Sometimes in sports you win. Sometimes in sports you lose. And sometimes in sports, even when you lose, you win.
Serena Williams hasn’t lost yet in this year’s French Open, which already says so much about the former world No. 1. Williams is working her way through Roland Garros as an unseeded player, a combination of discretionary decision-making and antiquated thinking by tournament officials leaving her off the top of the bracket as she makes her return after having a baby.
Maybe the end of Williams’s road will come Monday, when she faces longtime foe and five-time Grand Slam winner Maria Sharapova in a fourth-round match as intriguing as tennis fans could hope for. Or maybe Williams will continue to render Sharapova a pretend rival, pushing her head-to-head record against the similarly hard-hitting player to 20-2.
Either way, the verdict here says Williams won this tournament just by being out there.
She won for taking that court in a glorious one-piece black catsuit, a testament to both her fitness and her fashion.
She won for returning to that court after giving birth to daughter Olympia last September, surviving not only a complicated, life-threatening Cesarean section delivery that saw her heart rate drop to dangerously low levels, but even more harrowing postpartum complications due to blood clots in her lungs.
She won for proving she belongs among the top-seeded players on that court no matter how much the dopes who drew up the brackets thought it made sense to follow conventional wisdom and use regular WTA rankings for seeding purposes, essentially turning Williams’s 13-month maternity leave into a punishment no woman on maternity leave should endure.
She won for reminding the world that moms truly are superheroes, and that becoming a mother does not inexorably change the ability to do what you did before, that competitive drive, physical skill, and mental fortitude can indeed return after a baby enters the picture. The catsuit may have won the headlines, revealing the physical work the 36-year-old Williams has done on her grueling comeback road.
Yet reducing it to a simple fashion choice does it no justice.
“It feels like this suit represents all the women that have been through a lot mentally, physically, with their body to come back and have confidence and to believe in themselves,” Williams said after her first win in Paris, a straight-set win over 70th-ranked Kristyna Pliskova that represented her first victory in a major tournament since winning the 2017 Australian Open — while pregnant.
“I feel like a warrior in it, like a warrior princess kind of, queen from Wakanda,” she said, channeling “Black Panther,” the recent box office smash. “I’m always living in a fantasy world. I always wanted to be a superhero, and it’s kind of my way of being a superhero. I feel like a superhero when I wear it.”
She plays like one, too, though that’s nothing new. There was the second-round comeback win over 17th seed Ashleigh Barty, a match in which she described feeling the return of her old self across the third set, revealing the ongoing rediscovery of the woman who has dominated her sport like none other, with 23 Grand Slams and counting. And there was the complete third-round domination Saturday of 11th-seeded Julia Goerges to set up Monday’s meeting with Sharapova.
Williams barely had a moment to enjoy the 6-3, 6-4 win when her on-court interview turned to the next match, to a collision with a similarly determined Sharapova, on a comeback road of her own after serving a 15-month suspension for doping. But Sharapova is well on her way, playing for more than a year and getting her ranking back up to No. 30. Williams, after the time off, came into the French at No. 451. Though her previous status protected her long enough to enter eight tournaments of her choosing, she could do nothing to protect her seed.
“This is the first time I’ve come into an event with really not too many expectations,” Williams said on the court Saturday. “[Sharapova’s] playing really well and I think this is really her best surface. I’m going to go out and enjoy myself, and for once, I have nothing to lose.”
Nothing to lose. Everything to win. Everything to someday show little Olympia what her mommy was able to do after she was born, everything to show the world what a singularly talented athlete she continues to be.
This past winter I covered my first Olympics for The Globe, and one of the first interviews I did in Pyeongchang was with American cross-country skier Kikkan Randall. Though Randall had finished 40th in her grueling individual race, I chose to highlight her story because she, too, had returned to competition after having her son, Breck. To me, that was a victory in itself, an inspiring story on a US delegation full of them.
I vividly remember what Randall said to me about her choice to finally start a family, one she admitted she made at the end of her competitive career — South Korea was her fifth career Olympics, and she insisted, her last — so as not to lose her status in the sport. With help and support from skiing and Olympic officials, she hopes more moves are made to ease these working women back into competition.
“I think it sends a really good message because the sport benefits from having its top athletes involved longer,” Randall said. “I know my team has really enjoyed having my little guy around, and it’s cool to know you can make a lifestyle around it. In many ways having my son has really made me appreciate what I can do as a skier, kind of make the most of the time I have and come back strong.”
Randall’s Olympic story would get even better, as she and teammate Jessie Diggins made history, winning the USA’s first medal in cross country skiing, a gold in the team sprint free final.
Can Williams match that with a French Open win? Maybe. Maybe not. Either way, she’s a winner in my book.Tara Sullivan is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @Globe_Tara.