Where there's a Williams

<em>Time Out</em> talks to the world number one about Barrack Obama, doubles matches and on court style

Interview

Right now, Serena Williams is the Queen Cleopatra of the tennis world. Her stats say it all: she is the world’s top-ranked player and US and Australian Open singles champion, and has won 20 Grand Slam titles and two Olympic gold medals. She has collected more prize money than any other woman, in any other sport, ever. When she tells us her ultimate aim in tennis is ‘to be the best I can be, simple as that’, we wonder whether it’s perhaps time to come up with a new goal. In short, just like the Egyptian royal, she will never be forgotten.

Of course, not least of her achievements is the trail she has helped blaze for African-American women in a sport previously dominated by white people. Evidently, therefore, Barack Obama’s ascension to the White House strongly resonates with her.

‘To have Martin Luther King’s birthday [January 15] and Obama’s presidency fall so close to each other is incredible,’ she says. ‘I was watching the ceremony on TV before I went out to play [the Australian Open]. I looked at my arm, and I literally had chill bumps.’

And she no doubt felt similar emotions when her sister Venus became the world’s number one in 2002, and thus the first African-American to reach the ranking in either the men’s or women’s game. Indeed, it’s difficult to interview Serena without mentioning her sister. It was the image of the two strapping siblings from Saginaw, Michigan playing against and with each other that first seared into the collective consciousness when they rose to success in the late ’90s. While together they can ace any doubles tournament, facing each other, until recently, the result could go either way. Does Serena prefer playing alone or with her big sis? ‘I love to play doubles,’ she says. ‘They’re great practice, great fun. If I’m really fit, I like to go for the win in both events.’ We’d already guessed that. And when it comes to the players she particularly admires she’s as quick as her serve in looking to Venus again (and Roger Federer).

Consider their upbringing and it’s not hard to understand why the two are so close. Home schooled with a father who longed for a tennis star spawn, Serena won her first tennis tournament at four and a half. It’s unlikely they knew many other kids like themselves. ‘I never resented playing tennis when I was growing up,’ Serena assures us. ‘I’ve always been able to play and do other things.’

She ain’t kidding. The other thing that makes Serena shine out from other, duller players is her incessant multi-tasking. Not only has she funded an eponymous secondary school in Kenya and starred in music videos (rapper Common’s), she’s also writing her memoirs: ‘They’re coming along really well. I love writing.’

She’s even been beaten by US chat show host Conan O’Brien at Wii-tennis before, proving she’s one tennis star who can, at times, not be serious.

We just hope the same can be said of her past on-court fashion ‘statements’, including, reportedly, a catsuit, denim skirt, boots, and a trench coat (not all at once, we think). All this, from a woman who runs her own fashion label, Aneres, ‘for the independent woman who is at the prime of her life’. Who on earth is Serena’s style icon? ‘I have many. Recently I have been influenced by the 1950s and Dorothy Dandridge,’ she says, naming the first African-American woman to be nominated for the Best Actress Academy Award.

So will she be picking up any accessories here when she arrives for the championships this week? ‘I only made it there once, back in 2005, and I had an amazing time,’ she enthuses. ‘I love the gold souks, so they better have their bargains out when I come this year.’ Because, with Serena Williams, it’s never just about tennis.

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