Birth: September 26, 1981 in Saginaw, Michigan, United States
Ethnicity: African American
Occupation: Tennis player, Olympic athlete, Actor
Ranked number one in the world among female tennis professionals in 2002, Serena Williams had become one of the sport's most exciting and closely watched young players. With her older sister Venus, she formed half of a tennis-prodigy pair that had been making headlines from an early age. As an African American in a historically white- and European-dominated sport, she found herself in the spotlight and under scrutiny. Serena and Venus Williams were coached by their father Richard, an unorthodox career-builder whose methods stirred comment and controversy. Beyond all these reasons Serena Williams caught the attention of tennis fans simply because she was a player of extraordinary ability and dynamism. She has risen to the very top of her game winning five Grand Slam events in two years and being ranked in the top five female tennis players in the world for over three years.
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 Williams, ran a private security firm, and her mother Oracene (who often uses the name Brandy) was a nurse. A fan of televised tennis, 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. 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.
In 1991 Richard Williams, who managed and coached both Serena and Venus, made the first of several unorthodox moves in regard to his daughters' career: he decided that they should enter no more tournaments on the national junior circuit. Junior tournaments are the usual path to stardom for young tennis players, so Serena's development as a player took place to some degree in isolation from her peers. Richard Williams has said that he hoped to avoid subjecting his daughters to competitive pressures, including an undertone of racial hostility. Serena and Venus were sent to the Florida tennis academy of teaching pro Ric Macci, who had also worked with teenage standouts Jennifer Capriati and Mary Pierce, and thanks to Richard's canny handling of a clothing endorsement deal, the family was able to move to a rambling estate in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida. In 1993 both girls left school and continued their education at home.
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 (WTA) events at that age, Williams 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. Williams took 1996 off, playing in neither WTA nor non-WTA events. Her father felt that she needed more training to develop and he was also working on Venus's professional career as well.
Williams' first professional match in the WTA was in Moscow in 1997 where she was taken out in the first round by a highly ranked player. Many critics claimed that she did not have the talent of her older sister, who was slowly climbing the ranks of the WTA, but that perception was soon to change. Williams qualified for an Ameritech-sponsored tournament in Chicago where she was slated to face Mary Pierce, who was ranked number seven in the world, in the second round. She staged a stunning upset over Pierce, beating her in only two sets. This advanced her to the quarter finals where she faced an even more difficult opponent, fourth-ranked Monica Seles. At first it seemed that Williams had given her all in the match against Pierce as she dropped the first set to Seles. Then, in a shocking turn of events, Williams rallied and won the next two sets, defeating Seles. The critics who had said that she showed little promise only a few weeks before now spoke of her as the next rising WTA star, which was reflected in her ranking, which jumped from 304 to 102 after the tournament. She would finish 1997, her first full season with the WTA, with a ranking of 99.
By the following year her world ranking had risen as high as number 21, and both Williams and her sister, Venus, were bona-fide celebrities. She served notice that her time had come when she advanced to the semifinals of a Sydney, Australia tournament by beating the then third-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 in the second round after ousting ninth-ranked Irina Spirlea in the first round.
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. This was the first time that the public caught a glimpse of the relationship between the two sisters and how they work not only to be the best for themselves, but also to motivate each other. "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. The sisters met again that year in the Italian Open this time in the quarter finals where once again Venus took the victory.
1998 continued to be an excellent year for Williams as she continued to succeed beyond expectations. She began to play in doubles play and won two other doubles titles that year with Venus in Oklahoma City and Zurich. Her victory in Oklahoma City became Williams' first pro title in doubles, but it would not be her last. She also went on to win two mixed double titles at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open with partner Max Mirnyi.
1999 was a watershed year for Williams as it would be the one in which she won her first singles title as well as a Grand Slam tournament. Ranked number 21 at the beginning of the season, her first single title came at the Paris Indoor tournament where she defeated Amelie Mauresmo in three sets. From there she went on to win Indian Wells where she plowed through Lindsey Davenport, Mary Pierce, and number seven ranked Steffi Graf to gain her victory. Williams was on a 16-match win streak when she met up with Venus again in the finals of a tournament in Miami, defeating Seles, Coetzer and number one ranked Martina Hingis in straight sets. While she did lose to her sister again, Williams did crack the top ten of the rankings for the first time, becoming the ninth best player in the world.
