US Open Preview: The Serena Interview—'My Destiny'

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En route to seeking the Grand Slam, Serena Williams spoke about her toughness, her vulnerability, her coach, her nerves, her humor, her race, her sister and her mother.

Did you ever think about winning a calendar-year Grand Slam?

When I was younger that was definitely a goal … [Now] it’s become more of a dream or fable. I’ve never been this close. So, we’ll see!

Do you ever look back and find deep inside you that little girl who had these dreams? Do you think, “Wow, look what I’ve done”?

Not yet. One day … I’ll definitely look back. I’ll be like, “Oh, I did a good job.” Right now, I’m into continuing to be the greatest champion I can and the best role model I can be … [If you] look back, it’s so easy to become satisfied and complacent.

Are you able to put in perspective what you’re doing? 

It’s really, really huge…I have the Serena Slam now, which is amazing … but I don’t have the Grand Slam in my hands.

When you were dancing around after winning Wimbledon, did you think of New York?

I thought, “Oh, man, I’ve won New York three times in a row. I hope this isn’t the year I go down.” I want to do well there – we’ll see.

Twenty-one Slams, six Wimbledons, the Serena Slam. What speaks loudest?

The Serena Slam. Starting this journey–having all four trophies at home—is incredible.

How’s this Serena Slam different from the one you won 12 years ago?

It’s different—it’s unexpected. Back then I was “top of the world” and expected to win. Everyone expects me to win now, but I’m having more fun and enjoying each moment … I wouldn’t have thought last year after winning the US Open I’d win the Serena Slam. I just knew I wanted to win Wimbledon. It was the Slam I hadn’t won in a while.

What did you learn from winning the Serena Slam?

That I’m able to do anything. Anyone’s able to do anything they set their mind to … it takes teamwork. My coach does a wonderful job keeping me consistent … The physical work, the training … it’s a team effort.

Talk about the impact of your coach Patrick Mouratoglou. Does he scout opponents and come up with game plans?

I [now] go into a match knowing exactly what to expect and what to do. It makes life easier. His motivation is unbelievable. We’re a lot alike. He’s a perfectionist—I’m a perfectionist. When I’m not where I need to be, he’s there. He’s like, “There’s no other option but to be better” … We’re [always] working on new things. He’s like, “If you want to continue, you have to improve A, B and C” … [Now] every time, I know how to react. It’s been really good to have an extra ear … Something’s working – you can’t argue with results. He does a great job keeping me focused … I tend to get down on myself when I don’t win easily. So he’s like, “You should be happy. You got through that. I don’t know how you got through that” … [He’s] really encouraging.

Going to New York with a chance to win the Grand Slam, there’ll be a lot of hype.

If I can do the Serena Slam, I’ll be okay heading into the Grand Slam. There are 127 others that don’t want to see me win. Nothing personal, they just want to win.

Do you feel indestructible?

You’d be surprised that I feel so vulnerable. Every time I step out there it’s just overcoming those feelings.

What could stop you? 

I’m always one of my biggest competitors. I can always stop myself – that’s why I try to stay positive, focused, and as calm as I can … I have to make sure I don’t have too many cheat days, and make sure I’m prepared. Anytime, fear and doubt can stop me. If I’m a little nervous and fearful, that’s never a good sign. It does happen, but I embrace it, bottle it up and throw that bottle away. I just go for it … I have ways of avoiding doubt. That’s my secret.

Do you have the capacity to surprise yourself?

Oh, yeah … I would have never thought I’d win another Serena Slam … It’s really cool.

Was the French Open the most difficult Slam you’ve won?

When you have the flu, your whole body aches … But it has nothing to do with why I lost first sets—that was just poor starting, and not playing the way Serena Williams should play. Very unprofessional.

What’s been the toughest thing for you to accomplish?

To stay in the moment. It’s easy to go out there and want to win…But you have to win seven matches. You have to win each match—each set—each point.

How do you stay in the moment? What’s your inner voice saying while you’re trying to focus?

