Serena Williams has undergone a truly stunning transformation. Since she was a young girl, the tennis phenomenon has shown the world what it looks like to be a superior athlete with a total mastery of her sport. Williams has also become an activist and advocate for women around the world, intentionally elevating the status of Black women in particular. Oh, and she’s absolutely gorgeous, too.
But Williams wasn’t born with a racket in one hand and a trophy in the other. Rather, the tennis pro has an origin story just as (if not more) humble than the rest of us, going all the way back to her childhood days spent in Compton with her sister and fellow tennis player Venus Williams.
So just how did Williams best any and all competition, becoming the greatest of all time in her sport? And what else makes Williams tick, other than slamming serves and displaying sheer prowess on the court? Read on to witness the stunning transformation of Serena Williams, a woman unparalleled in nearly all of her pursuits.
Serena Williams grew up in a very religious household
On Sept. 26, 1981, Serena Jameka Williams was born in Saginaw, Mich. to parents Richard and Oracene Williams, as noted by ESPN. Her father was a former sharecropper from Louisiana — a fraught and often unjust predicament, as noted by PBS.
Two years after her birth, Serena Williams — who was apparently competitive about everything from the get-go, even family talent shows — and her family relocated to Compton in Southern California. And, as Williams tells it, religion played a central role in her family’s life from the start. "We were brought up as Jehovah’s Witnesses, so we have a strong spiritual background," she revealed in an interview with Oprah. She noted, "Fortunately, we listened to our parents, which I think is one reason we’re blessed." And that, she added, is why she never got into any trouble or wound up taking the wrong path.
As for what Williams hoped for herself in the future? "I want to be a giving woman and just a nice person in general," she continued. Considering her extensive philanthropic endeavors, it’s safe to say that the young Williams would be proud of the woman she’s become.
As young girls, Venus and Serena Williams looked out for each other
Serena Williams is the youngest of five siblings, but of all of them, she’s closest to Venus Williams, who was born a year before her in 1980 (via ESPN). Growing up, the two sisters spent a lot of time together and always looked out for each other, says Serena Williams. "Once, when we were younger, I ran out of lunch money, and we were both hungry," she shared in a chat with Oprah. "Venus said, ‘Serena, you take my money — you go eat.’" That meant Serena enjoyed a hot meal at school, while Venus likely made herself a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.
Additionally, for a long time, Serena Williams looked up to her older sister, so much so that she had to dial it back a bit. That included while the family was dining out, too. "My parents would make me order first, but once she ordered, I’d change my mind," she continued. "It was tough for me to stop being Venus and become the person I am."
Serena Williams fell in love with tennis as a young girl thanks to her father
Serena Williams arguably wouldn’t be where she is today without the actions of her father, Richard, who put a racket in her hand when she was only 3 years old. He and his wife, Oracene, taught themselves to play tennis, in the hopes of instilling a love of the sport into their youngest daughters. "Our father doesn’t get enough credit," Serena Williams told Oprah. "He showed us how to serve — and we have the biggest serves in women’s tennis."
Both Williams and her sister Venus took to the sport with passion and skill; that was something that Serena’s coach from 1991 through 1995, Rick Macci, noticed immediately. "What blew me away was their burning desire to run and fight and get to every ball like their hair was on fire," he explained in an interview with ESPN. "I had never seen bodies that could move like that."
While Richard was motivated to teach his daughters tennis for financial reasons, along the way, Serena Williams fell in love with the sport, too.
In 1995, Serena Williams played her first professional tennis match
In 1995, when Serena Williams was only 14 years old, she played her first-ever professional tennis match. She’d been working insanely hard for years in order to prepare for her debut, but found herself nervous as all get out when the moment finally arrived. "Butterflies consumed my stomach leaving no space for me to eat to prepare for my match," she recalled in an Instagram post.
Unfortunately, that day Williams didn’t taste victory, as Annie Miller defeated her within the space of an hour. "Basically she crushed me," she continued. "Not only did I look like a novice but I looked like I did not belong anywhere on the court."
However, for as devastated as Serena Williams felt after her loss, she didn’t let that stop her — rather, it only made her hungry for more. "Born with an innate insatiable desire to never quit I knew I would return," she added. "I would come back." And come back she did, as we all know, showing the world she’s the best.
