by Kevin Chappell
Serena Williams perches on a stool inside a Los Angeles dressing room while being picked, poked, patted and pulled on by a band of high priced stylists. Taking a long, stoic look at herself in a wall-mounted mirror, she pauses, then speaks three words. It’s a simple sentence, but one that, she says, is most responsible for her not realizing true happiness for much of her life.
“I was Venus,” she says, staring at her reflection in the looking glass.
Then, with varying tones and inflections, she repeats it twice more, seemingly once for each dimension of her image emanating from the polished metal. “I did everything she did. I was Venus.”
The world’s top women’s tennis player proceeds to recount—sometimes with laughter, sometimes with amazement—how, as a child growing up in Compton, Calif., her goal in life was to emulate her big sister, two years her senior, the coolest person in the world, she thought. She wore the same kind of clothes as Venus, the same beaded braid hairstyle. She talked the same, walked the same as Venus. If Venus laughed, Serena laughed louder. If Venus cried, she cried harder. She even ate the same foods as Venus.
“When we would go out to eat, my parents made me order first because if I didn’t order first, I would order everything Venus ordered,” the 20-year-old says. “It had gotten so bad that after Venus ordered, I would want to change my order. I was the original little sister. I had to have everything she had. Everything."
It wasn’t until two years ago, while watching Venus enjoy the greatest success of her tennis career, success that culminated in a historic and emotional win at Wimbledon, that Serena realized that she couldn’t have everything that Venus had. Her sister was now Wimbledon champion—the first Black female to accomplish that feat since Althea Gibson in 1957 and 1958—and would soon be ranked the No. 1 women’s tennis player in the world.
It was then that Serena realized that she needed to move out from under her sister’s shadow. It was then that Serena realized that she was her own person, with her own likes and dislikes, wants and needs, goals and aspirations. “I realized I wasn’t Venus when I was 18,” she says. “I realized that I liked doing different things, things that Venus didn’t like to do. I realized that just because she didn’t like it didn’t mean that I didn’t have to like it. It had taken me all this time to realize that my name is Serena Williams, not Venus Williams.”
Since then, Serena has sought out and found her true self, and, in the process, achieved a new level of inner peace, outer beauty, professional potential—and perhaps most important—depth of being that she couldn’t see before, depth that had been missing all of her life.
Don’t get her wrong. Serena loves Venus, and that love only grows with each passing day. “I have tons of respect for Venus,” she says. “She’s a very classy individual. I love Venus to death. I love hanging out with her. I love sharing time and spending time with her. She is the best sister a girl could have.”
Nevertheless, celebrating her individuality, she believes, has not only helped her as a person, but has also helped elevate her tennis game to point where she has outplayed all of her opponents and has become the talk of the tennis world. “It was around that time that I realized that my game was different than Venus’ game,” she says. “Maybe I like to come to the net a little more. Maybe I like to hit forehands across court more than Venus.”
When Serena, who won the U.S. Open in 1999, finally learned to play her game, she began to win consistently. This year, she has two successive Grand Slam wins, becoming only the 10th woman to win the French Open and Wimbledon in the same year.
Although opinions vary as to why the Williams sisters are so good, no one can dispute the impact the two have had on the game of tennis. Ratings are up. Games at major tournaments are filled to capacity. Blacks and people who have traditionally not been interested in tennis are now fans of the sport. “A lot of people come up to me and don’t ask for my autograph, they just say thanks,” she says. “It’s a really special feeling. It’s been happening a lot lately. And it’s not just Blacks.”
Serena’s win at Wimbledon earlier this year was as moving as it was historic. She and Venus played extremely hard, retrieving and returning each other’s angled groundstrokes with amazing agility. But it became obvious early on that Serena was clearly the aggressor. After winning match point, Serena dropped her racket and waved to the crowd at the All England Lawn Tennis and Cricket Club. While the fans stood and applauded, their mother, Oracene, sat nearly still in her seat and clapped politely. “When I was young, I always wanted to win the U.S. Open. Then when I won that, I really wanted to win Wimbledon,” Serena says. “It took a long time, so when I won I was really happy.”
During the trophy ceremony, Venus, forever the big sister, leaned over to Serena to tell her to remember to curtsy. Of the 22 umpires and officials, 32 ballboys, 10 stewards and more than 150 journalists, there was not another Black face on the court, not a single person who looked anything like the two women who had just put on such an extraordinary exhibition of tennis and made history by becoming the first sisters to each hold a Wimbledon title. In fact, the only African-Americans in the audience were the Williams family members and friends.
Noticeably absent was their father, Richard Williams. He didn’t watch the match, didn’t know who had won. And when Serena called him with the good news, she says he seemed so uninterested that she ended the telephone conversation without even telling him she had won. “He said he was driving somewhere on the highway,” she says. “He didn’t ask, and we were rushing to our doubles match, so I figured I would tell him later. I never did personally tell him. I never asked him when or how he found out. He just doesn’t care who wins, who’s doing what or going where. He’s just doing his thing. He’s always been happy for us, proud of us.”