Williams' biggest match of the year, however, came when she entered the U.S. Open. Her road to the finals took her through fourth-ranked Seles and second-ranked Davenport, and once she had defeated them, she had to face number one ranked Hingis. But when the final match was over, Williams had won her first Grand Slam tournament in record setting fashion. She became the lowest seeded player to ever win the title as well as the second African-American woman to win a Grand Slam title. The only thing Williams had not done yet was to beat her sister Venus, and that happened later that year where the sisters met in the finals of the Grand Slam Cup. It seemed that nothing could stop Williams and that she was poised to take over the world of women's tennis.
Williams was forced to slow down at the end of 1999 when she began to have health issues that took her out of numerous matches. She withdrew from a tournament in Hilton Head with patella tendonitis in her right knee and also left the quarter finals at the German Open with a strained right elbow. Perhaps the most crushing moments for Williams came when she was forced to withdrew from Wimbledon with severe influenza and from the season-ending championship (which she had qualified to play in that year for the first time) with a back injury sustained in practice. Regardless of her inability to compete, Williams still ended the season ranked number four and was prepared to rise even higher in 2000.
However, 2000 would be another season that was impacted by injury and health problems. While she was able to defend her Los Angeles title by defeating Hingis and Davenport and also won a title at Hannover, she suffered from a right knee ligament injury that many suspect lead to her defeat at the Paris Indoor tournament. She entered the Canadian Open and was dominating in a match against Hingis but was forced to retire when one of the small bones in the base of her left foot became inflamed. This would be her most serious injury all season and would result in her withdrawing from the U.S. Open doubles competition during the semi-finals round and completely from the championship. The final blow came in April when she left the second round of the Amelia Island tournament with a meniscus tear in her left foot. Williams finally decided to take some time off and heal, hoping to rebound later in the year.
By June of 2000 Williams was healthier then she had been the entire season and she qualified for Wimbledon. She quickly showed that she was back on track by advancing to the semi-finals round losing only 13 games in five matches, the least amount of games lost since Chris Evert in 1976. In the semi-finals round however, Williams once again had to face her sister Venus. The Star-Ledger called the match "the event of year in tennis and watershed event for a sport that has spent more than a decade in the doldrums." The match ended up being a let-down to many—Venus won in two sets 6-2, 7-6—but it proved to Serena that while she had won a Grand Slam title in the past, she still had room to improve on her game. As she told the Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service, "I expected to play a lot better than I did today.... It was my goal to do better in this tournament." Even though Williams felt that she was not at the top of her game, she did leave the 2000 season with two very distinct wins, one for doubles at Wimbledon and a gold medal for doubles at the Summer Olympics in Australia, both with her sister Venus as her partner.
The 2001 season started out slow for Williams when she lost twice to Hingis, once in Sydney and once at the Australian Open. She did, however, find victory again in the doubles tournament of the Australian Open with her sister Venus. As doubles partners, the Williams sisters seemed undefeatable. Peter Tatum, an executive at the IMG sports marketing firm told the Star-Ledger, "They play a different type of game, come from a different place, and have a different attitude than virtually anything the game of tennis has ever seen." While Venus would continue to succeed early in the season, Williams seemed to continue down a familiar path she had traveled in 1999 and 2000 when she withdrew from the Paris Indoor tournament with fatigue and from the Scottsdale tournament with the flu. While she did win a title at Indian Wells over Kim Clijster, she fell to Capriati in the quarter-finals round in the Miami tournament and withdrew from the Charleston tournament, the Italian Open, and the Madrid tournament because of knee injuries.
