Serena Williams has become one of the most exciting and closely watched players in tennis. Alongside Venus, her older sister, she forms half of a prodigal tennis pairing that has been stealing headlines for all the right reasons.
Serena Williams was born in Saginaw, Michigan, on September 26, 1981, but she and her sister were raised in the economically depressed and often violence-riddled Los Angeles suburb of Compton. Her father Richard ran a private security firm, and her mother Oracene (who often uses the name Brandy) was a nurse. Richard Williams dreamed of the opportunities that might await his offspring-to-be: "I went to my wife and said, "Let's have kids and make them tennis players" he told Newsweek. His ambitions went nowhere with the first three of his five daughters, but Venus, born in 1980, and Serena, the youngest daughter, showed promise from the start. Venus and Serena took to tennis as soon as rackets were put in their hands, older sister Lyndrea told Sport magazine.
The sisters' early training took place on public tennis courts in and around Compton, where they remember having to duck gunfire. Despite this difficult beginning, though, their skills developed rapidly. Serena entered her first tournament at the age of four and a half, and over the next five years, her father has claimed, she won 46 of 49 tournaments she entered. She succeeded Venus as the number-one player in southern California's highly competitive age-12-and-under rankings, and well before reaching adolescence both sisters had attracted national attention in the form of invitations to prestigious tennis camps, promises of lucrative product-endorsement deals, and glowing newspaper reportage.
After raising eyebrows by pulling his daughters out of the junior circuit, Richard Williams once again stirred talk in the tennis world by allowing them to turn professional at the age of 14. Still banned from World Tennis Association events at that age, Serena made her professional debut in October of 1995 at the non-WTA Bell Challenge in Vanier, Quebec, Canada, losing in less than an hour to a virtual unknown. But her father, who has defenders as well as critics on the tennis circuit, offered constant encouragement, and the play of both sisters improved dramatically. "Nobody knows those girls better than their parents, the road they've gone on couldn't have been better selected," legendary coach Nick Bollettieri told Newsweek. By 1998 Venus was one of the top ten players in the world. Serena, ranked number 304 in 1997, made her first big splash that year with a victory over second seed Monica Seles at an Ameritech-sponsored tournament in Chicago.
By 1999 Serena's world ranking had risen as high as number 21, and both Serena and Venus Williams were bona-fide celebrities. Serena served notice that her time had come when she advanced to the semifinals of a Sydney, Australia tournament by beating the then second-ranked woman in the world, Lindsay Davenport, who went on to become the United States Open champion that year. Expected to do well in her first "Grand Slam" tournament, the Australian Open, she had the bad luck of having to face her sister Venus in the second round after ousting sixth seed Irina Spirlea in the first.
Venus emerged victorious, and Essence magazine reported that she was heard to say, "I'm sorry I had to take you out, Serena," as the two sisters walked off the court. It seems likely that whatever the unorthodox twists of their young careers, the success of the Williams sisters has come in part from having each other as training partners, confidantes, and occasional rivals. "They haven't admitted to it, but there's definitely a competitiveness between Serena and Venus," former U.S. Open finalist Pam Shriver told Sport. "They motivate each other and feed off each other's successes. Venus' jump to a No. 10 ranking has definitely inspired Serena to improve her ranking," she continued.
Indeed, many observers of the two sisters have been moved to wonder which of them might in the end become the stronger player, and some have answered the question in Serena's favor, noting her deep competitive drive and her powerful physique. "Serena seems built to last," Newsweek noted, pointing out that "her more compact, muscular frame is ideal for a powerful, all-around game."
Fashion and Entertainment
Although known for antagonizing her fellow players, Serena's brash confidence, charisma, and impressive physical appearance made her attractive to the advertising departments of major corporations, and she signed a deal worth roughly $12 million with the Puma sporting-goods concern. An intelligent and energetic teenager with interests in many fields outside of tennis, she hopes to become a movie star in time, she could contemplate many different paths when thinking about her future. Richard Williams was even quoted as saying in Jet that he hoped his daughters would quit tennis and move on to other things. "My great moments are in the future," she told Sport. "I have a lot of photos in my scrapbook, but I'm waiting for the right cover shot. It has to be huge, like winning a big title," she concluded.
Serena Williams is known for her unusual and colorful outfits on court. In 2004, Williams wore denim skirts and boots. In November 2004, outside the tennis courts, she reached a new level of exposure at the London premiere of Pierce Brosnan's new film, After the Sunset. In an outfit that had a near-topless effect, Williams wore a red gown with strips of sheer fabric. Williams has her own line of designer clothing called Aneres — her first name spelled backward — that she plans to sell in boutiques in Miami and Los Angeles.
In 2001, Serena along with her sister, Venus appeared on The Simpsons tennis themed episode after Bart and Lisa boycott to play against each other in the family. In 2002, Williams played Miss Wiggins in the season 3 episode "Crouching Mother, Hidden Father" of My Wife and Kids. In 2005, Serena guest starred in an episode of the twelfth season of ER. She also guest starred on an episode of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. In 2007, Williams appeared in the ABC reality television series Fast Cars and Superstars: The Gillette Young Guns Celebrity Race, featuring a dozen celebrities in a stock car racing competition. In June 2007, Serena was interviewed on BBC One's Friday Night with Jonathan Ross along with Iggy Pop and Russell Brand.