Stories from 'In The Arena: Serena Williams' you probably haven't heard

By ESPN | Created at 2024-07-10 11:44:55 | Updated at 2024-07-21 20:34:52 1 week ago
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  • D'Arcy Maine, ESPN.com

Jul 10, 2024, 07:00 AM ET

In the new ESPN+ documentary series, "Serena Williams: In the Arena," premiering Wednesday, July 10, Williams and those who know her best reflect on her legendary career and share behind-the-scenes insight into her most memorable moments. Here is a sneak peek at a few of those unknown anecdotes.


Serena is a huge -- and very specific -- superhero fan

Entrepreneur and Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian has been married to Serena Williams since 2017 and the two have several joint ventures but there's at least one thing they don't see eye-to-eye on.
Ohanian: "I grew up loving Marvel and Serena loved DC, and you might think two people with such different backgrounds as us wouldn't necessarily be able to get along, because, obviously, Marvel is superior to DC. And I told her that, because it's true. She was not as, let's say, convinced by that argument as I would have liked.

"We had good conversation about it. It did surprise me, not just because I think DC is inferior to Marvel, which it is, but she was so into DC, and knew the details of Superman canon and other DC heroes canon. This wasn't just a superficial like, 'Hey, I've watched a few movies.' This is like, 'I have deeply studied the text and I have strong opinions about this lore.'

"She knew enough about Marvel to be dangerous, but, clearly, she hadn't spent enough time with it, because if she had, she would know that it was better. But it's OK. She was busy winning Grand Slams and whatnot."


Serena's house is filled with tennis history -- and sometimes, dog poop

Sascha Bajin, the 2018 WTA Coach of the Year, served as Serena Williams' hitting partner from 2007 to 2015, a period during which she won 13 Grand Slam titles. Bajin even lived in Williams' home for several years in order to be available for practice whenever she needed.
Bajin: "I have to say that I was very surprised in how quickly Serena took me in. She was a celebrity. She was one of the biggest names already back then in tennis, so the fact that she just took a kid from Munich and trusted that kid to be at her house and to live with her, and then I walk in [to her house] and I see seven, eight Wimbledon trophies. I see four, five, six U.S. Open trophies. You walk in there, and it's like you live in a museum.

"... Actually my very, very first night, and I don't know if Serena knows this, but the very first night in her house ... I open the door and I swear I stepped in dog poop. So I'm like, 'No, this can't be happening.' The first day of my new life where I go into Serena's house, I stepped into -- and I didn't even have socks on! ... I was the only guy [living in the house], and [the dog] wanted to make sure that I know this is his house. So I think one of Venus's dogs may have marked his territory, but I took it as good luck, and I thought that this is going to go very well. It can only go upwards from there. And that was my first morning at Serena's house. I stepped in dog doo-doo."



Serena had competitive fire from a young age

Former world No. 4 and Wimbledon finalist Zina Garrison is a retired American tennis player who first met Serena and Venus when they were children and later worked with them as the captain of the U.S. team for the Fed Cup (now known as the Billie Jean King Cup) and the Olympics. She remembers being first impressed by Serena's intensity.
Garrison: "I think [Venus and Serena] were 7 and 8 [respectively]. I was playing [an exhibition event] here in California. ... I see Serena. She's barely over the net because she was short for a very long time. Serena was crossing over [the net], poaching. ... She's like, 'YES!' I'm like, 'Who is this young kid?'

"She always wanted to challenge you -- that little one. I call her the little one. ... That forehand came so fast to me! And I blocked it back. I thought, 'Are you crazy? I don't want to be on the court with her!' I just remember coming off and just feeling the power go through my arm and that was just absolutely amazing to me.


Serena loves Green Day and 90s alternative music (which she might have gotten from Venus), but is not a Metallica fan

Serena's older sister Venus, herself a seven-time major champion, didn't just influence her on the tennis court, but with her musical preferences, too.
Serena: "I started listening to Green Day and just this song in particular, 'Long View.' I remember the 'Long View' [music] video came out -- Venus, of course, had showed me the video -- and I learned guitar and I became this low-key punk rocker. Kind of alternative because I liked Bad Religion, Rancid, stuff like that."

Venus: "During that time we were so similar, even though we were very different, because we spent so much time together. It made us like the same things -- like the same music. Or she was just copying the music I liked. I don't know."

Alexis: "I actually built most of Reddit listening to 'American Idiot.' That was one of the albums we had on repeat there in 2005. So, I liked Green Day a lot. I wouldn't have considered myself like a superfan, and then I came to find out she was, and that surprised me. Not that she was a fan, but she was a superfan, and she was very candid about that fact. I was like, 'Huh, OK, didn't see that coming but cool!' I'm a superfan of Metallica, which I shared with her, which didn't quite land as well. She's like, 'Yeah, Metallica, they're cool.' I was like, 'What do you mean they're cool? They're the greatest rock band of all-time!'"


Ohanian had his first date with Serena -- and her team -- in Paris during the 2015 French Open

Ohanian: "Eventually she came around. I was like, 'Look, let me take you out to dinner,' and she's like, 'OK, but I'm going to bring my agent and my assistant.' And I thought, 'Alright, this is some Hollywood stuff, fine. You don't know who I am. I'm a big dude. I might be nuts, so you bring backup.'

"So, I showed up for the interrogation dinner. It was like an interview panel, because it was the three of them -- Serena, her assistant, her agent -- and then me on the other side of the table, and they just bombarded me with questions. It was like two hours of interrogation and questions. Do I have kids? Am I married? Nothing was off limits."


Serena developed her vicious forehand because of a skateboarding accident

Serena: "That's how I got a good forehand -- was by skateboarding. My backhand used to be really, really amazing, and one day I was at school, but I didn't want to be there. I just took my skateboard out and went skateboarding in the neighborhood and fell and I hurt my wrist really bad. And I never told my dad.

"So [at practice] I couldn't really hit backhands. I'm like, 'No, I want to work on my forehand today. I want my forehand to get better.' And for months and I just developed this amazing forehand because I literally, legit, couldn't hit backhands."


Serena was the youngest and "girliest" of the five Williams sisters who grew up together

Isha Price is Serena and Venus's older half-sister from their mother's first marriage and is now a lawyer and producer.
Price: "She was the most feminine of all of us. Even as a little, little girl, she always wanted to wear a dress. She always wanted to present very, like, 'I'm the baby sister.' She's always been that way. Where the rest of us were just pretty much average, not necessarily tomboys, but just kids, Serena was definitely on the other end of that spectrum, so we didn't know where she came from.

"I remember there's this one time she had this dress that was her total favorite dress. It had little shapes and stuff in pink and purple. ... It was frilly and it was purple, and she loved this purple dress.

"Eventually things get too small, and so my mom had taken the dress and it was time to get rid of it. And Serena told my dad, and she was so upset. She was crying, 'Mommy, I can't find my purple dress, my purple dress.' That's just how she was. She was very much a daddy's girl, but also a mommy's girl and a baby sister all rolled into one."


Serena is fueled by affirmations from her mother

Garrison: "I actually asked [Serena], 'Why do you guys feel like you're so strong?' And she said, 'My mom would literally tell each one of us every day that we were beautiful strong Black women that could do anything.'

"I thought that was amazing. For the mother, who sometimes doesn't get the credit, to have the insight to say that to her daughters each and every day. Knowing the sport that they got into, that was probably going to be the single most blessed lesson that she can give them, along with their faith."


Illustrations by Rafa Alvarez.

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