Serena Williams Gets Back in the Game

Tennis ace Serena Williams returns to the winner's circle after battling injuries, grief, and a dramatic slip in her pro ranking.

Medically Reviewed by Michael W. Smith, MD on April 09, 2007
8 min read

What does Serena Williams -- tennis powerhouse, aspiring fashionista,occasional actor, and all-around formidable human being -- do when she gets theflu? Does she fight her way through high fevers and boxes of tissues to comeout swinging, shaking off chills and congestion faster than the rest of usnonathletic types?

"I just lie in bed. At some point I move to the couch. I watch lots and lotsand lots of TV. Then around 6 [p.m.], I go back to bed. And I do it for days,"says Williams, who dropped out of several smaller tennis tournaments inFebruary while suffering from the effects of a particularly nasty bug.

And this comeback kid -- who despite her unseeded status defeated the 6-footblonde Russian transplant, No. 2 ranked Maria Sharapova, in January'sAustralian Open -- cites television as her elixir of choice, whether she's sickor simply chilling out after a tough match. "I'm a cable freak," she says."The Avatar is my favorite show. It's animation, which I love. And I'maddicted to America's Next Top Model."

And you thought elite athletes spent all their time bench-pressing andpanting through grueling practices.

But Williams, 25, is no ordinary athlete. Fans and foes alike know her assomething of a warrior goddess, all chiseled muscle and broad-shouldered menaceon court, dressed in flirty Day-Glo pink or skin-tight black leather. This is awoman who clearly refuses to color inside the lines, even if her laserlikeshots usually fall within them.

From the start of her career, Williams has defied the odds. She rose fromL.A.'s rough Compton neighborhood as a child player to become, in 1999, onlythe second black woman to win a Grand Slam. Althea Gibson's historic 1956victory served as inspiration. Williams took home gold at the 2000 SydneyOlympics for women's doubles (sharing the honor with her sister, tennis champVenus) and earned four straight Open titles (nicknamed the "Serena Slam") byearly 2004.

But Williams watched her No. 1 ranking drop dramatically after a naggingknee injury (a tear to the quadriceps tendon) continued to plague her, despitean earlier surgery to repair it. She also suffered from a stress fracture toher right ankle, which added more pressure to her knee, in 2005; in 2006, herranking fell from the top 100 for the first time in more than a decade.

While Williams struggled with both personal and professional setbacks duringthese years, she never planned to bow out quietly. "I hated it," she tellsWebMD, referring to the tough times, when some tennis fans wondered if herglory days were behind her. "But I had injuries, and I had to let myselfrecover."

Rick Macci, who trained both Williams sisters in 1991-1995 at hisFlorida-based tennis academy (as well as some of the sport's other biggestnames, Sharapova included), adds this: "Knee injuries affect movement -- theyare really tough for a player to overcome. Plus, whenever you have an injurythat takes you off the court, it's mentally hard to come back. When Serenawants to be, she is one of the toughest players ever to play the game. But hermental state affects how she plays."

Macci believes that great players must have equal parts mental resolve andGod-given talent. "Everybody thought Serena was ready to disappear. But sheplayed Sharapova in Australia like she had nothing to lose. When Serena doesn'tlet the pressure get to her, she is the best player in the world."

Her physical challenges may have been only part of the catalyst forWilliams' respite from the pro circuit in 2004-2005 and her struggle to getback in the game. In September 2003, her older sister Yetunde Price was shotand killed in Compton as she sat inside a friend's car. Her family wasdevastated. The murder made headlines around the world, and for the first time,the flamboyant tennis star may have felt the intrusive nature of her fame.

Williams, who claims to wear her celebrity status with ease and says that to"inspire young girls is my dream," admits that the prying press and sensationalnature of the crime made her bereavement "a little more difficult, trying todeal with it all."

When asked if she needed a mental break as much as a physical one afterPrice's death, she answers quietly, "I think so ... yes."

This comes as no surprise to Kevin O'Brien, MA, EdD, a trauma therapist andthe director of education and victims services at the National Center forVictims of Crime in Washington, D.C. "Violent crime touches every aspect of anindividual -- the spiritual, the emotional, and the social," O'Brien says."Socially, there is a need to withdraw. Emotionally, there is the need forsupport. And spiritually, there are tough questions like, 'How could somethingso bad happen to someone so good?' The fact that Serena is also a publicfigure, with the details of the murder given to the public, would have madecoping with her loss that much harder."

