Serena Williams: The Great One

No athlete alive dominates a sport like Serena Williams does women's tennis. But on the whole, she'd rather be eating cinnamon rolls

serena williams french open paris
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Serena Williams competes at the French Open in Paris.
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Who is the most dominant figure in sports today? LeBron James? Michael Phelps? Please. Get that weak sauce out of here. It is Serena Williams. She runs women's tennis like Kim Jong-un runs North Korea: ruthlessly, with spare moments of comedy, indolence and the occasional appearance of a split personality.

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Here are the facts. Serena is the number-one tennis player in the world. Maria Sharapova is the number-two tennis player in the world. Sharapova is tall, white and blond, and, because of that, makes more money in endorsements than Serena, who is black, beautiful and built like one of those monster trucks that crushes Volkswagens at sports arenas. Sharapova has not beaten Serena in nine years. Think about that for a moment. Nine years ago Matchbox Twenty and John Edwards mattered. The chasm between Serena and the rest of women's tennis is as vast and broad as the space between Ryan Lochte's ears. Get back to me when LeBron beats Kevin Durant's Oklahoma City Thunder every time for nine years.

Serena's dominance has been fueled by not giving a shit what you or anyone else thinks about her methods. Serena has been giving tennis the two-finger salute for more than half her life. Not that she cops to it. "Lots of my friends have been telling me lately that I'm spoiled," Serena says with a baffled look on her face. "And I'm like, 'Really? I'm not spoiled.'"

I almost spit Coke through my nose. Serena does what she wants, when she wants. If she'd pulled a Jamesian I'm-taking-my-talents-to-South Beach event, she would have put it on pay-per-view and hawked her Home Shopping Network-all-under-a-hundred-bucks fashion line during the commercial breaks. And she would not have given a flying fuck what you thought. This is a woman who one minute is reading inspirational notes during changeovers and then, in the 2009 U.S. Open semifinals, threatening to personally make a line judge eat a tennis ball.

Tennis ninnies chided Serena for taking months off earlier in her career to flirt with fashion and make cameo TV appearances, you know, like a normal person might do after making tens of millions of dollars. Chris Evert, an icon of the game, questioned Serena's dedication just 18 months ago.

Evert couldn't have been more wrong. The players Serena entered the game with are long retired, burned out and discarded. Meanwhile, Serena came back last year from foot problems and blood clots that could have killed her. Instead, she has gone 74-3 since losing at the 2012 French Open and won three Grand Slams and an Olympic gold medal. After each one, tennis gurus whispered, "That was Serena's last hurrah."

Not quite. This year she has won the past four tournaments she's entered and is on a 31-match winning streak, the longest of her career. If she doesn't pocket her sixth Wimbledon and her fifth U.S. Open titles this summer, check the ground because the world may have spun off its axis. She's never been more dominant than now, at the age of 31, which is about 179 in tennis years. (Evert now says Serena is the best of all time.) Hell, even dating Brett Ratner couldn't stop her. Neither could older sister Venus, merely the second-best tennis player of the past 20 years.

What's her secret? Serena only compromises with herself.

"I've thought it would be cool to have a baby young," says Serena. "You know, be my road dog – like my dogs, they travel the world – but there's always something you have to give up for success. Everything comes at a cost. Just what are you willing to pay for it?"

Good question.

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.

Serena sighs.

"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?"

"No."

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.

"See?"

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."

Serena grins.

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."

The phone rings. it's Venus.

If they weren't actually sisters, the two could make a perfect CBS sitcom, Two Rich Girls. Venus is slim and elegant – Serena wears a don't-sass-me look. Venus plays with grace and little emotion – Serena is all grunts and glares. While Venus dated a golfer named Hank, Serena was with Ratner, a middle-aged Hollywood enfant terrible. Serena drives a Rolls-Royce, and Venus shyly replied to a question about her cars with "Uh, I get rides."

But whatever their differences, they share a sisterly alliance of Venus and Serena versus the universe. It was Venus who made Serena go to the hospital in 2011 when her leg swelled up because of a pulmonary embolism. Now it is Serena who consoles Venus through Sjögren's syndrome, an autoimmune disease that threatens the elder Williams' career.

They talk at this time every day. After chattering about their dad, they move on to gossip. As usual, Serena does most of the talking.

"There are people who live, breathe and dress tennis. I mean, seriously, give it a rest." Serena exits the car and the conversation moves on to a top-five player who is now in love. "She begins every interview with 'I'm so happy. I'm so lucky' – it's so boring," says Serena in a loud voice. "She's still not going to be invited to the cool parties. And, hey, if she wants to be with the guy with a black heart, go for it." (An educated guess is she's talking about Sharapova, who is now dating Grigor Dimitrov, one of Serena's rumored exes.)

This is sort of how Serena rolls. There's Serena and then the rest of the tennis world. She likes to say "Good match, girl" and condescendingly pat her vanquished rival on the shoulder after a match. Virginie Razzano, who upset Serena at the French Open last year, said that she has encountered Serena twice since and got the Serena death glare both times.

"I'm there to do a job, not to make friends," says Serena, before hastily adding, "but I'm not there to make enemies."

Serena clicks off the phone and drags herself into the gym.

Did you ever want to have one thing in common with a world champion? Now you can! Nobody dreads the gym like Serena. She plugs in her iPod and lets a trainer manipulate her legs without making eye contact. She lifts light weights with her left hand while texting with her right. The most painful part comes when she has to run intervals on a treadmill. Her trainer tries to talk her through them, forcing her to remove her ear buds, an impossibly annoying imposition to Serena.

"Are we done?" asks Serena.

"Two more," says the trainer.

"One more."

"OK."

Serena climbs off sweaty and relieved, a kid whose calculus class ends early for a fire drill. We head back to the house.

"OK, shower and then nails!" Her whole demeanor changes; the face lightens up. "Finally, something I've been looking forward to."

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.

From The Archives Issue 1186: July 4, 2013
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