Usually I’m singing … if I stop singing, I usually start losing, so I go back to singing. It’s crazy up there. You don’t want to be up there.

What songs are in your head?

It’s usually the same. It’s actually “Flashdance,” by Irene Cara. Super random, don’t ask me why. I like the words. If you break down the words, it’s pretty cool … really intense.

Many consider you the best player ever.

I’m just Serena [who] trains every day and does everything—the youngest of five. That keeps me levelheaded and humble. When you mention me next to the greats, I just feel really weird for now.

Do you understand tennis better now than before? 

Definitely … I read the game better … After three games, I’m like, “Now I know what you’re going to do.” Or, when their coach comes out, I key on what they change in their games. That’s just experience and age.

A lot of athletes see their careers in terms of different phases.

I can see at least three. There was the first Serena Slam, 1.0. There were a few stages where I wasn’t doing too well, and then there’s this stage.

Do you judge a phase by your results or by everything you’re doing?

Definitely, the latter. There was a stage where I was doing really well and I ended up in the hospital. That was devastating, but ultimately that stage set up this stage.

What’s the difference in your body from years ago?

I feel almost better now. I have aches and pains. But I’m more fit. I can do more than I did 10, 12 years ago. I just keep reinventing myself, in terms of working out, in terms of my game … I don’t feel old. That’s what keeps me in it. I joke I’ve been on the tour for a hundred years. I don’t feel 33.

You’ve beaten Sharapova 17 straight times and haven’t lost in 11 years. 

Whenever you play someone [who] has beaten you before, you get focused … Whenever I play Maria, I have to be focused. She wasn’t the best in the world for no reason … I love playing her. She brings out [my] best … I love her intensity. My game matches up well against her.

How important are tough matches? 

Sometimes you definitely need to know, “Okay, I can last two and a half hours.” Everyone prefers an easier match. But a tough match really helps … Last year I would have lost [that Wimbledon match against Heather Watson] … I just feel so much stronger mentally. That’s always been my strength, and the older I get, the tougher I get upstairs. This time next year I’ll probably be even stronger.

When you get into a third set, do you feel you can’t lose?

I feel really vulnerable … I have one more set to win or to lose. I just go for it.

Do you still get nervous before a final?

I get nervous every time I walk out on court. I’d be concerned if I wasn’t nervous.

What does losing and winning mean to you?

I really hate losing. I’m the kind of person that’ll work harder than anybody else to make sure I don’t get that. If I do, I learn from it. That way I don’t have to do it [again for] a long time.

And of winning?

As long as I don’t lose, I’m okay.

You said problem-solving was one of your biggest assets. 

When I’m losing, I’m like, “Okay, why are you losing? What are you not doing?” I come up with several different solutions…My father built a game where I could change…I have five, six, seven different options. I have a good foundation [that] helps me grow.

You said you’re no longer desperate to win. 

I was so desperate to get to 18 [Slams], and since then, I’ve totally relaxed … I don’t have anything to prove. I’ve won all the Slams multiple times. Now I’m here just to enjoy it. It’s making me play better—which is crazy.

Talk about your mental toughness.

Being mentally tough is probably my biggest strength. My dad always said, “Tennis is so mental, you have to be really mentally tough.” I took that to heart. Being the youngest of five really made me scrap and be tougher … It’s great to have a big serve, too. You could be the best in the world, but sometimes you’re down and you have to be able to come back … It’s hard when every single match you’re the favorite and it’s bigger news when you lose than when you win. But Billie Jean King says, “Pressure is a privilege” … If I’m far ahead or far down, [it’s] just one point at a time and go for it. I don’t think too far out beyond one or two points.

Aside from your sister, who has been the toughest player you’ve faced?

I played [Justine] Henin, who [was] amazing.  Monica Seles was great. Lindsay Davenport. Martina Hingis was also a super-tough opponent.

Which players inspired you?