Serena Williams rose to the top of the tennis world
Serena Williams may have lost her first professional tennis match, but it became clear quickly that losing just isn’t in her DNA. After that game, Williams started climbing the ranks in her sport, according to ESPN. First, in 1998, she and her partner Max Mirnyi won mixed doubles at both Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. The next year, she and her sister cleaned up at the Fed Cup, their first time ever competing in the tournament.
That’s not all, either, as in 1999, Williams made history when she won her first Grand Slam title at the age of 17 — the first African American woman ever to do so in the Open era. That landed her on the cover of Sports Illustrated, as well as on television for the world to see.
But Williams still wasn’t done rising. In 2002, she won the clay-court title at the Italian Open, the French Open, the U.S. Open, and, of course, Wimbledon. The cherry on top? Her rival in all of those matches was her sister Venus Williams. From that point on, the entire sport of tennis would never be the same. Makes us wonder what celebs know about fitness that we don’t!
Serena Williams dealt with racism in tennis for years
While Serena Williams became one of the best tennis players in the world, that unfortunately didn’t insulate her from racism, which she’s dealt with since the beginning of her career. According to Vice, there’s a long and well-documented history of racist attacks on Williams, from offensive cartoons to racist heckling to excessive drug testing and wardrobe policing.
In addition to racism, Williams has also dealt with sexism in tennis, as noted by The New York Times. On one occasion, Williams even criticized a referee for unfair treatment, after he penalized her arguably unfairly. "There are men out here that do a lot worse, but because I’m a woman, because I’m a woman, you’re going to take this away from me? That is not right," she told an official.
Despite all of the negativity she’s put up with over the years, Williams just kept winning tournament after tournament, which is possibly the best revenge.
Serena Williams lost a sister to violence in 2003
One year after Serena Williams became a household name in 2002, tragedy struck the Williams family. On Sept. 14, 2003, William’s oldest sister, Yetunde Price, was killed in Compton, according to ESPN. Price, who was only 31 years old at the time, was caught in gang crossfire while in a vehicle with her boyfriend. Of course, the entire family was devastated, said sister Isha Price. "Unless you’ve experienced that kind of loss, you can’t fully describe to somebody else what that feels like, like part of yourself is gone," she lamented. "You have to almost re-learn how to live, how to approach every day."
Williams opened up about the experience on an episode of DiversiTea (via Page Six), and said it’s important to talk about gun violence. "I think we need to get comfortable with having uncomfortable conversations," she explained. "Situations are never really gonna get better if you always avoid it, you have to take it head-on."
This was on the heels of William’s parents divorcing in 2002, so clearly this was a rough time for Williams. She also dealt with injuries and struggled with tennis for several years after.
In 2010, Serena Williams had a serious accident and missed Wimbledon
While Serena Williams struggled with injuries in the year after her sister’s death, as well as her commitment to tennis, she wasn’t leaving the sport behind. In fact, Williams once again won Wimbledon in both 2009 and 2010 (via Bleacher Report), proving that she still had what it took to be the best.
However, in 2010, Williams severely injured herself in Germany, when she stepped on broken glass and unknowingly tore the tendon in her right foot. Then, after Williams left Germany, she noticed her big toe was drooping, so she went to the doctor for an MRI — and opted for surgery. "I thought it over and decided it was better to have the surgical procedure, for my career and for my life," she recalled in an interview with The Guardian.
On top of that, Williams re-injured that tendon months later, taking her out of the tennis game for the season, as noted by ESPN. But even worse, Williams was hospitalized with a pulmonary embolism in 2011, and had to get emergency treatment. She did manage to win Wimbledon once again in 2012, but what a tough time she had!
In 2017, Serena Williams got married in a fairy tale wedding
In 2015, Serena Williams met her now-husband, Reddit founder Alexis Ohanian, in Rome at a hotel breakfast. The pair hit it off, and, by the next year, Ohanian popped the big question — and Williams said yes! "Alexis flew me out to Rome, back to the exact table where we’d met," she revealed to Vogue. "It was such a beautiful moment."
The happy couple tied the knot one year later at a star-studded, fairy tale wedding at the Contemporary Arts Center of New Orleans. Williams wore a custom Alexander McQueen ball gown for the occasion, which made the Armani-clad Ohanian grin when he saw her walk down the aisle. "I am so excited to write so many more chapters of our fairy tale together," he gushed in his vows. "And my whole life I didn’t even realize it, but I was waiting for this moment." Aww!
