“She is my role model and sister and best friend all rolled up in one,” Serena Williams says of her older sister, Venus.
The two sporting legends went head-to-head in Abu Dhabi in December, in a thrilling exhibition match that was one of the major draws of the Mubadala World Tennis Championships. But, after more than 20 years playing tennis at the highest professional levels, often against each other, there is no animosity between the siblings, Serena insists. “As I’ve said before, she really brings out the best in me. It is never easy playing your best friend, but she really knows my game inside out, and has been so successful over me so many times. I could not be more fortunate to have her as my sister.”
Serena has dominated women's tennis since 1999, when she beat Martina Hingis to win the US Open at the age of 18. Since then, she has gone on to secure an astonishing 23 Grand Slam titles, a feat only bettered by Australia's Margaret Court in the 1970s. Serena was voted 2018 WTA Comeback Player of the Year, and is only the second athlete to hold all four Grand Slam titles at once.
A notoriously gruelling sport, tennis tests a player’s strength both physically and mentally, with women’s matches regularly lasting two hours and players having to contend with serving speeds in excess of 125kph. All under the watchful eye of the world’s press. “Pressure is never easy,” Serena maintains. “But I have learned throughout my career that it is a privilege, and I would much rather have the pressure that comes along with the privilege than not have any pressure at all. Just keeping a strong sense of self-confidence and self-belief is the best coping mechanism for me.”
Last year was a tumultuous one for the sporting superstar. Having taken 14 months off to have her daughter, Alexis Olympia, in 2017, with her husband, Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian, Serena found herself unseeded when she returned to the French Open in May 2018. In addition, the all-black catsuit she chose to wear for the tournament (which she said made her feel like a "superhero" and was actually worn for medical reasons, to prevent blood clots) drew the ire of the French Tennis Federation. It promptly banned it, declaring it "a step too far". There was further controversy during the finals of the US Open, when Serena accused Portuguese chair umpire Carlos Ramos of sexism.
Nonetheless, she maintains that there is far greater equality in the sport these days. “There is still a way to go, but so many pioneers before me have been able to make a lot of changes and pave the way for players like me. I hope I am doing a good job in following in the footsteps of Billie Jean King and more.”
She must have felt vindicated, then, in December, when the World Tennis Association announced that its new 2019 rule book would introduce a new special seeding rule for players returning from maternity leave. “It is amazing to know that by speaking out, I can use my voice to help others. I am so happy that the WTA created this new rule. Women should be able to have families and still work, not only in tennis, but everywhere. My work in this is just the beginning. Being able to have a family and work full time is such a blessing and I hope to continue the conversation and work hard so that other mums in other fields can experience the same benefits.
“I feel so fortunate to have a platform that allows me to help others both in the sport and away from the sport. I am honestly honoured that I can be a role model and I embrace that.”
The new WTA rules also include modernised regulations surrounding attire – a response, no doubt, to the furore surrounding Serena's French Open outfit. She has become increasingly known for her daring fashion choices on court, and for wilfully pushing the stuffy boundaries of tennis etiquette, stepping out in tutus, leopard print, lace bustiers and even denim mini-skirts. This fashion-forward approach resulted in a collaboration last year with Off/White designer Virgil Abloh on a bespoke wardrobe for her appearance at the US Open. "I had some ideas for the dress, but Virgil really took the ideas and brought it to the next level. He made it so fabulous. The shoes were all Virgil – he is truly the best."
Serena went on to launch an eponymous online fashion range early last year, which is intended to appeal to a broad spectrum of women. “Being inclusive is something that is always at the forefront of my mind when I’m designing,” she says. “We started the line offering XS to XL sizes with the intent to release more sizes later in the year, and now I’m so excited to share that we currently offer sizes XS-3XL. It’s so important to me to be able to represent all sizes and shapes and colours and backgrounds in my designs, and I really hope that shows.”
Serena is a much-needed contemporary role model – a formidable sportswoman who fearlessly challenges racism and inequality, and who has endured years of body-shaming and misogyny; but also a mother who has been very vocal about the traumatic, life-threatening birth of her daughter, her post-partum depression and the difficulties of returning to work after having a child.
So what’s the most important lesson that she would like to pass on to her daughter? Williams’s answer is swift and simple. “Love herself. If she does not, no one will know how to love her.”