Serena and Venus Williams share a house in a gated community in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida, where the rest of the residents have been enjoying the early-bird specials for years. They like it that way; it keeps out the riffraff. On a misty March morning, Serena answers the door in sweats and a T-shirt, her long hair flowing in about seven directions.
"Come on in," she says, rubbing the sleep out of her eyes. "I've got to practice, ugh." Then her face brightens. "But then we'll go get my nails done. I'm getting them done in colors that change with my mood. Now, that I'm looking forward to."
She turns around and sarcastically sings a few bars of "Oh What a Beautiful Morning" in a not-bad voice. The sisters have lived here for a decade, but the house still has a transient, hedge-funder's second-home feel. Amazon boxes and dozens of shoes sit stacked in the foyer next to a giant painting of Venus. (She's not around.) There's a sparkly chandelier and a massive antique mirror leaning against the wall. But the action takes place in the kitchen, where a cook hands Serena a green potion. She drinks it reluctantly.
"I had chicken and waffles the other day, so I've got to make up for it," she says. "Ai yi yi."
An assistant brings in some new Green Day T-shirts – they're her favorite band. Serena reanimates and does a bunny hop around the dining room. "These are cool, so cool!"
Patrick Mouratoglou, her newish French coach and possibly her boyfriend, emerges from a backroom. He's handsome in that dark-haired Frenchman kind of way. He says nothing but carries a bag full of racquets.
"I guess it's time to do it."
We head over to some nearby courts in my rental car (there's a white Rolls in the driveway).
"That's Casper," says Serena. "I like to name my cars. And, you know, Casper seemed obvious for that one."
Like most everyone in modern America, Serena travels with an entourage. There's Mouratoglou, the cook, the physical therapist and Aleksandar "Big Sascha" Bajin, her much-put-upon hitting partner. The caravan heads to a court about a half-mile from the house and begins loading out the gear. It's two days before the start of the Sony Open in Miami, one of the circuit's premier nonmajors and the first significant test for Serena since she was upset in the quarterfinals at the Australian Open after spraining an ankle that had ballooned to three times its normal size.
Serena was beaten by the beautiful and – for sports writers – conveniently black Sloane Stephens, leading tennis commentators to call her the "New Serena." Stephens proceeded to lose seven of her next 10 matches and earned Serena's annoyance when the press suggested that Stephens regarded Serena as a mentor. Stephens objected, saying no way in hell was Serena her mentor and questioned whether Serena had dissed her on Twitter, proving the tennis tour is much like Mean Girls with prize money. ("I don't know where all that mentor stuff came from," Serena says. "I am definitely not that girl's mentor.")
She's been recovering from the ankle injury for two months, but if anyone is feeling the pressure, nobody shows it. Jackie, Serena's beloved old white dog, curls up in her tennis bag and goes to sleep. Serena changes from the Green Day shirt – she doesn't want to get it sweaty – and slips on an Incredible Hulk T-shirt festooned with six-pack abs.
Bajin is ready to warm up, but Serena has other things on her mind. "I had a dream last night," she says to no one in particular. "My dad was in the Mafia, and he'd done something bad, and there were body parts everywhere, but I didn't want to see them." Bajin stops stretching and listens in. "Then the Mafia came over to our house, but it wasn't our real house, and they had grenades and rifles."
Everyone in the entourage looks at their collective feet, and Serena goes on. "My dreams always have a twist. Then I was swimming with Venus, and then she was holding a shark in her hands pushing at me. I mean, what does that mean?"
This seems like an easy one. The Williams sisters are known inside the tennis world equally for their on-court achievements and for being the offspring of one Richard Williams, who was raised by a single mom in Shreveport, Louisiana, and schooled the girls for hours on the glass-strewn courts in Compton, California, from the age of seven. Richard turned two children of the ghetto into legends in a gilded sport run by Veuve Clicquot-sipping country-club types. This has not always gone over well. Richard has steamrolled other players and tour staffers – hence the dead bodies – to get his girls their just due. Sometimes, he's been heroic – he gave the black-power salute at a tournament in Indian Wells, California, a decade ago – after the crowd shamefully booed Serena with racial overtones. And sometimes he has been insufferable – dancing on the broadcasting booth at Wimbledon, proclaiming his daughters the best ever.
Richard's antics so sucked the oxygen out of the girls' worlds that most fans forgot it was the Williams sisters' mother, Oracene Price, who shared in the coaching and steadied the girls whenever Richard went slightly cuckoo. (Serena's parents divorced years ago. Richard was suspected of assault in 1999 after his wife was hospitalized with several broken ribs. He denied assaulting her, and no charges were ever filed.)
