AND BABY COMES FIRST

The in­ti­mate in­side story of how Ser­ena com­bines moth­er­hood with be­ing Wimbledon’s great­est woman star

Daily Mail - - Comment - by David Jones

WHEN Ser­ena Wil­liams strides on court for the Wimbledon women’s sin­gles fi­nal this af­ter­noon, her con­flict­ing pri­or­i­ties will be fa­mil­iar to every work­ing mother.

This ruth­less com­peti­tor will be de­ter­mined to crush her Ger­man op­po­nent, An­gelique Ker­ber, and be­come only the sec­ond woman to win Wimbledon af­ter hav­ing a baby since the start of the so-called ‘open era’, in 1968, when pro­fes­sional play­ers were first al­lowed to com­pete.

Yet she will be keen to se­cure the vic­tory she needs to equal Mar­garet Court’s record of 24 Grand Slam ti­tles in dou­ble-quick time. Why? So that Ser­ena can bath her baby, olympia, and read her a bed­time story.

The 36-year- old Amer­i­can’s abil­ity to jug­gle moth­er­hood while play­ing bril­liant ten­nis has added a heart-warm­ing and in­spir­ing sub-plot to the tour­na­ment.

via her posts on so­cial me­dia, we have learned of the pride she felt when show­ing ten-mon­thold olympia around Cen­tre Court, and the fun of tak­ing her daugh­ter into the lock­er­room to ‘help her’ get ready for a big match.

Ser­ena has also re­vealed how she wept, last week­end, be­cause she was prac­tis­ing when her baby took her first steps. Her re­proach­ful con­fes­sion in­voked sym­pa­thetic, sup­port­ive mes­sages from many women whose jobs forced them to miss this ma­ter­nal mile­stone.

‘Herds of moms miss that,’ one of her 10.9 mil­lion Twit­ter fol­low­ers re­as­sured her. ‘ Don’t beat your­self up over it.’

Then there have been Ser­ena’s com­ments on breast­feed­ing. Last week, con­tra­dict­ing the re­ceived med­i­cal wis­dom that nurs­ing a baby helps a new mother lose weight, she said she’d only suc­ceeded in re­gain­ing her fig­ure — and los­ing 10lb — af­ter wean­ing her daugh­ter on to a bot­tle. For many young women, her ex­pe­ri­ence will carry more in­flu­ence than the ad­vice of med­i­cal ex­perts.

For, in her new guise as ten­nis Tiger Mum, Ser­ena’s per­for­mances this past fort­night have proved that hav­ing a baby can make a sportswoman men­tally and phys­i­cally stronger. Also, she ap­pears to be on a mis­sion to prove it is pos­si­ble to be a hands-on par­ent while suc­ceed­ing at the high­est level.

As she said: ‘I’m ad­just­ing well — I spend so much time with olympia every sin­gle day. I don’t like be­ing away from her.

‘But I also think it’s healthy, in a way, for me to do what I need to do. Be that work­ing mum, then go back home to be the mum.’

Many moth­ers will con­cur. oth­ers might feel a lit­tle inad­e­quate by com­par­i­son — though, of course, they haven’t got £130 mil­lion in the bank. Nor can they call on the help of an en­tourage that in­cludes a cook, per­sonal as­sis­tants, and a full-time nanny.

Let’s take noth­ing away from Ser­ena, how­ever. Given the lifethreat­en­ing com­pli­ca­tions she en­dured when giv­ing birth, her per­for­mances at Wimbledon have been im­mense. The baby had to be de­liv­ered by emer­gency cae­sarean, and she her­self then de­vel­oped po­ten­tially fa­tal blood clots in her lungs, re­quir­ing a six-week stay in hospi­tal. Her con­di­tion was so se­ri­ous that, as she said, she ‘al­most didn’t make it’.

Be­cause of her long lay-off, she is now ranked 181 in the world, a laugh­ably false rat­ing for the most dom­i­nant (and highly-paid) sportswoman in his­tory. A woman of huge mag­netism, she will be cheered on to­day by her close friend the Duchess of Sus­sex from the royal Box.

‘We al­ways had a won­der­ful friend­ship,’ Ser­ena said. ‘Every year for a cou­ple years she comes out to Wimbledon and has sup­ported me.

‘Now she’s sup­port­ing me in a dif­fer­ent role but our friend­ship is still ex­actly the same. We al­ways have sup­ported each other, just been there for each other through a lot. I look for­ward to it.’ Asked if she her­self was ‘ten­nis roy­alty’, Ser­ena ad­mit­ted: ‘If there was roy­alty, I prob­a­bly would be.’

Also root­ing for her will be A-list celebri­ties from the arts, mu­sic, fash­ion and in­dus­try. Along with her fit­ness men­tor, coaches, physio, agent, pub­li­cist and var­i­ous com­mer­cial reps — plus her mother, oracene and other fam­ily mem­bers — they form the sup­port­ers she calls Team Ser­ena.

