Serena Williams made her entrance at Smashbox Studios in Culver City, California, so quickly and quietly that some didn’t even realize she’d come in until she was tucked away in her dressing room. Rocking a faded baseball cap, with her assistant and her Yorkie, Christopher Chip Rafael Nadal, in tow, she arrived almost to the minute of her 9 a.m. call time — a feat so rare for celebrities of her stature that she even beat some of her hair and makeup team.
You don’t become one of the greatest athletes of your lifetime without self-control. And that March day, Williams’ discipline was evident in everything she did.
Awards season was in full swing, and “King Richard” — a biographical film about their father, Richard Williams, that Serena and her older sister Venus produced — had been nominated multiple times across all the major ceremonies. Despite numerous warnings from her team that she was tired, Williams never once complained. She photographed four looks in under three hours to a playlist that helped set the tempo. At one point the infamous beat drop of Mya’s “Case of the Ex” sent the room into a fever pitch, with everyone singing along like they were putting on for the 99s and 2000s. By 12:30 p.m., Williams was back in cozy clothes, ready to knock out our interview two hours ahead of schedule.
Williams is clearly a master at time management — except when it comes to herself. “I’m really bad at self-care,” she told me. “I was just telling my chief of staff that I need to get a pedicure because it’s been two years since I sat in a chair and had one. Maybe I could do that while I’m multitasking and taking calls.”
Before you panic like I did, Williams’ cuticles are fine. She’s been sticking to at-home treatments as of late, but she could use a proper spa day. The issue is not that she hasn’t figured out work-life balance, but, like many mothers, that she struggles not to give all her personal time to her 4-year-old daughter, Alexis Olympia.
“Mom guilt is real. I always feel so guilty when I’m doing something on my own,” she said. “I don’t know if I’m a good mom, and I don’t know if my method works, but I’m very hands-on with my daughter, and it was the same with our parents. So I’ve set really good boundaries, but then after work, I’m going right to my daughter. And that’s amazing and good, but now it’s like, ‘Okay, what happens to Serena?’”
I didn’t expect to hear Williams ask herself the question of the hour, albeit in a different context. At 40, she’s been a champion for most of her life (she won her first Grand Slam title 22 years ago), and this season feels like an inflection point. Since suffering a hamstring injury at Wimbledon last year, she’s been forced to sit out most of the recent major tournaments, meaning fans have had to adjust to seeing her off the court more than on. But Williams has always been prepared for the inevitable moment when her body undermines her. She’s spent a lot of her recovery time diversifying her already thick business portfolio and pouring devotion into other parts of her life. This chapter doesn’t seem to be the end of anything, but rather a chance for Williams to again show the world why she’s never one to be counted out.
Williams’s rise from underdog to winning the most Grand Slam singles titles of any player in tennis’ open era is one of the greatest sports stories in history. She has dominated tennis for so long now that it’s hard to remember those first few years when we watched her fight to beat the greats, including her big sister, Venus. But it was in that pocket of time that I became a fan. Her determination to become No. 1 was so palpable that it felt impossible not to root for her. You could practically see her fire and passion bubbling to the surface as she competed. I knew it would only be a matter of time before she reached full boil — and what a rumble she made when she did.
Watching her win every title and break countless records has brought me a level of joy I’ve never experienced from any team sport. Because, unlike many of the men Williams is often compared to in debates about the greatest athlete of all time, she has won the majority of these matches on her own. And she has done so loudly, whether roaring in a way that forced everyone to feel the power she was exerting; exuberantly leaping or pointing her finger in the air to signal she’s No. 1 after a win; wearing bold tennis outfits despite how uncomfortable curvy Black bodies can make others feel; or standing up for herself during press conferences. Williams has become the antidote to the notion that Black girls needed to be meek or submissive to succeed. Each one of her victories felt not only like a win for us, but a challenge to take up space in our own respective passions, too.
But the more I grew to understand the racism that separates Black excellence from white, the more I wondered how she dealt with it all on such a grand scale.
“Growing up in the public eye, you really are affected by what people say,” Williams said. “But there was a point where I said, ‘I don’t care what people think.’ God made us able to make our own decisions, and if people don’t want to like me or what I do, that’s okay. Get in line — there’s going to be a long waiting list.”
As Williams’ career has evolved, so have her interests. Her father taught her to think about the long game from the beginning, so she’s always seen herself as more than a tennis player. She’s started multiple businesses, including clothing and jewelry lines, but she’s planning to make the biggest impact through her investment firm, Serena Ventures, which aims to back founders with diverse points of view, and which had raised $111 million in its initial round of funding.
The world of venture capital, like the world of tennis, is predominately white. Williams got involved in the industry over nine years ago, when she learned that less than 2% of women and less than 1% of people of color received venture-capital funding.
While her firm prioritizes smart founders and products over everything, having a diverse team in charge of the decision-making has gotten results: So far, 53% of the founders they’ve invested in are women, and 47% are Black. “The only way that people can get funding is if people like me, women and people of color, are actually writing the checks,” Williams said. “Otherwise it’s going to be the same boys’ club, except not for a lot of Black people.”
