Road to 23 — The story of Serena’s path to greatness
As Serena Williams seeks her record 23rd Grand Slam at the Australian Open, those closest to her share stories of her unparalleled ambition and her pursuit to become tennis’ greatest competitor.
Serena Williams is poised to make history. With one more Grand Slam win, Williams will hold more Grand Slam titles than any other player in the Open era. To do so once, a player must win seven matches over two weeks on the sport’s greatest stages. With a win at the Australian Open, which begins Monday, Williams, 35, will have done so 23 times in 29 Grand Slams and will surpass Steffi Graf’s Open era record of 22. It is no longer a question of if, but of when, whether it be in Australia, at Wimbledon, the French Open or the US Open. Once she reaches 23, the buzz will turn to Margaret Court’s all-era record of 24, and history will beckon again.
Such has been the career of Serena Williams, built of milestones upon milestones, as she became the first, the fastest, the winningest. For more than two decades, she has captivated our attention and confounded our ability to easily package her enigmatic personality. She is complicated and contradictory, fierce and shy, intense yet vulnerable. Those who know her best say it is this internal turbulence that has driven her to rise from moments of despair and continue to chase excellence in a sport she has come to define, while pursuing happiness in a life that continually tests her ability to overcome.
As she prepares for yet another historic season, we offer an oral history, through more than 20 interviews with her friends, family, competitors and coaches, of the lessons, experiences, hardships and successes that have crafted Williams into the greatest competitor the sport of tennis has ever seen.
PART ONE: THE PRODIGY
SEPT. 26, 1981
Serena Jameka Williams is born in Saginaw, Michigan, to Richard Williams and Oracene Price. It’s a Saturday.
Oracene Price (mother): “What I remember about the day Serena was born is that she was a 10 ½-pound baby. But she wasn’t a hard delivery, my youngest daughter.”
Isha Price (sister): “We didn’t know if Serena was going to be a boy or a girl. My sisters and I were at our grandmother’s house. We weren’t allowed to go to the hospital, and I remember wishing and hoping we had a little brother. I remember the phone call and our grandmother calling us into one room and saying ‘You have another baby sister.’ I was a little disappointed.”
The youngest of five girls, Serena embraces the role of little sis. Growing up, she shares a bedroom and two sets of bunk beds with her siblings — Lyndrea and Venus on the two lower bunks, and Isha and Yetunde on the upper bunks. Each night, Serena crawls into bed with a different sister. When it comes to her older sisters, Serena always gets her way.
Isha: “We would have these family talent shows, and Serena always had to win. She always sang the same song, ‘Greatest Love of All’ by Whitney Houston. Even if she sounded like screeching tires, she won. That’s what we had to do or she would throw a tantrum and cry. We didn’t want to deal with the repercussions of her not winning.”
Oracene: “With Serena, everything had to be perfect and she would get frustrated if it wasn’t. She always had to win, no matter if it was a talent show, cards, she had to be the winner. She would sit on cards. And they let her do it. They gave it to her, even if she didn’t win. I think it affects her to this day, because she hates losing. That’s how come it was so inappropriate when they said we were setting matches. Serena is not going to lose for no one.”
In 1983, the family moves to Compton, California. After learning that top female tennis players can earn thousands of dollars per tournament, Richard and Oracene begin teaching themselves the game in order to coach their daughters. When Serena is 3 and Venus is 4, they pick up their first rackets, and their parents set to work. Richard eventually leaves his job to coach the girls full time. Serena is a quick study. In 1991, she plays her first junior tournament at the age of 9 and makes it to the final, where she faces Venus.
Isha: “Venus was older and playing tournaments, and Serena wasn’t playing tournaments yet. Venus was enrolled in this particular tournament, and Serena wasn’t. Unbeknownst to my dad and mom, Serena sent in the application and signed herself up for the tournament. Who does that? You had to pay to sign up, and the tournament directors had to get the money from my parents. She always wanted to be just like Venus; it was that little sister hero-worship thing. Even then, she wanted to compete.”
Venus Williams (older sister): “She got tired of watching me play. She wanted to play. Back then, I was bigger and stronger, and in the changeovers during the final, she’d say, ‘Venus, let me win a game.’ I ignored her. We were supposed to be professional. I ended up winning the tournament, and afterward I said, ‘Serena, I think we should switch trophies. I like the silver one better anyway.’ She was the little sister, so she had no problem taking my trophy. We still have them in our home in Florida.”
Unlike most young players, Serena and Venus play few junior tournaments. Richard chooses instead to hold his daughters out of competition until they are ready to compete on the pro tour. In 1991, they meet with their first high-profile professional coach, Rick Macci, in Compton. A few months later, the family moves to Florida so that Serena and Venus can train with him at Grenelefe Golf & Tennis Resort in Haines City.
