(CNN)I stress-watched the US Open women’s final on Saturday between Serena Williams and Bianca Andreescu, frantically texting friends at every missed first serve and line-call challenge. Watching Serena, something the world has done collectively since she won her first Grand Slam title in 1999, has been more than just a spectator sport. It has been a live-action study in women’s ambition, and how it changes — or doesn’t — over time.
Last night, watching Serena come up short in the fight for her 24th Grand Slam title was a stinging reminder, to ambitious women of Serena’s generation and older, of the inevitable career shifts that come with age.
We have watched Serena grow from a teenager to a woman on the court. We’ve seen her revolutionize the sport — especially for girls and women of color. She’s faced racism, sexism, and public criticism, not to mention a number of health issues. Despite these challenges, she’s become not only an icon and a role model, but also an entrepreneur, philanthropist, and activist.
We have observed Serena as not only a champion in her field, but as a real person, evolving over time: as a child, a sister, a daughter, a wife, and a mother (she won the Australian Open in January 2017, two months pregnant). Serena has humanized tennis, allowing the public a window into a real woman with tremendous highs and significant lows, including angry outbursts and tears on court. She also suffered serious complications after she gave birth to her daughter in September 2017, including a pulmonary embolism, or a blood clot in the arteries in her lungs. Coughing caused her C-section wound to open, which revealed a large swelling of clotted blood in her abdomen. She almost died, she says, and then was bedridden for six weeks. She’s spoken about her experiences publicly, and shared her “postpartum emotions” on social media.
But she got back into the game. She’s continued to be a contender even as she juggles being an ambitious working parent — an issue that’s been frequently raised in discussions about her career although rarely addressed when it comes to male players. Plenty of other professional women who haven’t won any Grand Slams can certainly relate.
Mulling last night’s loss with a male neighbor, I was rankled when he wondered, “Maybe it’s all changed for her since she’s become a mother. Maybe the same things aren’t important anymore. But I haven’t given birth, so I don’t know.”
For me, what’s more pressing than how childbirth can change a woman’s priorities, is how the years following childbirth can alter them. Has it all changed for Serena since she’s become a mother? I don’t know, but I can answer for myself, as I’ve become a mother twice in the last twelve years. And the answer, for me, is yes. And no. Yes, it — it being, my professional drive, my level of ambition, my identity, what’s important to me — has all changed since I became a mother. And also, no, it hasn’t. Both things can be, and are, true. I have compartmentalized my professional life since having children, but I still crave success and want to be challenged with higher-level work and intellectual rigor. I also want more flexibility and time with my children. I have felt this conflict nearly every day for the past 12 years.
I imagine Serena feels this conflict too — that she feels guilt when she’s away from her adorable two-year-old daughter, and that she also still really wants that 24th Grand Slam — wants it so bad that when she can’t get it, she might scream or cry in public, both actions that are frowned upon for women in the workplace. Again, both can be true.
That’s the first emotional paradox I experienced watching, and then processing, the match last night. The second was the bittersweet reality that Serena, having lost to a teenager who was not yet born when she won her first title, has to hand the reins of tennis over to the next generation — one she has done so much to shape.
It was a reminder that even the champions among us, those who sweat, fight, curse, and cry to stay at the top, are still vulnerable — to competition, of course, but also to the simple passage of time. As ambitious and hard-working and talented as we may be, and as hard as we may lean in, eventually, we work toward not only our own successes, but toward passing the baton on to someone 10 or 20 years our junior.
I’m in my 40s now, and have experienced a number of career gains along with some losses too. Watching Serena accept her runner-up trophy on Saturday was a test of Zen acceptance.
My 12-year-old daughter saw Serena live at the US Open for the first time earlier this week, and was radically inspired by her, as we all have been for two decades. When we watched as Serena humorously thanked her team for withstanding her “ups and downs and downs and downs,” my daughter said, “This is so awkward.” My daughter is too young to understand that failure, however painful, is an inevitable part of achievement. It’s something we all learn to accept, hopefully with increasing resilience over time. I, on the other hand, thought the speech was authentic and classy. How does a woman deal with defeat when she’s worked her way to number one and tried to remain there for an entire career, enduring public losses, time after time, in front of millions?
When Serena thanked the crowd for helping her improve her play and promised to continue to compete, it was a master class in grace and humility in a world that sometimes feels like it’s every woman for herself.
A couple weeks shy of her 38th birthday, Serena is the oldest Grand Slam finalist ever. She’s aging in front of our eyes, and beautifully so with acceptance. She’s also passing on greatness to her sport’s next champions, while continuing to show up and fight for it. Both things can be true.