikTok. Pickleball. People are forever pressuring me to try onions (“Just a bite!”), thinking that the way they’ve cooked them will change my mind.
The age that most professional tennis players retire is the age that most recreational players first step on the court, and the age that women’s fertility goes into serious decline. Serena urges us to think of her decision as an evolution, not a retirement. If Ale and I remain child-free, I’d like others to see that lifestyle as an evolution, too. It certainly feels like a rebirth to me.
Brittani Sonnenberg is a novelist, essayist, and tennis addict living in Austin, TX.
Above: Illustration by Avalon Nuovo