Williams and Ohanian welcomed their first child into the world two months before their wedding, as noted by BBC News. What a beautiful family!
Becoming a mother was a dream come true for Serena Williams
While Serena Williams has an impressive list of accomplishments under her belt, perhaps her greatest pride and joy was bringing her daughter, Alexis Olympia Ohanian Jr., into the world. "We’re not spending a day apart until she’s eighteen," she quipped in a chat with Vogue. "Now that I’m 36 and I look at my baby, I remember that this was also one of my goals when I was little, before tennis took over, when I was still kind of a normal girl who played with dolls." After all that time on the court, it has to feel pretty amazing to finally become a mother!
In addition to the sheer joy of having her child, Williams, one of Hollywood’s most down-to-earth celebrities, also says her very presence brings her great comfort. She noted that she felt less anxiety after she gave birth to her daughter. She shared, "Knowing I’ve got this beautiful baby to go home to makes me feel like I don’t have to play another match."
Serena Williams saved her own life in the hospital
Speaking of becoming a mother, while Serena Williams had an fairly easy pregnancy (if there is such a thing), her labor and delivery were anything but. At the last minute, she had an emergency C-section, after her heart rate plummeted. Fortunately, the surgery went well, and Williams met her daughter for the first time! "That was an amazing feeling," she told Vogue. "And then everything went bad."
Specifically — and scarily — Williams flagged down a nurse after suddenly experiencing shortness of breath, suspicious that she was having yet another pulmonary embolism. Gasping for air, she asked for a CT scan and blood thinner, but the medical staff didn’t listen the first time; instead they performed an ultrasound on her legs. "I was like, a Doppler? I told you, I need a CT scan and a heparin drip," she continued.
Upon finding nothing on the ultrasound, Williams’ medical team finally did as she asked and found small blood clots in her lungs. "I was like, listen to Dr. Williams," she added. She then got the heparin drip she knew she needed, thereby saving her own life.
Serena Williams is determined to change the status quo
In addition to being a tennis juggernaut, a wife, and a mother, Serena Williams is also an activist and advocate for women and girls. And from where Williams is sitting, she wants to see the status quo change to allow for more equality. "In this society, women are not taught or expected to be that future leader or future CEO," she explained in an interview with Vogue. "The narrative has to change." Louder again for the people in the back, Serena!
While Williams knows she can’t exactly reinvent the wheel, she’s confident that by speaking up, she can enact change — even if it’s incremental. "Maybe it doesn’t get better in time for me," she continued. "But someone in my position can show women and people of color that we have a voice, because Lord knows I use mine."
Williams puts her money where her mouth is, too, as she works to support marginalized people via her venture capital firm. She also has a size-inclusive fashion label, named simply, Serena.
For Serena Williams, her Blackness has always been "perfect"
No matter what, one thing that Serena Williams has always loved about herself is her Blackness. She’s never been one to wish she was any other color, or that she had a lighter skin tone. "I like who I am, I like how I look, and I love representing the beautiful dark women out there," she proclaimed in an interview with Vogue. "For me, it’s perfect. I wouldn’t want it any other way."
Additionally, Williams is an ardent supporter of Black Lives Matter, and she is glad that technology is exposing to the world the injustices that have always existed. "At the end of May , I had so many people who were white writing to me saying, ‘I’m sorry for everything you’ve had to go through,’" she continued. "I was like: well, you didn’t see any of this before? I’ve been talking about this my whole career."
Williams added that even though it’s been one thing after another, she’s heartened to see Black people finally having a voice.
Is Serena Williams the GOAT? No question… and she’s not done
With all that Serena Williams has accomplished in her life — winning Grand Slam and Wimbledon titles, becoming a multi-millionaire, and having a child — you may be tempted to think she’s ready to rest on her laurels. "To be honest, there’s something really attractive about the idea of moving to San Francisco and just being a mom," she confessed to Vogue. "But not yet."
The reason? "Maybe this goes without saying, but it needs to be said in a powerful way: I absolutely want more Grand Slams," she continued. "I’m well aware of the record books, unfortunately. It’s not a secret that I have my sights on 25."
Why 25 wins? Well, that would put Williams one over the number held by legendary Australian tennis player Margaret Court, cementing her status as the greatest of all time. Given Williams’ ferocity, we have no doubt she’ll prove that to the world once and for all.