When Serena Williams walks into the Imperial Suite at The St. Regis on Fifth Avenue, it’s impossible to notice anyone else. In total, there are nine of us—publicists, hotel staff, two photographers, a trainer—but her presence is so powerful, everyone fades into the background. Her chiseled legs are prominently displayed in a lace minidress, and with the help of four-inch black suede stilettos, she stands at about 6-foot-1. Her mane is a wild-but-not-unruly labyrinth of tiny uniform curls. She’s profoundly intimidating.
But Williams introduces herself with a whisper: “Nice to meet you,” she says, with a handshake. Her gentle demeanor is somewhat at odds with the sometimes explosive, unstoppable force we see on the tennis court. As we sit side by side on a couch in the suite’s living room, I almost forget: The woman to my right is literally the best female tennis player in the universe. The reminder, as if I needed it, came three days later, when Williams won her opening match on the U.S. Open‘s first day of play, a near-perfect 6–0, 6–1 victory against 2010 French Open champion Francesca Schiavone.
Williams took some time this week to chat candidly about privacy, body image, her clothing lines for HSN and Nike and her thoughts on retirement.
What’s your routine like on the day of a big match?
If I’m playing at night, I go to the gym in the morning and then just relax. I try not to think about the match, but of course, it’s all I can think about.
Is there a specific meal you always eat before you play?
I’m not really a superstitious person, so I always try to mix it up. I’ve been trying to eat a lot healthier—lots of veggies, green juice and fish.
Is it impossible for you to go out in public without getting recognized?
I could never go to places like [Starbucks]—I have to send someone out for me. I really don’t like to say no to pictures, so I always end up saying yes. But if you say yes to one, then there’s 20 people asking, and then there’s 30. It’s crazy, so I’m in my room a lot. During a tournament I hardly ever leave the hotel. Ever.
You have an apartment in Paris—is it less crazy there?
Paris used to be my safe haven. It was always a big sigh of relief for me there. I didn’t have to worry. But ever since I won Roland Garros [the French Open], I don’t really go out there. Or I go to the country.
Do you ever wish you could live normally?
I don’t complain about it—it’s just something you have to get used to. It’s such a humbling feeling that anyone would even watch me play. I feel so honored, honestly, by anyone who’s a fan of mine and who appreciates me.
So when you’re holed up in your apartment or a hotel, do you get cabin fever?
No. I do work and watch a lot of TV. I’m a big fan of Netflix. I just saw Orange Is the New Black, but it was too violent for me. I also spend a lot of time designing. I have two collections.
Have you always been interested in fashion?
When I was younger, I made clothes for my dolls. My mom taught me how to sew when I was 2 or 3, so I’ve been sewing for as long as I can remember.
And you still sew?
Yes. I had a photo shoot the other day after I won a tournament, and when I put the dress on, it ripped. So I asked someone for the sewing kit and I just sewed it up right there. Everyone couldn’t believe it. You could never tell it was broken.
You’ve become such a strong, confident role model for women. How does that feel?
Well, I wasn’t always confident. I just started feeling comfortable with myself about six or seven years ago. That’s why I tell people that even at 25 or 26, it’s OK if you’re feeling uncomfortable with yourself. I was too. It’s normal. I love who I am, and I encourage other people to love and embrace who they are. But it definitely wasn’t easy—it took me a while.
Why was it difficult?
I grew up with a lot of sisters—I was the youngest, and I was really thick. My sister Venus was so tall and slim, and just being in a society where a lot of people are really thin, it was hard. Especially as an athlete. No athlete has boobs like me. But I had to learn how to embrace myself and embrace my curves. And that’s something a lot of people can relate to.
You’ve been working and training unbelievably hard for more than half your life. Are there ever mornings you wake up and think, I don’t feel like doing this anymore?
Not yet. But if I do, that’ll be the day I realize that time’s up. Right now I’m having so much fun…and I’m still pretty good at what I do [laughs]. So it’s like, why not keep going? You only get this opportunity once in your life.
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