Williams bounced back to win the Canadian Open over third-ranked Capriati who had knocked her out of Wimbledon that year in the second quarter-finals round. Then Williams dominated the U.S. Open defeating Davenport and Hingis on her way to the finals where she once again was matched up against her sister Venus. It was the first time that the sisters had ever met in a Grand Slam final and while the match-up proved to be much more exciting than their semi-final round in Wimbledon the previous year, Williams still walked away defeated by her older sister. While Williams took the loss hard, she used it as a stepping stone to improve even more and by the end of the season, she was in peak form and for the first time was healthy enough to compete in the WTA Championship. She advanced to the finals where she faced Davenport, but the match was never played for Davenport withdrew with a knee injury. While Williams has said she would have rather played the match to prove that she was the best player that year, she still walked away with a major win, her first since her U.S. Open win in 1999.
Finally, in 2002, Williams hit her stride and began to rack up the victories. She started off slow with an ankle injury in the Australian Open, but went on to win a major tournament in Miami, where she beat the three top players in the world, Hingis, her sister Venus, and Capriati, on her way to the title. From there, she only continued to succeed. She took the Italian Open victory from Capriati and then captured the French Open title, beating out Venus for the first time in a Grand Slam competition and rising to number two in the world rankings, bested only by her number one ranked sister Venus. The sisters got a chance at a rematch later that year when they met in the finals of Wimbledon, where once again, Williams defeated Venus to take the title. To Williams, this was the most important win of her career to date, because, as she told the Sunday Mercury, "it has so much prestige and so much history." As in past years, Williams also competed with sister Venus in the doubles competition at Wimbledon and came away with another title, their fifth Grand Slam victory as a team.
After Wimbledon, Williams quickly snatched the number one ranking away from Venus and for the next year held on to it with amazing play on the courts. She once again defeated Venus, this time in the U.S. Open, her third straight Grand Slam for that year. She also won numerous other tournaments both in single and double play including the Princess Cup in Tokyo and the Leipzig tournament, but ended up losing the WTA Championship to Clijster in two sets. The following season she started off strong by winning her fourth straight Grand Slam event, once again beating Venus in the finals at the Australian Open and became just one of five women to have ever held all four Grand Slam titles at one time. The Williams sisters took the doubles title as well at the Australian Open, their sixth straight. Williams went on to win the Paris Indoor tournament and Miami tournament before losing in the Charleston tournament finals to Justine Henin-Hardenne, ending a 21-match winning streak.
While Williams reigned supreme in 2002 and early 2003, the early summer of 2003 was a rollercoaster of failure and success. The first major setback came at the French Open when Williams rematched with Henin-Hardenne in the Semi-Final round. She made 75 unforced errors and lost the match in three sets, but even worse for Williams was the partisan crowd reaction which included heckling Williams when she challenged calls, or starting chants in favor of Henin-Hardenne, a European favorite. The heckling got so bad that it drove Serena to tears by the end of the match. As she told the Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service, "I think it's bad when people start booing in between serves. ... Or other people egging them on by doing ridiculous things. That gets a little tough, too, you know."
Many people wondered if the French Open was the beginning of a downturn in Williams' play, but they were soon proved wrong a month later when Williams stormed back to win her second straight Wimbledon against sister Venus. Unfortunately, Williams reinjured her knee during doubles play in Wimbledon and withdrew from the Los Angeles tournament, the Canadian Open, and the U.S. Open. She hopes to still compete in the WTA Championship later in the year if she has properly recouped from the injury.
Because of her massive amount of success in tennis at such a young age as well as her health problems on the court, Williams began looking for ways to diversify herself. As she told the Los Angeles Times, "I've never considered tennis as my only outlet. I've always liked doing different things when I was younger. I just never really liked focusing on tennis. I do see myself as a crossover." Included in Williams' ventures outside of tennis is studying for a degree at the Art Institute of Florida, designing outfits with her sponsor Puma, and doing guest spots on television shows. In late 2002 she appeared on an episode of ABC's My Wife and Kids and she appeared in an October 2003 episode of the Showtime series Street Time. She has also been offered roles in feature films in Hollywood but has yet to make the leap to the big screen. Williams told the Star-Ledger that she is still waiting for the right part: "I believe I'm a good actress and I have a lot of skill ... I would like to do something that challenges my acting skills and get people to see the skills I do have."