A lifetime disrupter, Williams has mastered the art of turning doubt into a source of energy. “Whether it’s venture people saying that I shouldn’t be doing it, or it’s tennis when people said I’ll never be good at it, I do think there’s a part of me that always will enjoy proving people wrong,” she said. “And sometimes you just need something to feed the fire, right?” In fact, negative comments have motivated her even more. “I’m like, ‘Oh that’s what I needed to hear. You’re going to regret what you just said.’ But that’s me, and growing up behind Venus, I had to have that personality.”
One can’t help but admire Williams’ attitude, considering all the negativity she’s had to face for daring to be both Black and invincible at the same time, from unfair umpire calls and bans against wardrobe choices to coded language from peers and racist attacks from the public. The scrutiny she’s borne requires a mental fortitude as strong as her game. Luckily, she has an unshakable support system.
“There’s an unspoken language we have as sisters,” said Williams’ older sister, Isha Price. “She’ll call and be like, ‘Hey, how are you doing?’ And just by her voice I can tell there’s a struggle there, or joy there. Just to be present and appreciate that moment with her, good or bad, is important. That validation is oftentimes necessary because it doesn’t come from anywhere else. The expectation that everyone puts on Black and phenomenal women, on us, is a lot to bear, and sometimes you don’t even recognize that you’re carrying it. Because you just walk around with this weight all the time.”
For Williams and other Black women, safe spaces can be hard to come by. Often, we take refuge in each other. Williams’ good friend Ciara said one of her favorite things about their bond is that it creates a reprieve for both of them. “I think the key to our friendship is the fact that when we get together it’s not about what we do in our professional lives — it’s about being free to experience our authentic selves with each other,” the R&B singer wrote in an email. “The world gets to see her passion for tennis when she’s on the court, but behind the scenes she carries that same passion and enthusiasm.”
Williams said she tries to focus more on the people, like Price and Ciara and others in her tribe, who do love and support her. And while her supporters outnumber her detractors, she doesn’t intend to let either rule her self-image. Other peoples’ opinions “used to affect me like 10 percent,” she said. “Now I’m at zero.”
Williams’ strong sense of self is something she rightfully takes pride in. She said you’ll always get the same Serena wherever you meet her, whether it’s at the grocery store, the French Open, or onstage at the Academy Awards. She and sister Venus got a taste of the latter this year; the Oscars opened with the two of them introducing Beyoncé’s performance of “Be Alive” from the soundtrack of “King Richard.” Like the Williams sisters, the film nabbed quite a few trophies this season, putting Venus and Serena front and center in a new type of arena.
While the experience was overshadowed by controversy, Williams isn’t done with Hollywood. A self-described Marvel fan, she shared that she’d love to build a similar cinematic universe — a Williamsverse, if you will.
She sees “King Richard” as an origin story that could serve as a launchpad for films focusing on her and Venus separately. “‘King Richard’ had a perfect ending with Venus on the tennis court,” she said, referencing that the film concludes with her older sister finishing her first professional tournament. Williams envisions the sequels picking up there. “Venus goes in her direction, and I go in my direction. It’s two completely different stories,” she explained, though she admitted she will have to overcome some discomfort if she truly goes through with a biopic. “I had a rough journey,” she said. “I didn’t do well and then I did. It’s a lot of drama. It’s a telenovela.”
Williams’ story may include its share of drama, but unlike the superheroes in Marvel’s films, none of her powers are science fiction. In fact, the most inspiring aspect of “King Richard” (and any Williamverse movie that may follow) is you watch knowing that — against all odds — the Williams family really did everything they said they would do.
That’s something not many people can say, but during our time together, I learned that bragging isn’t really this icon’s style. “I don’t think I recognize my accomplishments enough,” she said. “I’m one of those people that’s like, ‘If it’s done, it’s done, I’ve moved on.’ Because if you think about what you’ve done too much, you may stop doing it. And I never want to stop. I’m still trying to reach my goals.”
Between established businesses, a beautiful family of her own, and a legacy as one of the greatest tennis players the sport has ever seen, Williams has nothing left to prove. But because of her seemingly insatiable competitiveness, many people in the tennis world believe that she’s chasing the all-time record of 24 Grand Slam singles titles (currently held by Margaret Court). When she talks about her tennis career, though, she is introspective. “This chapter makes me happy because for so many years I’ve played, and I’ve loved doing it, but now I’m playing just for me,” she said. “I compete when and where I want to go, but I don’t have to go. So I’m enjoying it in a different way.”
Once again, I marvel at Williams’ discipline, this time as it pertains to the difficult practice of staying present. She has opted to take life one day, game, business deal, and play date with Olympia at a time. She’s once again giving us another level of fearlessness to aspire to — reminding us of the freedom that can and should exist even within the Blackest of excellence.
Price is proud of her baby sister for taking full advantage of the liberation she has earned. “I am particularly enjoying watching her have peace about where she is in her life,” she said. “A lot of times there’s this added pressure of like, ‘Okay, I got to win. I have to be this superwoman.’ She still has that pressure because she still is an incredible athlete and wants to perform at that level. But I think that at this point in her life, she has a different perspective because there are other things that are so much more important.”