Whis­per it softly in the hal­lowed halls of the All Eng­land Club, but given her ten­dency to show off olympia (not least on so­cial me­dia, where she has posted cute pho­tos of ‘Momma Bear with her baby cub’), she might be­come the first Wimbledon cham­pion to pa­rade her baby on Cen­tre Court.

re­gard­less of whether she wins her eighth ti­tle, she will re­main a totemic fig­ure for her gen­er­a­tion. The fe­male equiv­a­lent, per­haps, of Muham­mad Ali, 40 years ago.

Like Ali, Ser­ena Wil­liams’s in­flu­ence tran­scends sport and she uses it to cham­pion many is­sues.

Ap­palled by the prej­u­dice she suf­fered from white spec­ta­tors and of­fi­cials early in her ca­reer, she sup­ports the Black Lives Mat­ter group and cam­paigns against racism — a cause that has helped ce­ment her friend­ship with Meghan.

She also fights for par­ity of in­come between male and fe­male ath­letes, equal ed­u­ca­tional and ca­reer op­por­tu­ni­ties, and speaks for the LBGT com­mu­nity. Her non-profit foun­da­tion has built three schools, in Africa and Ja­maica and pro­vides schol­ar­ships for un­der-priv­i­leged chil­dren. Mean­while, she has played Hol­ly­wood screen roles and de­vel­oped a busi­ness em­pire.

HOW­EVER, though her for­tune was es­ti­mated at £130 mil­lion last year, she was still the only woman to rank among the world’s 100 high­est-paid sports stars — a statis­tic which demon­strates the pay dis­par­ity she cam­paigns against.

only about half of Ser­ena’s wealth de­rives di­rectly from ten­nis. The rest comes from en­dorse­ments with brands such as Ga­torade, Beats by Dre head­phones, JP Mor­gan Chase, Nike and Wilson. Dur­ing this Wimbledon, she is ad­ver­tis­ing Tem­pur mat­tresses on ITV ( sleep be­ing a ‘ crit­i­cal com­po­nent of her de­mand­ing train­ing reg­i­men’.) She owns a stake in the Amer­i­can foot­ball team Mi­ami Dol­phins. Then there is the fash­ion line, Ser­ena, a range of sports and evening­wear sold on­line.

In this lat­est ven­ture, she has en­listed the tech­no­log­i­cal knowhow of her hus­band Alexis oha­nian, a com­puter whizz who made his mil­lions by sell­ing the web­site red­dit and now runs a ven­ture cap­i­tal firm. Her story is all the more re­mark­able when we re­mem­ber how she started.

Al­most 20 years ago, when I first met Ser­ena, there was noth­ing to in­di­cate the char­ac­ter she has be­come. With her sis­ter, venus, then 19, al­ready mak­ing waves in the game, and 17-year-old Ser­ena be­ing tipped to eclipse her, I in­ter­viewed them in a win­dow­less film stu­dio near their Florida home.

It was one of the rare oc­ca­sions when they were not chap­er­oned by their con­trol­ling fa­ther. How­ever, it proved an excruciating ex­pe­ri­ence.

The Wil­liams sis­ters were then so im­ma­ture that they could barely man­age to con­verse. In­stead they gig­gled, like chil­dren, at my ques­tions and texted silly mes­sages to one an­other on their mo­biles, then still a nov­elty.

Later, when I learned about their clois­tered, in many ways dys­func­tional up­bring­ing, I un­der­stood why they be­haved in this man­ner.

Leg­end has it that the sis­ters honed their ten­nis skills to the echo of gang­land gun­fire on the pot-holed pub­lic courts of Comp­ton, Los An­ge­les. But that tells only part of the story.

In fact, when Ser­ena was nine, her fa­ther, richard, moved them to Florida, where — af­ter tak­ing them out of a renowned ten­nis academy be­cause he thought he could coach them bet­ter him­self — he shut them away in a high-fenced homestead which, per­haps iron­i­cally, he called ‘Leisure Acres’. There, they

would prac­tise un­til their hands blis­tered on a pri­vate court — be­side which their dad erected a sign pro­claim­ing him­self ‘The great­est fa­ther on earth’.

Ex­hausted, they would re­treat in­side the gloomy house where their fa­ther stud­ied videos and data of their per­for­mances.

They had few if any friends out­side the fam­ily, and cer­tainly no boyfriends. Dat­ing, their par­ents de­creed, would only be per­mit­ted when they were ready to marry.

The sis­ters’ per­sonal de­vel­op­ment was surely not helped by their par­ents’ vo­latile re­la­tion­ship. At that time Richard and Oracene pre­sented a united front, at least on the ten­nis cir­cuit, but the truth even­tu­ally emerged.

In 1997, and again in 1999, Palm Beach County Sher­iff’s of­fi­cers were called af­ter re­ports that he had as­saulted his wife. On the sec­ond oc­ca­sion, she suf­fered three frac­tured ribs.