Williams was filming her role on Street Time when she learned of the death of her half-sister, Yetunde Price, in September of 2003. Yetunde and a companion had been driving on a street in Compton, California, when she was shot. Reports indicated Price was caught in the crossfire of two gangs. Price was a divorced mother of three children, whom Williams and her sister, Venus, have vowed to help raise. Yetunde was also a registered nurse and personal assistant to the two tennis stars. She also co-owned a beauty salon.
Whether she continues to dominate in the world of tennis or heads in a different direction, most critics and supporters alike agree that Serena Williams will succeed. As Janice Spector, Avon's vice president for advertising, told the Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service about Avon spokesperson Williams, "She goes beyond tennis but what really interests us is she is a wonderful contemporary role model for young women. She's achieved something wonderful. She's smart and she's her own person. I think her recent successes have only enhanced her confidence."
September 4, 2005: Williams lost to her sister, Venus, in the fourth round at the U.S. Open in New York; it evened their record in head-to-head matches at seven victories apiece. Source: SI.com, http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/2005/tennis/specials/us_open/2005/09/04/sunday.gamer.ap/index.html, September 4, 2005.
April 2006: Robert Edward Maxfield, who plead no contest to voluntary manslaughter in the death of Yetunde Price, was sentenced to 15 years in prison. Source: International Herald Tribune, August 30, 2006.
May 26, 2006: Williams withdrew from the Wimbledon tournament, citing a knee injury. Source: SI.com, http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/2006/tennis/specials/french_open/2006/05/26/bc.ten.wimbledon.serena.ap/index.html, May 26, 2006.
January 28, 2007: Williams won the Australian Open women's singles championship in Melbourne, defeating Maria Sharapova in the final for her eighth Grand Slam title. Source: SI.com, http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/2007/tennis/01/28/bc.ten.australianopen.ap/index.html, January 28, 2007.
March 9, 2008: Williams won the Bangalore Open in Bangalore, India, defeating Patty Schnyder in the final. Source: SI.com, March 9, 2008.
March 31, 2007: Williams won the Sony Ericsson Open, defeating Justine Henin in the final. Source: SI.com, http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/2007/tennis/03/31/bc.ten.sony.ericsson.open.ap/index.html, March 31, 2007.
April 20, 2008: Williams won the Family Circle Cup championship in Charleston, South Carolina, for her first clay-court title since 2002. Source: Associated Press, April 20, 2008.
July 5, 2008: Williams lost the Wimbledon women's singles final to her sister, Venus Williams. She teamed up with her sister later that day to win the women's doubles championship, defeating Lisa Raymond and Samantha Stosur. Source: SI.com, July 5, 2008.
August 2008: Williams and her sister, Venus, won the gold medal in women's doubles at the Summer Olympics, defeating Anabel Medina Garrigues and Virginia Ruano Pascual of Spain in the final. Source: SI.com, August 17, 2008.
September 7, 2008: Williams won her third U.S. Open women's singles championship and ninth Grand Slam title, defeating Jelena Jankovic in the final in New York. Source: SI.com, September 7, 2008.
November 14, 2008: The Serena Williams Secondary School opens in eastern Kenya. Source: WTA Tour site, November 26, 2008.
Born on September 26, 1981, in Saginaw, MI; daughter of Richard (a security agency owner and tennis coach) and Oracene (Brandy) Williams (a nurse). Education: Attending Art Institute of Florida. Religion: Jehovah's Witness. Memberships: Women's Tennis Association. Addresses: Office--c/o USTA, 70 W Red Oak Lane, White Plains, NY, 10604-3602.
Selected: Won six Grand Slam tournaments including 1999 and 2002 U.S. Open, 2002 French Open, 2002 and 2003 Wimbledon, and the 2003 Australian Open; won six Grand Slam doubles tournaments including 1999 U.S. Open, 1999 French Open, 2000 and 2002 Wimbledon, and the 2001 and 2003 Australian Open; won WTA Championship, 2001; won Olympic gold medal for doubles tennis, 2000; WTA number one ranked player in the world, July 8, 2002-August 10, 2003; Associated Press Female Athlete of the Year, 2003; ESPY for female tennis player of the year and female athlete of the year, 2003; Sportswoman of the Year, Laureus World Sports Academy.
Professional tennis player, 1995-; actress, 2002-, designer, 2003--.