Part of the myth of Richard was you didn't know when he was telling the truth – he once said a businessman offered him $78 million for the rights to Serena's and Venus' future winnings – or when he was trying to mind-fuck you on behalf of his daughters. But you can watch grainy footage of Richard, Venus and Serena piling out of a VW bus with a seat taken out to hold more baskets of tennis balls. He was the magical-realism version of Earl Woods, Tiger's military dad. And there was a method to his demented psychology. While many of his fellow tennis dads were entering their kids into cutthroat junior tennis tournaments at the age of 10, Richard kept his girls largely sequestered, hitting with men and working on their fundamentals so that when they turned pro at 14 they were almost fully hatched with power strokes never seen in the women's game. Along the way, Richard has jettisoned coaches, trampled officials and browbeaten reporters all in the name of his girls.
The shark part with Venus? Well, Serena's a girl who, by her own admission, cheated her sister at line calls when they were young and once cut off another sister's braids. There's a bit of the bad seed in her, and Venus is a sweetheart. Venus would never toss a shark at her, but Serena might feel like she deserves it.
Just as Serena finishes dream therapy, Richard arrives on the court. Despite having recently fathered a son, Richard, 71, walks with a stoop and has the permanently bewildered smile of an elderly man. He spends the first 20 minutes of Serena's practice watching the lawn mowers outside the court cut their swaths. He wanders over and says hello with a question."
Do you play tennis?"
Richard looks sorrowfully at me and pats me on the shoulder. He spends the next half-hour shagging balls for his daughter. Every once in a while, I track a ball down, and he shouts, "Thank you very much, sir! Kind of you!"
Today, Mouratoglou is trying to get Serena to plant her feet a centimeter closer together. Serena isn't buying it.
"It just doesn't feel right."
Mouratoglou gently pushes Serena while she's in her stance. She almost topples over.
Serena gives him a secret smile.
"I'm not saying you're not right – I'm saying it doesn't feel right."
Eventually, Serena moves on to her serve. Power is the dominant part of the game, which is sort of like saying speeches are the dominant part of Obama's game. She simply hits the ball harder than any woman who has ever played the game.
Most women on the tour serve in the 95-mph zone; Serena's serve breaks well into triple digits. Her power just obliterates opponents. In May, at Roland Garros, Serena played Caroline Garcia, a waifish French player, in the second round. Most of their points went like this: Serena crushing a 100-mph serve, Garcia weakly returning, Serena slamming a ground stroke, Garcia popping it up and Serena then driving the ball down her gullet. Once, Serena thundered toward the net – and Garcia, understandably, looked terrified. When Serena changed up and dinked a return barely over the net, it didn't seem quite fair. Garcia's thin shoulders sagged. If this were MMA, she would have just tapped out.
Serena's power is key because she isn't the most nimble player. "I'm a total klutz," she says. "I fall over for no reason. I have a scar on my face because I fell off a bike."
Her klutziness is a bit of an old cliché. Under Mouratoglou's tutelage, Serena's footwork has vastly improved, and she's getting to balls she could never have reached a decade ago. Still, she ends most points before her opponent can trip her up. Serena starts serving, and the balls sound like they are exploding as they whiz over the net and then bounce off the lines. She tugs at her ankle occasionally, checking on it like a mother making sure her baby hasn't kicked off her blankets. Richard watches and smiles. "Good, that's good."
Now it's time for Bajin, a funny Serb, to bang some serves at Serena. But she wants to make it interesting."
If you can't get an ace in five tries, then you have to kiss Jackie, with tongue."
"No way," Bajin protests. "You know what that dog licks? Other dog's butts."
Bajin and Serena have a classic Serena relationship. Bajin joked two years ago that he was going to go work with a more easygoing contender, and Serena gave him the silent treatment. But when she washed out in the first round of last year's French Open, it was Bajin's shoulder she cried on. They are like an old married couple who no longer argue about who wears the shorts in the family.
Bajin chokes on the first four serves – they're not even close. Serena cackles.
"Get ready to make out!"
Bajin takes a breath and hits a borderline ace. Serena momentarily howls in protest but gives in.
"OK, but I still want you to kiss Jackie."
Bajin shakes his head and gets the hell off the court.
Serena piles into my car for the half-mile drive to the gym. I ask her if she hates training, and she shoots me a "What do you think?" look.
"When I stop playing, it's not going to be because I'm sick of playing," she says. "It's going to be because I'm sick of practicing."
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