How­ever, she de­clined to press charges, and the in­ves­ti­ga­tor re­ported her say­ing: ‘I know you know what hap­pened. But I am fear­ful for my daugh­ters’ ca­reers.’

Ser­ena and Venus were at home at the time, but were ‘ very eva­sive’ when ques­tioned.

How­ever, we can imag­ine how deeply the ex­pe­ri­ence must have af­fected them. In 2001, their par­ents di­vorced. Richard Wil­liams, now 76, sub­se­quently re­mar­ried, to a shop­keeper half his age, but that led to an­other lurid di­vorce.

Though he is still of­fi­cially listed as Ser­ena’s ‘coach’, he no longer at­tends her matches and is ap­par­ently in such poor health that he felt un­able to walk her down the aisle when she mar­ried last year.

For Ser­ena, there have been many more per­sonal set­backs.

In 2003, her half-sis­ter, Ye­tunde, was shot dead, sup­pos­edly in a ran­dom, drive-by mur­der (though her hus­band was caught up in the Los An­ge­les un­der­world).

Three years later, Ser­ena bravely an­nounced she had taken time away from ten­nis be­cause she was suf­fer­ing de­pres­sion — long be­fore it be­came ac­cept­able to make such an ad­mis­sion.

She has also suf­fered a suc­ces­sion of in­juries and ail­ments that might have fin­ished the ca­reers of less re­silient play­ers, among them a con­di­tion that makes her sus­cep­ti­ble to the blood clots that threat­ened her life af­ter giv­ing birth.

Un­til Oha­nian came along, her love-life had also been ill-starred. Among the pro­ces­sion of men with whom she was linked were var­i­ous U.S. sports stars and the Hol­ly­wood di­rec­tor Brett Rat­ner, who is now ac­cused of sex­ual mis­con­duct against six women.

Through it all, how­ever, Ser­ena al­ways re­tained her colos­sal self­be­lief and strength of pur­pose.

On court, as in life, she thrives on ad­ver­sity, us­ing it to make her­self tougher. She speaks flu­ent French, pass­able Span­ish, and is an avid reader with broad in­ter­ests — knowl­edge­able on a wide va­ri­ety of top­ics.

She is also blazing a trail for girls and women who don’t fit the re­al­ity TV show stereo­type.

For, as she says, in one of the home­spun mantras she posts on­line: ‘I’ve never been the right kind of woman. Over-sized and over- con­fi­dent. Too mean if I don’t smile. Too black for my ten­nis whites. Too mo­ti­vated for moth­er­hood. But I am prov­ing, time and again, there’s no wrong way to be a woman.’

Her hus­band would cer­tainly agree. They met while stay­ing at the Cava­lieri ho­tel dur­ing the Ital­ian Open cham­pi­onships in Rome, in 2015.

Team Wil­liams were stag­ing a pri­vate strat­egy meet­ing in the break­fast room and felt un­easy when the 6ft 5in Amer­i­can in­ter­loper — who was suf­fer­ing a hang­over — plonked him­self down at the next ta­ble.

‘Look out! There’s a rat un­der the ta­ble!’ shouted one of Ser­ena’s crew, try­ing to scare Oha­nian into mov­ing.

‘I’m from Brook­lyn. I see rats all the time,’ came the en­tre­pre­neur’s non­cha­lant re­ply.

In­trigued by his at­ti­tude, Ser­ena in­vited him to her next tour­na­ment, in Paris, never think­ing he would go.

How­ever, he did turn up, and ro­mance blos­somed.

The fol­low­ing year, he ar­ranged a ren­dezvous at the Rome ho­tel, where he pro­posed — hand­ing Ser­ena a plas­tic model rat as a me­mento.

Though she fre­quently points out their dif­fer­ences — he is a white, un­sporty, com­puter geek — he says they share the same val­ues, no­tably their ‘work ethic and com­pet­i­tive­ness’, and the burn­ing de­sire to be the best at what­ever they do. They also ar­range their diaries so that he has busi­ness meet­ings in the cities where she is play­ing.

The cou­ple live in a $2.5 mil­lion neo- colo­nial style man­sion in Florida. Ser­ena’s other homes in­clude a Paris apart­ment and a pala­tial spread in Bel Air, Cal­i­for­nia, which is on the mar­ket for $12 mil­lion.

How­ever, they plan to set­tle their fam­ily — her hus­band says he wants five chil­dren — in San Fran­cisco.

As for lit­tle Olympia, Ser­ena’s hus­band says she al­ready pos­sesses her mother’s ‘grace and swag­ger’ and he reck­ons she will be ‘ a su­per ath­lete and a su­per busi­ness­woman’.

Doubt­less so, and who would bet against her tod­dling on to the Cen­tre Court, this af­ter­noon, to be swept up in the arms of vic­to­ri­ous Su­per­mum Ser­ena?

She thrives on ad­ver­sity — on court and off

Love all: Ser­ena, on court left, and with baby Olympia

Royal in­vite: Alexis, Ser­ena and Olympia on Meghan’s big day

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