Remember when Serena Williams lost in the US Open Semifinals and missed the opportunity to equal Steffi Graf’s record? It was one of the biggest upsets in tennis history and her shocking loss is chronicled in a new Epix documentary, Serena.
2015 was the year of the Serena. We followed her journey over the course of the year in her quest to complete the Calendar slam at the age of 33. From the moment she won the Australia Open, it seemed almost a foregone conclusion that she would win her No.22 slam to tie with Steffi Graf and completed her Serena Slam. She was and still is the world no.1 player and there was no other contender who could take her on. Yet Serena Willimas ultimately lost to an unseeded player who had never even won a set against Williams prior to the match. The victor Roberta Vinci advanced to the finals and she went home defeated.
But this is not the story of what could have been. This is a story about Serena Williams, tennis legend and sporting icon. This is her story, told in her own words. In this documentary, we are invited to a never-before-seen sides of Serena Williams, that are both goofy and compelling.
We know she keeps her four Olympic golds in ziplock bags at the same spot you keep your flashlight and batteries. She laughs hysterically when her pants split during an aerial acrobatics class. “The show must go on.” says the champion. She abandons a conversation at a karaoke bar (with her then-bae Drake, no less) in mid-sentence to dance to a Gloria Estefan song. We also know her love for Disney movies (Little Mermaid!) and even the name of her dog. What we didn’t know was that she uses his full name (Christopher Chip Rafael Nadal) when he’s being naughty.
We learn about how she deals with racism in a mostly white sport and applaud her inspirational and well-received return to Indian Wells after a 14-year boycott. We watch how she deals with the complex emotions of competing with her sister. One minute they are laughing at home, the next minute Serena is defeating her sister at the Wimbledon Quarterfinals
At this point in history, Serena Williams has cemented her place in history as one of the greatest athletes of all time with 21 Grand Slam wins, four Olympic gold medals, and more major singles, doubles, and mixed-doubles titles than any other tennis player in history. Together with her sister Venus, Serena has trailblazed her way into a mostly white-dominated sport and paved the way for other sportswomen of colour.
As she begins her mission to win all four major tennis tournaments in a year—something only six Singles players have achieved in history – the cracks begin to show and she gradually unbuckles under the immense pressure. Her muscles and joint ache. At the French Open, she is down with flu and has to summon incredible mental strength to fight her way back into the semifinal match after losing the first set to Timea Bacsinszky. Days after the shocking US Open semifinal loss that halted her Calendar Slam quest, she is seen in bed discussing the match and speaking truthfully about the pain of the loss.
“I don’t want to talk about losing. I don’t like losing. I don’t want to talk about the match, I don’t want to think about the match. This is the biggest moment in my career history and I didn’t get it. I’ve never been in this position. I’ve never been so close to having something and losing it – or, not getting it. [Pauses] No, losing it. I lost it. It’s not like I got beaten, I lost it.”
The insight from all these behind-the-scenes struggles and candid after-match talk gives more depth to what could easily have been a generic inspirational narrative about a sporting great. All the weight of expectations is taking a toll on the American sports legend. But the Serena we know is never one to give up without a fight, despite the barrage of criticism she faces throughout her career.
When the director, Ryan White, asks Williams about the constant criticism she receives about her body, Williams answers, “The prototype of a tennis body is like, someone that’s really thin and really tall and really lean. And I have hips, boobs. I have all this extra stuff that I’m carrying around.” Serena struggled with her curves and her larger muscular frame when she was younger but she has now grown to believe she is beautiful. She says, “I love my body, and I don’t really care about what anyone else says about it.”
While she may not have won the coveted Serena Slam, Serena was crowned the Sports Illustrated‘s Sportsperson of the Year for her extraordinary achievements. In her now-famous acceptance speech, she acknowledged the criticism she’s faced during her remarkable 21-year career. “I’ve had people look down on me, put me down because I didn’t look like them—I look stronger,” she said. “I’ve had people look past me because of the color of my skin, I’ve had people overlook me because I was a woman.” She concluded by quoting Maya Angelou’s Still I Rise : “You may write me down in history / With your bitter, twisted lies / You may trod me in the very dirt / But still, like dust, I’ll rise.”
And rise, she does. Despite two more heartbreaking losses at this year’s Australian Open and Roland Garros Finals, Serena is determined to find her winning streak again at Wimbledon and complete the mission of the 22 Grand Slam mission that she has set out to achieve from last year. Long after the closing credits, she will continue to inspire millions around the world with her iron-clad will, unshaken self-belief and drive to succeed.
“Who says 34 is too old for tennis? Who makes the rules? I will play, and I will fight, and when I feel like I’m done I’ll be done.”
Serena premieres June 22 on the Epix Channel.
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