Why Serena Williams Is Best Friends with Her Fiercest Competitor
When the news broke last May that Northern Irish golfer Rory McIlroy had broken off his engagement to tennis champion Caroline Wozniacki—over a telephone call, no less—Serena Williams immediately began phoning and texting her best friend on the professional women’s tour. “I was devastated,” she says. “I had planned the bachelorette party!”
Six months later, Wozniacki and Williams are sitting, thigh to thigh, on a love seat in Williams’s Palm Beach Gardens house in Florida discussing the debacle. “My phone was going crazy,” Wozniacki remembers. “But I didn’t want to talk to anyone.” Most people got the message and stopped trying. But Serena Williams isn’t most people.
“I kept calling,” Williams says unapologetically.
Wozniacki smiles at the memory. “First she texted, ‘If you don’t pick up, I am going to fly to Monaco.’ And then, ‘If you don’t answer the door, I am going to knock it down.’ So I thought, OK, I better answer the phone. And I am so glad I did. She wasn’t pitying me, like a lot of people were. I mean, it’s not like anyone died. I was in shock, but she was really helpful because she had been through it before. She didn’t sugarcoat it, and she didn’t look down on me. She was really there for me when I needed her the most, and that’s why I think our friendship is so strong now.”
“I was impressed with how strong she was,” Williams says. “And you know, there will be other engagement parties.” She pauses a beat. “Many.”
And that’s when Wozniacki and Williams do the thing they do, oh, every three minutes when they are sitting together. They burst into giggles. Full on, eye-crinkling, doubled over, hiccuping guffaws, the kind you mostly see between teenage girls after the hot guy from homeroom walks by. Could these be the same warriors who, only weeks earlier, had gone toe-to-toe in a bruising three-set match in Singapore, a pitched battle during which Serena destroyed a racket in a fit of rage?
“Let’s just put an end to this myth that women players cannot be friends,” Williams says. “We can!” But traditionally, they haven’t been. Steffi Graf, Monica Seles, Maria Sharapova—champions all, but none noted for her cuddliness on, or off, the court. Roger Federer might have dinner with Stan Wawrinka after a match, but among the women, it’s mostly cold shoulders. “It’s something players cultivate to keep their edge,” explains Mary Joe Fernandez, a former top-ten player who is now the captain of the American Fed Cup team. Having her sister Venus with her on tour may have made Serena Williams even more insular. When your best friend is with you day in and day out, why risk becoming vulnerable to another person? Especially if that person might someday stand between you and a $3 million prize.
But as Serena Williams has entered the golden age of her career, a moment when her fitness, court intelligence, and legendary focus have combined to make her practically unbeatable, she has done something that has surprised many in the tennis world. She has mellowed. You can see it in her friendship with Wozniacki. You can see it in the confident way she cruised to victory against Sharapova last January in Australia. “I was really calm and positive,” she tells me later about her nineteenth Grand Slam title. “I knew I couldn’t get crazy on the court. I have done everything I wanted to do in tennis. There’s nothing missing, so all I have to do is go out there and do what I do best.” Finally, you can see it in her recently announced decision to go back to Indian Wells, a tournament she had vowed to boycott permanently after the largely white, largely senior audience booed the then–nineteen-year-old player throughout an entire match. The crowd had believed that Venus had pulled out of a match at the last minute to make sure the two did not play each other in the semifinals. It is a testament to her grit that Serena won on that difficult day, but she spent the next several hours weeping in the locker room. “Say whatever you want about me and Venus,” Williams would later write in her autobiography, “at the end of the day we were just a couple of kids, trying to do our best.”