Talk to Serena and it’s obvious that she loves her father, the architect of the Williams’ dynasty, and a man who is, she says, very misunderstood. “He’s a great guy, and he’s very nice,” she says. “He’s a comedian. We’re both comedians. We love to tell jokes. He’s very funny. He’s super nice. He would go out of his way for anyone. He’s a great coach. Take everything away from tennis, he’s a great dad. He’s very understanding. He doesn’t put pressure on us to do anything. He’s an unbelievable businessman. He’s always thinking of creative ideas. I think that maybe people think differently. But I can’t control what people think.”
Her father and mother, Oracene Williams, reportedly have separated. Nowadays, Serena and Venus are seen almost exclusively with their mother. Their father usually stays behind in Florida, most times somewhat shut off from the outside world. “My mom and dad are doing their own thing nowadays,” Serena says matter-of-factly.
When not on the road, Serena lives in Florida with Venus in a palatial 9-bedroom estate that they had built. The fridge is usually empty, and the sisters usually order food to be delivered to the house. Serena is often seen with her three dogs. She calls her pitbull her “son” and travels with a photo of him. Her other dogs usually travel with her.
Calling herself a “penny pincher,” she says she very rarely splurges on big-ticket items. “I always say that I’m on a budget,” she says. “I don’t know why I say that. I bought a ring and bracelet recently. But the things I really want I can’t bring myself to spend that much money. There’s a watch I want, but it’s $200,000. I’d rather put my money somewhere else.”
Serena believes her wealth and her wealth of experiences make her mature for her age. “I’m not the normal 20-year-old. I don’t act 20,” she says. “I’ve seen more. I have more experience in a lot of stuff. I’m a very old 20.”
Serena says her progress as a tennis player also can be attributed to her composure. “I’ve gotten better as a player in general,” she says. “I used to be overconfident. Now I’m not as intense. Normally if I lost, I would be very upset. I used to get really angry with myself. Now, I just take it easier and I do better. If I get too stressed out, I don’t do as well.”
Being No. 1(Venus is ranked No. 2) has yet to sink in, but over time, she believes, staying on top will become easier. “It’s just weird. I like being at the top, and I plan on working hard to stay there,” she says. “People want to take it away. But if you stay there for a little bit, they will start to accept it. They will start to think you’re going to win. When they start to think that, then half the battle’s won.”
While her game is one of power, she says she doesn’t go into a match attempting to intimidate her opponent. She says she likes playing Monica Seles and Jennifer Capriati, but says her association with the two, and other tennis players, stays on court. “I wouldn’t say we are friends,” she says. “I don’t go out to dinner with them, to the movies. But I’m cordial. I say, ‘Hi, how are you doing?’”
Although it is widely thought she and Venus don’t get along with other players, Serena says that she has never had animosity toward any of her opponents. “All of that has been fabricated,” she says.
Surprisingly, she doesn’t think tennis is a racist sport. Nor does she think comments by television commentators, hinting that she is good only because of her athleticism, are racist. It’s more ignorance than anything else, she says. “Tennis is 75 percent mental. You can only get so far if you don’t have it mentally. People just assume my success is all due to being athletic because maybe I’m strong-looking, but you know what they say about assumers,” she says.
There is no doubt that Serena speaks her mind. She calls herself “a ham” who “can’t be serious for more than two minutes.” It’s the same with Venus, she says. Get the two sisters together and anything can happen. “We’re always cracking up when we’re out on the court,” she says. “If we’re playing doubles, we’re always laughing. It’s not like we’re laughing at our opponents. We’re probably laughing at something totally different.”
One subject she can now find humor in is her romance life. While she and Venus have been sighted with men in the past, she says, “I don’t have a boyfriend. It’s tough these days.”
How tough can it be when you’re Serena Williams? “It’s even tougher when you’re Serena Williams,” she says with a big laugh. “I laugh about it now. But for a while I though, ‘What’s wrong with me?’ It’s okay now. Really it’s not okay, but that’s what I keep telling myself. At this stage, I’m not picky at all.”
So what kind of man can keep the interest of the No. 1 women’s tennis player in the world, not to mention an aspiring actress who is reportedly taking acting classes and has an acting coach? “I like dark guys,” she says. “I think what’s really attractive is a man who can think for himself, has his own mind, and has a lot of self-confidence. I’m not shallow. If you’re dumb, I can’t really talk to you. A lot people don’t have any confidence. And when they get around me, they won’t believe I like them and not anybody else. And before you know it, I’m solo again.”
For the time being, going solo is okay with Serena. “I’m doing just fine on my own. I’m not desperate. I’m happy with me,” she says. “I know that I’m a really attractive person. I’m very pretty. I’m very sexy. I wouldn’t go to a plastic surgeon for anything. I’m very smart. I’m not cocky or anything, but I have a very positive opinion of myself.”
As the last stylist puts on the finishing touches, Serena takes another look in the mirror and flashes her million-dollar smile. She is obviously happy with the results, with herself, and is ready to be photographed. “She now copies me sometimes,” Serena says of Venus. “’What are you doing? Can I go? Wait for me. I’m coming.’ That’s what she says now…”
Some things have changed in the biggest and best Sister act in tennis or even sports history, but some things have not changed. “When we go to restaurants,” Serena says,"I still have to know what Venus is getting. But it’s not as bad as before. Now we’ll get different things so we can share.”
It turned out that Serena, by being herself and being true to herself, could have everything Venus has—and perhaps even more.