I loved Monica. I thought she was super cool. I loved her grunt, her fight. I loved Zina Garrison, because she was almost the only black player—there was Lori McNeil, too … It was inspiring … It’s so good to see people of color be able to play a sport that was once dominated by one race … You can’t put everything on me and Venus. There were so many other African Americans: Althea Gibson, Zina, Lori, Camille Benjamin. I still talk to Zina and she inspires me. Just knowing what she’s gone through makes me want to work harder.

Now you’ve become an inspiration—a big wheel’s turned.

It’s gone full circle. I’ve become the person that people can look up to—but not on purpose. I just go out there and do the best I can. I’m myself, and people can learn from my mistakes and from what I do right. I’m not picture-perfect, and that could be inspiring, as well…The only thing that motivates me is that I love what I do—that’s why I continue.

And your thoughts on having gone back to Indian Wells?

It was one of the best experiences of my life. It was the right timing … It was incredibly inspiring for everyone and for sport .. It [was]…one of the proudest moments of my career. I didn’t ever feel [as nervous as] that. Definitely not before a match … There were tears of [being] overwhelmed. I just felt so good to be out there … But up until that moment I didn’t really know if it was the right thing …Receiving the love from the crowd meant a lot…Everyone has come a long way—especially the WTA and the USTA. They really stepped up to the plate. I appreciated all the love … It was amazing to come back [to] a place where I won my first match—I visited La Quinta and took pictures … Being able to come back where I had so much success has been super inspiring. It makes me want to do more.

Why did you do fundraising before you went to Indian Wells, for the Equal Justice Initiative, which advocates for prisoners?

We all know many things [have] happened in the country … It was just an opportunity to speak up … Everyone’s saddened and disappointed at some of the things that [have] happened … We are dealing with race issues. It’s admirable how many people stand up and speak out for the rights of humanity. Hopefully it’s going to make a difference. Seeing the work that EJI is doing in terms of getting the right representation for many, many minorities and for the prison system … If you’re in a position where you can stand up and be a role model, why not?

Did you ever think about doing what basketball players did, wearing a shirt in honor of Eric Garner?

That was really admirable. When I saw the shirt, I thought I would’ve loved to have been part of that movement.

How important is it to forgive?

I was taught to always forgive and to always try to look at the bigger picture … You can overcome things, even [when] they might not be the best of situations … To forgive, you have to be able to let go of everything. I did that a long time ago, but I still wasn’t at a point where I was ready to come back to Indian Wells. I was nervous. I had gone through something that wasn’t the best thing … You have to let a lot of those emotions go.

It’s important to be receptive?

It’s really important to accept who you are. Not everyone is going to accept you. If you go through your life wanting everyone to accept you, that can cause a whole set of issues.

Venus said the two of you came into tennis and changed the game.

We [were] different. We didn’t play juniors. Our dad [was] our coach for years. Usually you switch it up a little bit … We’re black. We started something new. It was fresh. It [was] definitely something opposite from what you’d expect from an average player … [Venus] came in as a new face, a black woman who was shaking up the world. She had all the pressure … I just came in behind her, just snuck in there. There was no pressure … She dealt with it so amazingly. She had a lot of confidence and class, and still does … She’s definitely grown, but she’s always been very mature and very regal.

What have you learned from facing her?

That no matter what, family and spirituality should be No. 1.

What about Venus gets under your skin?

Her dog. He’s bad. I love him … [But] he kind of uses me. Whenever Venus comes home, he goes back to her.

Your mom’s always calm. If you achieve the Grand Slam, what can we expect?

She’ll look as stoic as normal. Or she might not even know [laughs]. She’ll be like, “What happened?” That’s mom.

What’s the best part of being Serena?

I just have fun. I don’t take myself seriously. I’m always making jokes—I’m always laughing. I try to always stay on an even keel and not let anything get to my head.

Your humor: is it annoying, insufferable, or what?

It’s annoying. I’m always making jokes and playing pranks—no one can take me seriously.

Did you ever think of another career path?

I saw a picture [when] I was in a stroller on the court. My destiny was to play tennis.