Injuries come and go, but that wound refused to heal. Every year, officials at the tournament begged her to come back. Every year, she said no. Even a new owner, billionaire Larry Ellison, and his multimillion-dollar makeover of the tournament—there’s now a Nobu—did not sway her. Then, about a year and a half ago, Williams spent Christmas vacation reading Nelson Mandela’s autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom. His account of his struggles caused her to reflect on how she was walking through her own life. “That’s when I realized I had to go back,” she says. “I always talk about forgiveness, but I needed to actually show it. It was time to move on.” After she made the announcement in February, you could practically hear the tennis world sigh with relief. As Mary Joe Fernandez says, “She’s changed, but so has tennis. We’re never going to see anything like the Williams sisters again in American tennis, so having her back at such an important tournament is like seeing a circle close. She’s one tough cookie, but she has the biggest heart.”
There are a few linespeople out there who might argue about the heart—more than once Williams has lost her temper with officials over a dubious call—but it is the complexity of her character that makes her such a compelling figure. We love Serena Williams because, honestly, who among us hasn’t lost it at some point? Anyone in the public eye for that long must get fed up with certain aspects of celebrity. A few months after Palm Beach Gardens, I followed Serena down to Buenos Aires, Argentina, where she was playing in a Fed Cup tournament, a modest event she would normally pass up were she not determined to play for the U.S. in the Olympics next year (if she qualifies, it will be her fourth time at the Games). Seated at the press conference after trouncing her opponent, she seemed dismissive of the questions from the 25-year-old bloggers—“Have you had a chance to see our city?” “Why are you wearing long sleeves?” On the other hand, earlier in the day she hugged me hello. Hugged! In all my years of writing profiles, I can’t remember any subject ever hugging me. Like I said, she’s complicated.
Williams is the first to acknowledge that her heart doesn’t always come through. As she tells me in Florida: “On the court, I am fierce! I am mean and I am tough. I am completely opposite off the court. My confidence just isn’t the same. I wish I was more like I am on the court. Nobody would know that I am constantly crying or complaining.”
“No,” Wozniacki objects, mock-horrified. “You do that?”
She does. Only minutes earlier, Williams had been complaining about the layer of winter weight that had settled around her body. In a few weeks, she will begin the intense training that precedes her Grand Slam events, training that will clearly pay off at the Australian Open. “I should have gone on a diet weeks ago,” she moans.
“We all get that off season,” Wozniacki reassures her. I’m not sure what they were talking about. Both look magnificently fit. Earlier that month Wozniacki had even run the New York City Marathon, a project she undertook to help her forget that November was the month she was to have been married. And Williams has long been among the most powerful players on the tour, thanks, initially, to Venus, who insisted they hire a physiotherapist when they were still teenagers. “Nowadays everybody goes to the gym,” Serena says. “But when I won my first Grand Slam, I had never been.” Even then, however, she was ambivalent about her naturally muscular physique, refusing to lift weights lest her arms get bigger. “I hated my arms,” she remembers. “I wanted them to look soft.” To this day, she uses TheraBands instead of weights to avoid overdeveloping her muscles.
Once the sisters started training seriously, everything in women’s tennis changed, of course, something Mary Joe Fernandez remembers all too well. “When I started out, it was about being consistent and steady. When they started hitting with so much power, everybody had to change their game too.” At 28, and recovering from wrist surgery, Fernandez didn’t think she could make that transition, so she retired. Now, however, she appreciates having the Williamses around on the Fed Cup tour so the younger players can see up close just how hard they work. “Serena is in the gym every day and before every match, doing her stretches and warm-up. She is so strong but so flexible. She can do the splits. Her core is like a rock. That stuff doesn’t come naturally; that comes from work.”
Unlike most elite athletes, Serena Williams has spent her entire life competing against the person to whom she is probably closest in the world. As a child, she was so enthralled by sister Venus that their mother would force Serena to order first at restaurants; otherwise, she would just get whatever Venus was having. Even now, well into their 30s and millionaires many times over, the two sisters continue to live together in a Florida mansion only fifteen minutes away from their father (their mother lives in L.A.). When she is in town, Serena will have her father come over and coach her from the sidelines while she rallies with various hitting partners. (The most entertaining moment in Maiken Baird and Michelle Major’s documentary on the sisters from a few years ago is watching Serena berate Sascha Bajin, her long-suffering hitting partner, for returning the ball too softly to her. “You were just, like, hitting patty-cake!” she fumes.)
