The Other Serena
Serena Williams knows how to make an entrance. She pulls up to the Eau Palm Beach hotel in Palm Beach, Florida, in a pint-size white Fiat with a hot pink racing stripe and a hot pink dashboard, wearing a body-hugging minidress.
It's not the outfit or the car you would expect the hard-charging top female tennis player in the world to choose, but nothing about Serena is predictable. After all, this is a woman who spontaneously belts out Little Mermaid songs at the FITNESS photo shoot, loves to perform choreographed karaoke song-and-dance routines (Bon Jovi and Air Supply are faves), and delights in pulling pranks on friends — like sticking out her foot to trip them.
"I think of myself as two different people," she says. "There's the Serena Williams that everyone knows: She's crazy. She can't make a mistake. And she's angry and just not nice, to be honest. I'm only that person for three hours a day, when I'm on the court. The rest of the time I'm just Serena. I'm the class clown."
These days, after surviving health crises that kept her off the tennis court for nearly a year, Serena appreciates fun and laughter more than ever. In the summer of 2010 she suffered a career-threatening foot injury that required two surgeries and put her on crutches, and in February 2011 she ended up in the intensive care unit with pulmonary embolism — multiple blood clots in her lungs that permanently destroyed some of her lung tissue. "I didn't realize how sick I was then," Serena, 32, says. "My dad told me afterward that he couldn't even be around me because he was really scared for me." When she finally got back on the tennis circuit, she quickly reclaimed her number-one world ranking, winning 11 titles and more than $12 million in prize money in 2013 alone, a record for women's tennis — thanks in part to a new diet and fitness routine and a fresh perspective on life. Here, Serena dishes about it all.
Is playing tennis your version of going to the office?
Yeah [sighs]. Plus I'm a little insane. That's when Serena Williams comes out and she's nuts. That really upsets me. It's not the real me. I was watching this match the other day with my dad, and I literally looked like I was going to cry on the court even though I was up 5-1 match point! I thought, Gosh, why was I so stressed out? Even for me, it's shocking to see. But in another way, it's kind of cool to know that I have everything together on the court, because I don't really have my life together personally. I'm here and there and everywhere traveling the world and playing tennis. Recently, though, I've gotten more serious. I've decided that my foundation is going to open another school in Africa. [The Serena Williams Foundation helps build schools and provides scholarships and grants to students around the world.]
When you were sick, did you worry that you'd never play tennis again?
Forget tennis. It was the first time that tennis was the last thing on my mind. I didn't even think, I gotta practice because I've got to beat this girl, I gotta beat that girl. At one point I was just thinking, Will I be OK?
What was it like finally getting back on the court after a year of not competing?
I'd never been in a match thinking, I'm not going to win, but there I was at Wimbledon in 2011, where I had won the year before, and I knew I wasn't going to win once I started playing. I couldn't breathe. I remember seeing stars, and I thought I was going to faint. I was really trying to fight. I lost and was ranked about 180th in the world!
How did you power your way back to the top?
I always say that I hate losing more than I love winning. I wrote in my journal that my goal was to be seeded at the U.S. Open by August. It's virtually impossible to do that in three weeks. But I worked really, really, really hard with my trainer. He put me in the pool to get the strength back in my lungs. I remember feeling as if I were going to drown. But it worked. I kept winning, and I was ranked 29th for the U.S. Open.
Did the health scare change the way you play?
I realized that I'm really fortunate to be alive and to be playing, and that it's not the end of the world if I don't win. I was able to relax. It was the first time I've ever had so much fun on the court. I would play matches and enjoy myself. That brought a whole new perspective to my game. Now I know I don't have to play again if I don't want to. I play because I love it.
Do you have regrets about anything that's happened on the court, like the confrontations you've had with line judges?
I don't have regrets. I don't live in the past. I live in the present and learn not to make the same mistakes in the future.
Tell us about your workouts: How do you stay motivated?
For me it's so important to mix it up. I ran, and then I biked. Then I did elliptical. That didn't work out so well, because it was boring, so I tried yoga. I started dancing because I couldn't train when I was sick. We started making up moves, and it was fun. Now I run for 10 minutes, and then I dance.
What inspired you to give your diet a healthy makeover?
It all started because I didn't want to bring bad food into the house. I live with my sister, Venus, who has Sjögren's syndrome, an autoimmune disease. Before her problems, I ate a lot of junk. I also found out three years ago that I'm allergic to wheat, so I'm trying to eat a clean diet of natural, raw foods.
Is it hard to stick to the diet when you're traveling?
I love Southern food. I don't try to eat healthy when I'm in South Carolina for the Family Circle Cup tournament. I eat shrimp and grits with butter on top, fried chicken, and, oh, do I eat the fried hush puppies! And the banana pudding — mmm, mmm, mmm! I let myself go that whole week and then another week after that.
How do you get back on track?
I can't take cheat days too often because my cheat days are usually cheat months! But diet is a bad word. I always say it's a lifestyle change, because if you call it that, you won't want those fried hush puppies. Clearly I haven't completed my lifestyle change! But I'm trying, I'm really trying. [Laughs.]
You seem so strong and sure of yourself. Do you ever feel less than confident about your body?
Unless I'm eating really healthy, I feel that way almost every other week. I feel as if I can do better and be smaller, which I think is just a natural thing for women to feel. We're taught that we have to look a certain way.
Has your body image changed over the years?
When I was young I thought I should be built more like an athlete — long and lean — not with a womanly figure. But then people my age started coming up to me, saying, "I love you because of the way you look." They could relate to me. That was really motivating. So I learned to be proud of my curves and to embrace my large boobs and my butt. It's all about loving who you are and realizing that you're beautiful.
Serena's Get-Pumped Playlist
"Just Give Me a Reason" — Pink, featuring Nate Ruess
"Stronger (What Doesn't Kill You)" — Kelly Clarkson
"Flashdance...What a Feeling" — Irene Cara
"Fame" — Irene Cara
"Eye of the Tiger" — Survivor
"Maneater" — Daryl Hall and John Oates
4 Surprising Secrets About Serena
She can't handle Zumba. "It was honestly too hard for me," she says. "I got completely lost. I couldn't remember what to do first. I felt like such a loser!"
She's learning Korean. "I'm a massive Olympic pin collector. God willing, I'll be at the next Summer Games. The only pin that's eluded me is the one for North Korea."
She daydreams about being on Broadway. "I have no voice, but singing and dancing is so fun for me," Serena says. "I would be happy in the chorus and just moving my lips."
She's jealous of Carrie Underwood."I've never been envious of anyone until I heard that Carrie Underwood was doing The Sound of Music, my favorite movie," says Serena, who belts out, "Climb every mountain!"
Originally published in FITNESS magazine, May 2014.