Rick Macci (Serena’s coach from 1991 to 1995): “Normally if I see kids play, I see them at a national tournament. I’m not going to somebody’s house. Richard said, ‘The only thing I can guarantee you is you won’t get shot.’ I had to meet this guy. He’s a comedian. I flew to Los Angeles on a Friday night. Richard, Oracene, Venus and Serena came to my hotel room in Compton, and we talked for three hours. I will never forget Venus and Serena: One was sitting on each of Richard’s legs looking at me while he grilled me: What do you have for breakfast? Why aren’t you married? How many girlfriends? Do you travel with kids? What is your religion? What time do you get up? Are you colorblind? Have you ever taught a black person? When that ended, he said, ‘We’ll pick you up at 7 a.m. and go to East Hills Country Club.’
“They picked me up in a Volkswagen van. It was shaking back and forth, three months’ worth of McDonald’s wrappers, clothes, Coke cans, bottles and a spring coming out of the seat. We get to the courts, and it’s not a country club. It’s a crummy park. There are guys playing basketball, people passed out in the grass, broken glass all over the courts, people drinking beer. Every person we passed called him King Richard. We had to cross the basketball court to get to the tennis courts, and it parted like the Red Sea.
“Usually after five minutes I can tell if there is something special. We’re hitting balls, and I’m going, ‘These girls aren’t that good.’ There were arms and hair and legs flying everywhere, beads flying out of their hair. They were improvising, hitting off their back feet. Then I said, ‘Let’s play some points.’ I swear to God, their stock went soaring through the hemisphere. Their footwork got better, their prep got better, they cleaned up their act. What blew me away was their burning desire to run and fight and get to every ball like their hair was on fire. I had never seen two kids try so hard. I had never seen bodies that could move like that. Athletes with their body types went to other sports; they didn’t play tennis.”
Lyndrea Price (sister): “Their journey was my journey because I had to wake up too. When Venus and Serena left, I left. It was a family effort. We didn’t have a hopper, because those were expensive, so I would shuffle the balls with my racket and pick them up. I wasn’t playing, but I was out there every day.
“Even as a kid, Serena was built. She was so muscular. She didn’t have to do a lot of work to get that physique. It was an anomaly that she was gifted at 3 years old to have that body. I remember thinking, wait ’till they get a load of you.”
Freddy Bryant (East Compton Park employee): “We always had to have the courts cleaned and hosed down because Richard stayed on us. He would bring generators, tennis-serving machines, and the girls would work. Mom would sit in the van and read books. She was always reading. When they finished, the girls would come inside and play pingpong and eat the summer lunch we served to the community. One day stands out to me. Serena was out by herself, going from baseline to baseline and Richard was like, ‘You wanna quit? You wanna quit? Go sit in the van with your mom.’ Serena said, ‘No. No.’ She didn’t give up, and every time she hit the ball, I heard that grunt. She was 10 years old. She was grunting and fighting. I was like, ‘Wow. This little girl right here, she’s a tiger.'”
Nick Bollettieri (legendary tennis coach, head of the IMG Academy): “I remember Richard Williams coming to my house in Longboat Key with his two daughters and saying they would be bigger than Michael Jordan. They all thought Richard was crazy. But he did something no one else did. He kept them back from tournaments and taught them technique and to go for it. Their daddy said, ‘Run for every ball.’ And Serena would say, ‘Daddy, the ball is out.’ And he’d say, ‘No ball is out. You have two sets of eyes: your eyes and your brain. By the time your brain registers what your eyes think they see, it’s too late. But when you move, you get the ball.'”
Macci : “One day, Venus was out there grinding. Serena wasn’t working hard or moving her feet. I said, ‘Jameka [Serena’s middle name], you have to start moving.’ ‘What are you going to give me?’ she asked. ‘I’m tired. I’m thirsty. If you get me a Pepsi and some curly fries and a Snickers bar … and on the corner, they’re selling Green Day T-shirts. If you get me that, I will work 100 percent for the next hour.’ This was her maturity. I had an assistant get it all but the shirt, and this girl moved her feet on the court like Spider-Man. For one hour, this girl was on fire. When that hour was up, she said, ‘I’m done and I expect that Green Day shirt here at 8 a.m.'”
OCT. 28, 1995
At age 13, Serena makes her pro debut in the qualifying draw at the Bell Challenge in Quebec, where she loses in less than an hour. She doesn’t play a tournament in 1996. At the 1997 Ameritech Cup, she upsets No. 7 Mary Pierce and No. 4 Monica Seles, becoming the lowest-ranked player (No. 304) in the Open era to defeat two top-10 opponents in one tournament. She loses in the semifinal match.
Bollettieri : “From the years I traveled with the Williams family and they came to my camps, the story I most remember is Serena sitting in the shade in my stadium court, head down, so upset. She said, ‘Nick, I’m tired of coming in second place.'”