Venus, the interior designer, has decorated their Florida house with a casually feminine polish. The floors are shiny marble; the crystal chandeliers are as large as lawn mowers. The upholstery on the ottoman is leopard-skin print. When I visited, there was a large wooden crate in the foyer that had yet to be opened. Inside lay Serena’s trophy for winning the U.S. Open a few months earlier (thanks to a lackluster Wozniacki in the final). How long had the crate been there? I asked an assistant. She wasn’t sure. When you’ve won that many Grand Slams, what’s another trophy?
In order to beat her sister, Serena learned early on how to disconnect her emotions from the person on the other side of the net. “I don’t look at Venus on the court. I can’t,” she said. “If I am winning, I might feel sorry for her. If I’m losing, I will want to knock her out.” With the onset of her sister’s battle with Sjögren’s syndrome, the autoimmune disease that has drastically depleted Venus’s energy and caused a host of other health issues, Serena feels even more conflicted about beating her on the court. “She has gone through so much,” she says, suddenly serious. “Living with her, seeing her go through it, I don’t even know how she’s still playing.” (She is, though—and currently ranked seventeen.)
Serena Williams hates losing so badly that she won’t play a game during practice, preferring instead to concentrate on the structure of a single point. “I am such a perfectionist, if I lose a game,” she says, “I go crazy.” As much as she wants to win, she can’t help feeling kind of bad when her good friend loses. After that bruising showdown in Singapore, Williams slipped a note into Wozniacki’s bag, a drawing of an eye and a heart. It was a gesture both tender and surprisingly girlish, but it worked. “I was upset I couldn’t close that match out,” Wozniacki says. “So when Serena came into the locker room and said, ‘I’m sorry,’ I was mad and said, ‘Will you retire?’ But then I got the note, and it was sweet, so I got over it.”
Younger than Serena by almost a decade, Wozniacki has a point. At 33, most players really should retire. But Williams isn’t most people. “It is unbelievable what Serena is doing right now,” says Brad Gilbert, a former professional player who is now a top coach. “She won her first major at seventeen, and now she’s winning at the age of 33? That’s a range of sixteen years. Whether for men or women, that kind of longevity in tennis is unheard-of.”
Williams now belongs to an echelon of athletes—Tom Brady, Tim Duncan—who continue to perform at the highest level well past their expected prime. Williams attributes her own staying power to the physical training she started so young—and a reduced schedule. “I don’t know how people play 32 tournaments a year. The maximum I played was seventeen, and even then I didn’t feel like I had a life.” By playing less, she has avoided the physical and emotional burnout that leaves so many players embittered or ambivalent. It was during the absences imposed by injuries, especially a blood clot in 2011, that she began wondering if she’d ever play again. “I really missed being out there,” she says. “Not the crowd or the atmosphere. I just missed hitting the ball. I realized then, Wow, when am I going to retire? Because I don’t ever want to stop.”
Five years ago, it was Wozniacki who was ranked number one, an astonishing feat for a player then only 20 years old, though some speculate she never would have made it that far had players like Justine Henin and Kim Clijsters not been winding down their careers. As injured players like Williams and Maria Sharapova returned, Wozniacki’s ranking bounced around, mostly staying in the top ten. (She’s now ranked at five.) But for two years she was one of the very few people in the world, like Williams, to breathe the rarefied air of number one.
Strangely enough, it’s not a position either of them particularly relishes. “It’s hard and lonely at the top,” Williams observes. “That’s why it’s so fun to have Caroline and my sister, too. You’re a target when you’re number one. Everyone wants to beat you. Everyone talks behind your back, and you get a lot more criticism. God forbid I lose. It’s like ‘Why?’ Well, I am human.”
