Serena Williams: Sports' return a ‘breath of fresh air’

Can the sporting legend win Grand Slam No.24 at the US Open? She discusses life at home during the pandemic, her health challenges, Tokyo dreams and more ahead of a return to action this week.

By Nick McCarvel

Serena Williams has seen it all before… until now.

With pro tennis’ return kicking into full gear, the 23-time Grand Slam singles champion and four-time Olympic gold-medal winner will play in front of an empty stadium during a global pandemic for the first time in her career.

“I’ve played through so many different generations and so many different things,” Williams told reporters during a virtual press conference from Lexington, Kentucky. “It's not just us as tennis players or us as athletes, as the whole world is going through this pandemic. I think sport is the one of the few things that can actually provide almost a deep, good breath of fresh air… a sigh of relief to people that are still stuck at home.”

Serena described herself as a “recluse” over the last five months, saying she’s taken social-distancing measures very seriously while staying at home and training in Florida.

“Every part of me loved it,” said the 38-year-old of getting to stay home. “I haven't been home that long since I was literally a teenager.”

The American started her Grand Slam count back as a teen, winning the US Open in 1999 at age 17. She will go for a historic No.24 beginning later this month in New York City, trying to tie the all-time record in the women's game.

A cautious return to tennis

Williams, who is seeded No.1 at the new event in Lexington, has had her eyes locked on the Open – which will happen with strict COVID safety measures and no fans – since mid-June, when she was the headline player to be announced by the event as they detailed how it would proceed as the sport’s first major since the Australian Open in January.

The tennis superstar has come back from a myriad of injuries and health scares in her career, including a pulmonary embolism in 2011. Since her return as a mom in the spring of 2018 (she gave birth to daughter Olympia in Sept. 2017), Williams has made four major finals, only to finish as runner-up each time.

“Everyone has had to take a break and pause,” Williams said of the pandemic. “And it'll be really fun and interesting to see how we play. I feel like everyone has an opportunity to actually be more fit now because we spent so much time home.”

Pro tennis has been on hiatus since early March, with a women’s event in Italy kicking things back off last week. The French Open is scheduled for late September following the US Open, though Williams is stick with short-term planning for now.

“One thing I have learned with this pandemic is don’t plan,” she said, laughing. “So I'm literally living for today and for the moment in a good way. But I'm not making plans too far out.”

#Tokyo2020: 'I'm not looking too far ahead'

That includes Tokyo 2020, which Williams would be seen as a favourite for next summer as the singles champion in 2012, as well as a doubles force (should she play), having won gold alongside sister Venus in 2000, 2008 and 2012.

“That’s just looking too far ahead of me right now,” she said. “So, we have to kind of wait to see how what happens in the fall. I don't what to expect.”

Life in the 'Serena bubble'

Williams has reason to be strict about her safety and social distancing with her previous health scares, including the aforementioned pulmonary embolism (a blockage of artery in the lungs), which has left her without full lung capacity.

“I'm not sure what would happen to me” if I got sick, Williams said. “I'm sure I'll be OK, but I don't want to find out anything.”

“I have like 50 masks that I travel with and I never want to be without one. I'm super, super careful with what I've been doing. Everyone in the ‘Serena bubble’ is really protective because at the end of the day, yeah, it's cool to play tennis, but this is my life and this is my health. So I've been a little neurotic to an extent, but that's just what I have to be right now.”

“I think (masks are) the best and the safest way to continue,” she added. “I never thought I would be playing with something like (a pandemic)”

Training at home during COVID-19

With her time at home, Williams said she built a new tennis court (with the playing surface for the US Open being sent directly to her) and is working on a new at-home gym, the latter not quite being finished yet.

“My physios are in Europe, actually, so I had to figure out a way to find a new someone that could work with me in Florida that was in the bubble that I could trust,” she said. “That was interesting because it was like, ‘What? What do I do?’”

“It was a new curve that I had to just kind of deal with.”

“I wasn't able to go to gyms, obviously, so that was different. But I'm also not bench pressing.”

She then flexed her bicep on the Zoom call, laughing. “This is God given. Thank you very much.”

Williams said her new court is a short drive from her home in Florida that she shares with husband, the tech entrepreneur Alexis Ohanian.

“I go there and it's my own sanctuary,” she described. “Why haven't I done this 20 years ago? It's really cool.”

Williams detailed asking other players based in her area to come hit with her, saying the regular sessions got her “out of the house.”

Building the gym has been fun. I'm still working on equipment… Slow and steady. This is like the new normal. I don’t know when I’m going to go to a gym again because I don't want to risk it for my personal health. It was so radical how fast it happened.”

Planning... one day at a time

Williams has been the runner-up at the US Open in both of the last two years, losing in 2018 to Naomi Osaka and last year to Bianca Andreescu. She will play in New York with the intention to head to Europe thereafter, but will keep an eye on the pandemic situation as a whole.

I see myself doing it all if it happens,” she said of travelling and going to tournaments. “But like I said, I'm not planning really future. Let me just work on today and focus on today and see what happens.”

Serena Williams: Using her voice for change

Williams has continued to be outspoken about social issues, using her personal platforms in the recent past to discuss Black Lives Matter and Ohanian’s decision to step down from the board of Reddit, the company he co-founded, and push for a black candidate to replace him.

She and Ohanian are also part of a group of female-led investors – including two-year-old Olympia – to invest in a new women’s pro soccer team in Los Angeles, Angel City, which will join the NWSL in 2022.

I feel like, you know, I have platforms that we can use for a lot of different things,” Serena said. “I think in the past, people would say athletes stick to athletics and they don't need to use their platforms. But I feel like there is also there's also a weight that comes with it. How you use it is how you want to use it. I feel like a lot of athletes have been using their voice for a lot of things that (have) been going on.”

"And for the most part, I just feel (having these) new platforms and social media… is having a larger voice if you choose to use it.”