From ESPN magazine, SERENE QUEEN
by Cal Fussman
Three Grand Slam Titles and Counting, Serena Williams is the hottest act in tennis
Answering questions while a makeup artist’s tweezer is yanking wild hairs out of your eyebrows is not the easiest way to give an interview. But one thing is certain about Serena Williams: She wants to pack the most into every moment. At 17, she won the U.S. Open. This year, she won both the French Open and Wimbledon, defeating big sister Venus each time, and took over as the No. 1 ranked women’s player—grabbing that distinction from her sister as well. Just 20, Serena has her sights set on another U.S. Open title, but she has to get past Venus, who beat her in the finals last year. In a trailer before a recent photo shoot with The Magazine in California, in between the tweezer and the makeup brush, we served up questions and found Serena always ready with a quick return.
THE MAG:Remember the first time you picked up a racket?
SERENA:Not really. When I think back, it seems like there was always one in my hand. But I can remember my first tournament. I was 8 and my dad didn’t want me to play in tournaments. He didn’t think I was developed enough. Venus had started to play in local tournaments when she was 9. So when I was almost 9 I thought I should be, too. We all go to this tournament that Venus was entered in. I always tagged along. Venus is out there playing, and my dad is watching her. Her matches were never long in those days. Venus would just dominate. It’s hard to remember Venus losing. Girls might get three or four points in a match. That’s what you counted—their points. A match might last maybe 10 minutes.
I went to the office and entered myself. Only I didn’t have the entry fee. I just signed up and went to play my match. When Venus finished, my dad started looking around. “Where’s Serena?”
“Oh, she’s out there playing,” someone told him.
“No, no,” my dad said, “My other daughter. Serena.”
“Yeah. Serena. She’s out there playing.”
“Playing? How could she be playing? I didn’t even pay an entry fee.”
Even though it was the 10-and-under division and I’m only 8, I’m winning easily. I finish the match and start walking off the court, and there’s my dad. I’m thinking he’s going to be really angry with me.
But he wasn’t. He said it was okay, and went to pay the entry fee. I kept on winning. And Venus kept winning. And then I got to the finals—and had to play Venus. I remember losing, 6-2, 6-2.
The winners at this tournament got a gold trophy and second place got silver. Now, you know, Venus has always taken care of me. She’s like crazy lookin’ out for me. After we got our trophies, Venus turned to me and said, “I like silver more than gold. We can trade if you want to.”
And I did.
THE MAG:It’s only been 12 years since that first tournament. Is it hard to believe all that you’ve accomplished by the age of 20?
SERENA: Yeah, I can only imagine what those people back in Compton think now. Wow, those girls have come a long way from those days with the supermarket basket! We used to go around with this supermarket basket filled with tennis balls. My dad had a Volkswagen Bus—like a Scooby-Doo type. I think it was a ’78. It was red and we’d put the basket filled with balls inside and go to Lynnwood Park to hit. It seemed like that basket held a thousand balls. My dad would be wanting to stop, but we wouldn’t let him until the basket was empty. And there would always be a competition between Venus and me to see who would get the last ball. My dad would choose. (Laughing) As I got older, I got tired hitting those balls. Then it’s like: Venus, you’re getting the last ball…lucky you.
THE MAG:What don’t we understand about your dad?
SERENA:I honestly could not ask for better parents. I have really been blessed. The thing people don’t understand about my dad is how he would stay up five nights out of seven watching tennis instructional films. People wonder how Venus and I got our technique. I’ll have you know, it was my dad. Three years ago, Venus had a different forehand. It used to be her weakest side. Now it’s her stronger side, because my dad totally changed her grip. My dad did everything for us. People may not be aware that my mom’s a great coach, also. And I still go to both my parents for money. Always, I’m running short. “Daddy, I need five dollars.” He’ll say, “Here’s 20!”
THE MAG:You know how, when you’re young, places can seem really big? Then, when you get older and go back, the places…
SERENA:Oh yeah, I know what you’re saying. That happened to me the other day. I remember going to tournaments at UCLA with my dad and my sisters when I was really young. We would sit far up in the bleachers. The stadium seemed huge. One year we saw Stefan Edberg there. It was so cool. I went to a match at the very same place the other day and thought, “What happened? This stadium is so small.” It was weird.
THE MAG:When you go to compete at the U.S. Open now, does it seem to shrink in size as you grow as a player?
SERENA:Noooo. I’ve played there a few times now, but it never shrinks. The U.S. Open is big. It’s always been big for me and probably always will be.
Back when I was a kid, my sisters and I had this sidewalk handball game. We’d each use one hand and play with a tennis ball. We’d make up these fictitious names. My name was Sophie Adouf. That’s pronounced: Ad-wooof! I was from Sveeeden. Venus was Jacob Haalsek. My sister Lyndrea was Nina Chechnikov from the Czech Republic. We’d make the sidewalk like it was a tennis court. We’d throw dirt on it, and it would become the French Open. We’d throw grass cuttings on top of the dirt, and it would become Wimbledon. And we’d play the U.S. Open with the sidewalk hard.
For some reason, I had to win the U.S. Open in that handball game. I don’t know why,but my dream of dreams was always to win the U.S. Open.
THE MAG:You were only 17 when you actually did, in 1999. Before that, neither you nor Venus had won a Grand Slam event. The image many of us have of your victory comes just afterward, when you’re lifted into the stands to hug your family. Venus was hooded and, for at least the instant the camera was on her, she appeared chiseled in stone. Was it difficult for her to see her little sister win a major tournament before her?