“The worst was when they said, ‘Caroline was beaten by a player ranked below her,’ ” Wozniacki says. “Hello—when you’re number one, everyone is ranked below you.
“There are always people who aren’t going to like you,” Williams says. “Look at Jesus; there are people who didn’t like him.”
“Wait, are you comparing yourself to Jesus?” Caroline asks. It is, I’ve noticed, her role to elbow Serena in the ribs whenever she says anything too far out.
“Oh, God, no, I am far from it. As everyone knows. But as a Christian, I do try to be Christlike.”
She got an opportunity to be supremely forgiving of Wozniacki in 2012 when Caroline blatantly stuffed her bra and skirt in an imitation of Serena’s physique during an exhibition match in Brazil. It was meant as a joke. “I never would’ve done it if Serena and I weren’t friends,” Wozniacki says. “And hey, who wouldn’t want big boobs?”
“Me,” Serena puts her hand up. “Hello? Me!”
Nevertheless, prominent African-American women like Whoopi Goldberg took umbrage at the caricature of the overripe Hottentot Venus, a visual meme that a young woman from Denmark, the daughter of a professional soccer player originally from Poland, might not fully grasp. And so Williams, who had a very different coming-of-age in crime-ridden Compton, California, and even lost her sister Yetunde to a random act of gang violence, came to her friend’s defense. “I wasn’t offended,” Williams says. “And I felt bad for her because this girl does not have a mean bone in her body.”
One of the few women who do know what it’s like to be at the top of women’s tennis is Chris Evert, who has watched the Williams/Wozniacki friendship with a mixture of déjà vu and some bemusement. “In the past, the Williams sisters always stuck together, so it’s nice to see that friendship develop between the two of them. On the court, they have such different styles—Caroline is very reserved, and Serena is more emotional. She really wears her heart on her sleeve. But when you talk to them you see they have a lot in common. Caroline is always happy and doesn’t stop talking, and Serena is a real girl’s girl.” (That’s for sure. Before our interview could start, the two spent a good five minutes gushing over pictures on an iPhone of clothes Caroline had recently bought.)
Like Williams, Evert developed a close relationship with her rival, Martina Navratilova. But unlike Williams, Evert eventually felt the need to create some distance. Practicing with the competition turned out to be bad for winning. “She’d gotten to know my game so well,” says Evert, “she started beating me.” Williams says she has enjoyed sharing strategy with Caroline, but, tellingly, the two have never actually hit together just for fun. When, last year, they shared a house in the Bahamas for a few days, Williams suggested they try it, but Wozniacki demurred. “I play tennis all year,” she says now. “On my vacation, I did not want to hit.”
Instead, the two got up every morning, put on their bikinis, and hit the pool. At night, they went out. Williams claims the men swarmed all over Caroline, while ignoring her. “I am really shy. I don’t talk to guys.”
“You don’t talk to guys?” Caroline says in disbelief. “That is a lie.”
“Friends? Yes. But a potential? No. I get nervous that I will say the wrong thing, and then I just start laughing.”
“Serena travels with a big entourage,” Caroline explains. “Some guys get intimidated by that. Both of our dream guys are out there, just waiting.”
Earlier, Williams had talked about her desire to start a family and have children, but now she shrugs. “I guess,” she says, sounding unconvinced. “I’m not even looking for it.” When the tennis does end, she has plans to expand her interest in fashion beyond her current clothing line on the Home Shopping Network into something more high-end. She also hopes to increase her philanthropic activities—there’s a school in Kenya she has funded, along with a nursing scholarship named after her slain sister, and a partnership with the Equal Justice Initiative, an Alabama-based nonprofit that provides legal representation to indigent clients. But for now, and the near future, Williams isn’t ready to take her foot off the pedal. As she says, “I feel like I have a desire to be better than ever. I am never, ever, satisfied. I always want to do more, be more, reach a new level. Not just in tennis but in everything I do.”