11 things we learned about Serena Williams

Tennis ace Serena Williams started playing aged just three, on inner city courts in Compton, California. Since then, she’s risen to world number one and won tournaments around the world, as both a singles player and in partnership with her sister, Venus. But, as this week’s Profile reveals, Serena has faced huge challenges both on and off the court.

1. Serena’s father, Richard, got her started in tennis after watching it on TV

Rennae Stubbs, an Australian tennis champion and friend of Serena’s says, “The story is that he saw, you know, a tennis match on television and saw the cheque that was given to the champion and thought: ‘Wow, that’s a great sport for young women. I have two young girls. Why don’t I get them into tennis?’ And so that’s pretty much how it started – he just saw an opportunity to make a great living and a life for his young daughters.”

2. She’s the youngest of her ten siblings

Serena has one full sister, Venus, six half-sisters and three half-brothers. Tragically, in 2003 her oldest sister Yetunde Price was shot and killed in Compton at just 31 years old.

3. Serena and Venus used to train on public courts in a dangerous neighbourhood

Richard Williams would take his daughters to local tennis courts where they lived in Compton, California, to practise. Rick Macci, her first coach, remembers going there to see them play for the first time early on a Saturday morning: “There’s two tennis courts, there’s about 30 guys there... half the people are passed out in the grass, there’s people there doing drugs... Richard said, ‘If you hear gunfire, just get on [your] knees and crawl.’”

4. When he first saw her play, Serena’s coach thought she was “just average”

Macci didn’t spot Serena’s potential until he saw her competitive side. “I’m sitting watching these guys hit the ball... They’re just average junior players in the 12 and under,” he says of the first time he met the Williams family. But then, the sisters went into match mode, and everything changed. “I never saw, in all the years that I’ve been teaching, even to this day, a complete metamorphosis [like that],” he says. “They would die, I mean die – both of ’em – to get to the ball. Their thirst for competition was brutal.”

5. To begin with, Serena’s tennis career was overshadowed by her sister Venus

Serena has said that early in her career, she felt she was a kind of afterthought who had to fight for respect. Coach Rick Macci agrees: “Serena was kind of like the hitting partner, you know. She wasn’t really in the mix,” he says. “She was always in the shadow. But, all along, Richard would say the same thing: ‘Serena will be better. Serena will be better.’”

6. She’s won 23 Grand Slam titles and four Olympic gold medals

A regular world number one player, Serena has so far won Wimbledon and the Australian Open seven times each, been victorious six times at the US Open, and won the French Open three times. Serena and her sister Venus have also taken the women’s doubles title at all four grand slam tournaments. To top it off, she’s clocked up four Olympic gold medals too.

Serena and Venus Williams in the semi-finals at Wimbledon, 2000.

7. As sisters, Serena and Venus Williams have always been close

Rick Macci says, “They’re two peas in a pod. I know that’s a cliché, but they are… To this day, still close. It’s been like that ever since they were little kids.”

8. Serena has faced racism and sexism throughout her career

At the India Wells tournament in California in 2001, Serena and her family had to endure booing and jeering after accusations of match fixing. She later said of the crowd, “I remember the whole stadium was 99% white people and they were all booing. There were racial slurs too. It was like this echo.” When Serena won, she couldn’t stop weeping. The Williams family say the racism and sexism she faced got worse.

Serena Williams after her victory in the Wimbledon Women's Singles Final, against her sister Venus, on July 5 2003.

9. After giving birth to her daughter, Olympia, Serena came close to death

Despite a straightforward first pregnancy, Serena became seriously ill with complications soon after giving birth. Her husband, Alexis Ohanian, recalls, “She was undoubtedly battling for her life, and I was terrified that she might die.” Remarkably, Serena fought back and was ready to play on Wimbledon’s Centre Court just 10 months later.

10. Serena has been outspoken about discrimination

When she won the 2015 Sports Illustrated Sportsperson of the Year Award, Serena used her speech to call out inequality, saying: “I’ve had people look past me because of the colour of my skin. I’ve had people overlook me because I was woman... and now here I stand today with 21 grand slam titles and I’m still going.” She went on to quote the poet Maya Angelou: “You may write me down in history with your bitter, twisted lies. You may trod me with the very dirt. But still, like dust, I rise. I rise. I rise.”

11. Her favourite karaoke song is Madonna’s ‘Like a Prayer’

As well as painting, running her own fashion business, and being a Goodwill Ambassador for the charity Unicef, Serena also loves a bit of karaoke. Her friend Lauren Von Der Pool says ‘Like a Prayer’ is Serena’s top tune: “She tears the floor down, I mean a whole dance routine.”