Serena Williams mathematically clinched a place in her fifth Olympics this week, but what’s uncertain is whether she will go to Tokyo.
Williams, the 23-time Grand Slam singles champion with four Olympic gold medals between singles and doubles, is the second-highest-ranked U.S. woman behind Sofia Kenin (who previously qualified for Tokyo). The top four from the nation in the WTA singles rankings after the French Open next month earn Olympic spots.
Williams became locked into the top four after lower-ranked Americans lost during this week’s Italian Open, Williams’ first tournament since the Australian Open in February. Williams lost her first match on Wednesday.
Jennifer Brady is in strong position for the third automatic U.S. spot. Alison Riske, Madison Keys, Jessica Pegula and Coco Gauff are in the mix for the fourth spot. It’s likely that the one with the best French Open finish out of those four will get it.
Williams, 39, is older than any previous Olympic singles tennis player since the sport returned to the medal program in 1988 (Roger Federer, older than Williams by one month, is expected to play in Tokyo). The only older woman to play Olympic tennis in the modern era is Martina Navratilova, who played doubles in 2004 at age 47, according to Olympedia.org.
Before the tournament, Williams was asked if she would go to the Olympics if it meant being separated from her 3-year-old daughter, Olympia.
“I haven’t spent 24 hours without her, so that kind of answers the question itself,” she said.
Currently, the U.S. is one of 152 nations “subject to denial of permission to enter Japan.” Obviously, exceptions will be made for Olympians (and that government link notes “special exceptional circumstances”). But what remains to be seen is how far those exceptions will extend.
Overseas spectators will not be allowed inside Tokyo Games venues, but the latest athlete playbook allows for contact with coaches, physiotherapists and immediate members of an athlete’s team during the Games. It also notes guidelines for athletes and team officials staying in private accommodation outside of the Athletes’ Village, potentially a route for Williams.
Overall, Williams said she has not put much thought into the Tokyo Olympics, which open July 23.
“It was supposed to be last year, and now it’s this year, and then there is this pandemic, and there is so much to think about,” she said. “Then there is the Grand Slams. It’s just a lot. So I have really been taking it one day at a time to a fault, and I definitely need to figure out my next moves.”
Organizers have not said publicly if exceptions will specifically be made for athletes with young children.
“I would not be able to go function without my 3-year-old around,” Williams, who missed the 2004 Olympics with a left knee injury, said during the Australian Open. “I think I would be in a depression. We’ve been together every day of her life.”
Other prominent Americans are mothers of young children. Sprinter Allyson Felix has a 2-year-old daughter, Camryn. Soccer star Alex Morgan has a daughter, Charlie, who turned 1 last week. Aliphine Tuliamuk, who won the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials in February 2020, has a daughter, Zoe, who was born in January.
“I definitely hope that they will let [my partner] Tim and my daughter be [at the Olympics],” Tuliamuk told NBC Sports’ On Her Turf last month. “There’s absolutely no way I’m going to be able to perform if she’s not there.”
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