SERENA:Two things were going on. You have to understand that Venus has always wanted the best for me. But also, I think that my win at the U.S. Open motivated her. Look at what happened. She went on to win two major tournaments the next year. I was young when I won the U.S. Open. Maybe too young. For a while afterward, I didn’t do anything except joke around and act nuts. I think I lost focus a little bit. It took me a long time to win another major tournament. In the meantime, Venus used that motivation to become No. 1. And suddenly I was sitting around ranked number seven or eight, thinking, “This is ridiculous. What am I doing? I’m 20. I’m getting old. I don’t have time to waste.” At that point, Venus becoming No. 1 totally motivated me.
THE MAG:A Chinese military philosopher named Sun Tzu once wrote: “All warfare is based on deception.” If you had to plan a surprise birthday party for Venus, would you be able to…
SERENA:I’m a Jehovah’s Witness. We don’t celebrate birthdays.
THE MAG:Let me ask you this way: After hitting millions of balls at each other and being so close for all these years, can you deceive Venus on a tennis court?
SERENA:I tricked her at Wimbledon. I’m not gonna tell how. But my trainers and I totally had her surprised.
THE MAG:You’ve beaten Venus in the finals of both Wimbledon and the French Open this year. The reactions following each victory were very striking. In France, Venus grabbed a camera and began to shoot photos of you along with other photographers. Did that surprise you?
SERENA:Not at all. Venus is crazy and spur-of-the-moment. I was holding up the trophy, and the guys next to me were telling me congratulations in French. Next thing I know Venus comes up with the camera. One guy goes: “Elle est tres contente aussi.”It was just so funny to hear that in French. It means, “She is very happy, also.” It was also nice to get some photos of my own. The photographers don’t always send them.
THE MAG:How many languages would you like to speak?
SERENA:Ideally, I would love to speak French perfectly. I speak it pretty well. I’d like to speak Italian, German, Spanish and Russian. In Europe, I see girls 12 years old speaking three languages. Twelve years old, and they can speak more languages than me! I’m going to get serious soon about learning at least one other one. I have a good ear for languages. That’s what happens when you’re a kid sitting around inventing Swedish names.
THE MAG:You served the final point at Wimbledon, and Venus hit it into the net. At that instant, you turned, you back was to Venus and then you lifted your arms in celebration. Did you not want to rub it in?
SERENA:I don’t remember that.
THE MAG:You can see it on the replay.
SERENA:I don’t watch the matches I play with Venus afterward—unless I lose, and then I learn something from them.
THE MAG:If one of you begins to dominate and beats the other 16 times in a row, how would that affect the relationship? If my brother took all my money at the poker table, he might want to quit while he was ahead. But, of course, I’d never let him leave the table.
SERENA:It wouldn’t make a difference. I’d try to beat her every time. And she’d try to beat me every time. When one of us is beating the other, the other is practicing that much harder. As long as you can say, “I prepared my best and did whatever I could,” you can live with yourself.
THE MAG:There have been a lot of unforced errors in many of your matches with Venus. Is that because the world is watching? Would it be helpful if you could smile after the other made a great shot? Laughter might brush away the tension and free you both to play your absolute best.
SERENA:Why should I be smiling at her on a tennis court when I don’t smile at anyone else?
THE MAG:What’s the most difficult part of being the young sister?
SERENA:When my sisters and I would play “Castle” as kids, I always needed to be the princess. And because I was the youngest, they’d always let me. Venus has always been taking care of me. Sometimes I think I should be doing more to be a better younger sister.
THE MAG:There are a lot of great athletes who measure themselves by numbers. Tiger Woods has a certain number of major tournaments he’d like to win to ensure his legacy. Do you motivate yourself with numbers?
SERENA:I don’t. Maybe I should. I know Tiger wants to beat Jack Nicklaus’ record. But I want to be happy for me. In order to break records, I’d have to play for 15 years. And I don’t want to play for 15 years. I really don’t. There’s so much travel. Nowadays it’s different than it was back then. Now there’s a tournament every week, and there are so many demands on you. My goal is simple: to win every tournament that I’m in.
THE MAG:What would you like to have accomplished by age 30?
SERENA:Hopefully, I’ll be settled down by then. I would like to have a child before I’m 30. I don’t want too many kids after 30. I might still be playing tennis, but I doubt it.
THE MAG:What would you like to have accomplished by the time you’re 40?
SERENA:I’d like to have my own businesses. I’m going to be a designer. I’d like to build up a business empire—not just for my satisfaction, but to give opportunities to people through charities.
THE MAG:Speaking of design, when you’re playing a match, have you ever looked across the net at your opponent and thought, “You know, she would look a lot better if I were designing her clothes?”
SERENA:Oh, yeah. Some people have struggled a bit in that department.
THE MAG:Anyone in particular?
THE MAG:What would you like to have accomplished by age 90?
SERENA:If the world is still here? I don’t know. I would just be happy to be alive. I’d probably be competing to last 10 more seconds. I’d be counting: eight, nine, ten…I did it. Yeah!
THE MAG:You’re 4-0 against Jennifer Capriati this year. You’re 3-0 against Venus and…
SERENA:And I’m No. 1!
THE MAG:Are you peaking as a player?
SERENA:No. I feel I can play so much better. There are a lot of things that I should be doing that I’m not doing. I’m nowhere near my peak. There’s this guy who left a message after I won the French Open who said, “Good job, but there’s so much to improve on.” He was right. I can serve better. I don’t think I’ve served exceptionally well all year. I’m not coming to the net like I should. After I won Wimbledon, he left another message: “You’re getting better…but there’s still room to improve.” Now comes the U.S. Open. Obviously, Venus wants to win. Jennifer wants to win. I’m trying to catch up with Venus. She’s got four Grand Slams. I’ve only got three. I’m getting ready. I’ve got a new motto. It’s…Never mind! I don’t want anybody to read my motto. The U.S. Open’s coming.
For now, I’m just going to keep it to myself.