Serena Williams: The Great One

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Serena Williams toggles between global sports icon, international financial concern and misunderstood little girl in less time than most of her rallies with Sharapova. I drive her to the manicurist, and she asks me whom else I've written about. I mention a comedian or two. She sighs.

"Can you believe I've never been asked to host Saturday Night Live?" she says. "And I'm funny. Ask my friends."

We get off I-95, and I stupidly turn into oncoming traffic, nearly killing a tennis legend. Serena doesn't shout "Watch out!" Instead, I hear "Attention, attention!"

I apologize, and Serena lets out an embarrassed giggle. "I've been spending too much time in Paris. I can't believe I just said that."

In addition to the Florida home, Serena has a place in L.A., but over the past 18 months she's spent much of her time in Paris. (She won't cop to a relationship with her coach, but the paparazzi have caught them arm in arm.) "I lost in the first round in the French Open last year, and I just decided to stay." I asked her if it was because of the defeat. She laughed a little sadly. "No, I had a bad breakup, and I just didn't want to be in the same country as the guy."

We turn onto a street lined with strip malls. Serena bangs her hand on the dashboard. "Look, that place has a happy hour! I've never been to one." Serena was raised a Jehovah's Witness, but I tell her that she's not really missing anything. She isn't convinced. "Maybe, but I'd like to go. Just one happy hour."

We pull into the parking lot with the nail salon, but Serena hasn't eaten lunch yet, so we pop into a Panera. Serena looks at the displays and then turns to me.

"Can I ask you a real question?"

She points to some pastries.

"See that cinnamon roll? Why do you think that calls to me?"

"Because cinnamon rolls are delicious?"

I tell her that to cut down on my french-fries intake from room service I throw them in my toilet. She jumps with glee. "Me too! Well, I just have them empty the minibar before I get there."

Sure, Serena has been accused of being, uh, slightly self-centered, but she's done heaps of good as a role model for the non-Sharapovas of the world.

"I had to get comfortable with knowing that one of my weaknesses was my weight," says Serena, eating a sandwich with no cinnamon-bun chaser. "Especially growing up with Venus, who's so tall and slim and model-like, and me, I'm thick and hips and everything." A teenager comes over for a picture with her, and Serena poses and then continues. "I used to feel like I wanted to be her. I wanted to be thin, but it wasn't me, so I had to learn that I'm going to have larger boobs. I'm going to be bigger, and just enjoy that. So I think it's good for a lot of other girls who are curvy or more bodacious to be confident in themselves."

We walk over to the salon and Serena slips off her sandals, displaying toes marked and torn from a quarter-century of tennis. She's assigned a Korean manicurist who recognizes Serena and then gets nervous. There's some miscommunication about what shade to use, and the manager comes over.

"Do you want to work with someone with better English?"

Serena shakes her head."Absolutely not. We're fine."

I wait until Serena is in a trancelike state before asking her about her anger issues. In the recent documentary Venus and Serena, Serena listed her different personas: Summer, the one who writes thank-you notes; Psycho Serena, the tennis player; and Taquanda, whom Serena describes simply as "not a Christian." It was Taquanda, according to Serena's mom, who threw the tantrum at the U.S. Open in 2009. "Taquanda got loose," Oracene says.

Serena happily cops to the multiple personalities. After she struggled in an early match at the Sony Open, a reporter asked her what she was saying to herself on the court. Serena just laughed.

"When I'm down, I talk to myself a lot. I look crazy because I'm constantly having an argument with myself. We're going back and forth and then I tell her she sucks and she tells me to shut up. Then we get along."

There's been an uneasy truce between the many faces of Serena for two years. Serena followed her 2009 U.S. Open outburst with another one in 2011, when she accused a chair judge of being "the one who screwed me last time." (She wasn't.) Serena knows she doesn't play best out-of-control angry and talks frankly about what it has cost her. When we met, she had won the French Open only once, and she blamed near misses on her psyche.

"I've choked a lot there," she says. "I should have won a few years ago. Just not playing well when the pressure is on. I just get too far ahead of myself, and I crumble."

But Serena's renaissance during the past two years correlates roughly with the taming of Taquanda, her blood-clot scare and working with Mouratoglou.

"The funny thing, at first with him, I was struggling – all my matches going to three sets," says Serena, admiring a hot-pink shade of nail. "And he came to me and said, 'Bring that angry Serena out. I want you relaxed, but I want you to be good angry.' A little bit of me does need a little anger."

We watch the news for a while, and the infamous Steubenville rape case flashes on the TV – two high school football players raped a drunk 16-year-old, while other students watched and texted details of the crime. Serena just shakes her head. "Do you think it was fair, what they got? They did something stupid, but I don't know. I'm not blaming the girl, but if you're a 16-year-old and you're drunk like that, your parents should teach you: Don't take drinks from other people. She's 16, why was she that drunk where she doesn't remember? It could have been much worse. She's lucky. Obviously, I don't know, maybe she wasn't a virgin, but she shouldn't have put herself in that position, unless they slipped her something, then that's different."

Serena's Hannity-like take on the case isn't her only rightward lean. She is baffled by the tax rate in France. "Seventy-five percent doesn't seem legal. Nobody does anything because the government pays you to be broke. So why work?"

Agree or disagree, Serena's no-­safety-net political philosophy is rooted in her Compton childhood, one where there wasn't a lot of money and where gun violence claimed her older sister Yetunde in 2003. Today, Serena mother-hens every expenditure. "I'm an athlete and I'm black, and a lot of black athletes go broke. I do not want to become a statistic, so maybe I overcompensate. But I'm paranoid. Oprah told me a long time ago, 'You sign every check. Never let anyone sign any checks.' "

All the talk of finances and self-reliance is a bit of a stand-in for the ghost in the room: How long can Serena Williams keep playing at this level? And is there an exit strategy? She recently had an internal dialogue with herself, and it didn't go well. She props up her foot so the beautician can get a better handle on her cuticles.

"I had a panic attack," she says with a shiver. "I was like, 'I have no idea what I'm going to do next.' "

Then there's the whole kids thing. She's only 31, but she can hear the clock ticking.

"I've seriously thought of freezing my eggs – no joke. I've thought about it, but with all the drug testing, if you do that, then you can test positive or something. Maybe I'll check into it again."

That all seems far away, at least for a moment. She wants to play through the 2016 Olympics, so she's got at least three years to come up with a master plan or maybe even a new persona. Over the next two months, she sweeps through the Sony Open, from there cruising to victories on clay in Rome and Madrid. And then it was on to the French Open, her old nemesis. All Serena did, according to sometimes-doubter Chris Evert, was play some of the best tennis Evert had ever seen. She lost only one set all tournament. In the finals, she rolled past Sharapova in straight sets. Afterward, she spoke to the crowd in French. Serena smiled and shouted, "Je suis incroyable" – a.k.a. "I am incredible." Folks said she misspoke, meaning to say, "That's incredible," but it doesn't matter. As usual, Serena Williams told the truth.

But that's all in the future. Right now, Serena is simply happy with her nails.

"I can't wait until I get mad about something and they change colors." She frowns. "But now everyone will know what I'm feeling. I'm not sure if that's good or bad."

This story is from the July 4th, 2013 issue of Rolling Stone.

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