July 22, 2024
Serena Williams

Serena Williams

NEW YORK − This is not “King Richard.”Serena Williams debuted two episodes of her “In the Arena” docuseries at Tribeca Festival on Thursday, with many wondering how this differed from Will Smith’s Oscar-winning portrayal of her father Richard Williams.“Didn’t we already see a Serena Williams documentary?” an overhead attendee asked as others shuffled into the theater.

None of the skepticism seemed to hold weight: The crowd roared approvingly as the docuseries star made her entrance.

The first episode begins with briefly recounting the childhood of tennis superstars Serena and Venus Williams before delving deeper into the question they faced throughout their careers: What’s it like playing against your sister?Today, Serena is praised as the “greatest of all time” in tennis (and perhaps all sports). But to her, “it was all about Venus.” Contrary to her performance on the court, Serena, 42, seems insecure when it comes to her older sister and repeatedly discusses all the ways Venus was better, bigger and stronger than she was.

Losing to Venus at the start of their professional careers didn’t necessarily give Serena the drive to push further. It seems comical in the context of Serena’s accomplishments, but a guy ghosting her at age 20 was the fuel for her to stop being the best and become the greatest.

“I got ghosted and it wasn’t even that serious,” Serena says with a laugh in the docuseries, as she recalls leaving a boyfriend’s house after her 2001 U.S. Open match against Venus and never hearing from him again. Although it wasn’t a big moment, the champion said she used that experience and made it bigger than it was.

“I remember thinking, ‘He’s going to regret this for the rest of his life’ and that he’d see me everywhere. I can be vengeful,” she admits, before giving her then-partner (who she shadily refers to as “so and so”) a shout-out. “I’m grateful for it, so thank you!”

The 23-time Grand Slam singles champion shares the emotional turmoil of what it was like starting her career under Venus and even worse, surpassing her as the younger sister.

“I actually never thought I was good at tennis. You have to understand, I was growing up next to Venus Williams,” Serena says in Episode 1. “I could never beat Venus unless I cheated.”
Serena Williams

The 2002 French Open affected Serena and Venus’ on-court relationship
The 2002 French Open became the turning point for Serena. She stopped looking at her sister. “It was so simple but it was genius for me,” she recalls in the docuseries. That year, she finally beat Venus.

Venus, who also appears in the docuseries, still has regret over her performance that day. “It was a missed opportunity for me,” she says. “I never competed in another French Open final.”

The seven-time Grand Slam singles champion is seen as the more levelheaded sister, speaking matter-of-factly about her losses against Serena. “Who wants to lose four (times) in a row? That’s not what I trained for. … I doubt I would’ve lost to anyone else,” Venus says of her rivalry with her sister.

Serena, on the other hand, says she would often cry after they faced off, because of the emotional tax of beating her best friend and her perceived pecking order of them as siblings. It seems Serena still feels guilt upstaging Venus: She shares anecdotes about how her sister made her the player she became, from telling her bedtime stories as a kid to being her practice partner.

“I hated playing Venus. It was torture,” Serena says.
Serena Williams
However, that year, the sisters had been separated more than ever before by their schedules, which Serena says allowed her to stop thinking about her sister’s success. “I finally gave myself permission to be great … to be Serena,” she says.

It’s a seemingly full-circle moment: “Once you start winning, winning is like a drug,” Serena says. “Every time I did it, I wanted to do it again.”

At a post-premiere panel at Tribeca, Serena hinted at more appearances in future episodes from family members, discussion around mental health and conversations about the impact of racism. (“It boils down to us being Black and from Compton, because if we had looked any other way, I don’t think people would have talked about us like that.”) She also discusses personal moments in her life leading up to her retirement in 2022.

The first episode of the eight-part docuseries premieres July 10 on ESPN, followed by all eight episodes on the streaming platform ESPN+.

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