But a comeback was never far from her mind. "Tennis is a game I was born toplay," Williams says now, despite court whisperings that her other interests --from fashion design (she has her own clothing line, Aneres, which is "Serena"spelled backward), to the lights of Hollywood (she's dabbled in acting over theyears, appearing on ER, The Bernie Mac Show, and Law &Order: SVU) -- were distracting the top player from performing at herpeak.

"I wish I could be like Martina Navratilova," says Williams, referring toher 50-year-old colleague as someone whose passion for the sport never wanes,despite a nearly nonstop playing schedule. "But I'm not like that. I need otherthings in my life. I need balance."

When asked if these other "things" -- from business meetings with apparelexecutives to red-carpet movie premieres -- help prevent feelings of burnout,she replies, "Yes. For me, they do. Absolutely."

For naysayers who questioned her commitment to tennis before her spectacularreturn in Australia a few months ago, for those who wrote that she wasn'ttraining enough, wasn't conditioned enough, and had lost her desire to win,Williams offers this: "I never stopped training. I trained all year - you haveto. It was never an option to settle [for a lower ranking]."

So, WebMD asks, which is more difficult emotionally: maintaining a No. 1position with your competitors gunning to take you down, or climbing back asthe underdog? "I don't know which one is harder," Williams says. "There are upsand downs. When you're down -- feeling truly low -- fighting your way back canbe fun. But when you're No. 1, it's the best. Nothing's better. ...

"But I never feel pressure," she continues, challenging Macci's earlierassessment. "I just stay focused on my own game. That's what works for me."

Does she believe her presence -- all 5 feet, 10 inches of cut biceps,iron-strong legs, fierce gaze, and determined focus -- intimidates heradversaries? "I really don't know," she says. "I try not to think about anyoneelse out there. I think about me."

When Williams took on Sharapova in Melbourne, she was thinking about someoneelse -- but it wasn't her opponent on the other side of the net. After winningthe match with a forceful backhand -- and securing her eighth Grand Slam title-- Williams told the crowd in an emotional voice, "Most of all, I would like todedicate this win to my sister, who's not here. Her name is Yetunde. I justlove her so much. I'll try not to get teary-eyed, but I said a couple of daysago, if I win this, it's going to be for her. So thanks, Tunde."

Sharapova later remarked: "You can never underestimate [Williams] as aperformer. ... I know what she's capable of, and she showed that today. She hasshown it many, many times."

Compared with some of her will-o'-the-wisp rivals, including her 125-poundarchnemesis, Belgian player Justine Henin, Williams is physically, well,impressive. But does she get tired of having her fitness level questionedsimply because she has curves, strength, and mass? Does she suffer from weightissues and insecurities like so many other American women? Or does Williamsview her body as a machine, something to be nourished and trained for maximumperformance?

"Both," she answers. "I think everyone wants to look fitter. You always wantwhat you don't have." (This is the same woman who was once quoted as sayingthat no matter what her weight, she'd have a large bosom and backside --although admittedly, she described her backside with a less printableword.)

"It's frustrating," she says. "A lot of people don't understand that I amboth [shapely and fit]. But as long as I'm winning, that's OK! That's all thatmatters."

"Serena is large, with muscular buttocks, hips, and thighs," echoes SanDiego-based Cedric Bryant, PhD, chief science officer of the American Councilon Exercise. "In regard to tennis, she is perfectly built to excel. Her powerallows her great court coverage, enables her to be explosive. She has theclassic mesomorphic body type, which is a muscular, athletic body that is bestsuited for power, speed, and agility."

As for weight, Bryant says that BMI -- body mass index -- is not necessarilya good indicator of fitness levels among elite athletes. "BMI measures bodyweight in relation to height. In Serena's case, it gives the wrong conclusion,because it doesn't take into account the composition of that weight -- leanversus fat tissue. Extra weight in the form of lean muscle mass, which is whatSerena likely possesses, is a positive for a top athlete."

And how does her sister Venus -- who, while less curvy, is, at 6 feet, noless physically imposing -- view Serena's triumphant return to the upperechelons of the sport? "I take it as inspiration," the former No. 1 was quotedas saying about Serena's Australian Open win. The elder Williams, alsostruggling with a painful sports injury of late, has competed only twice sincelast July because of a sprained left wrist; her World Tennis Associationranking as of press time was 29.

"Venus is the No. 1 Serena fan!" her younger sister tells WebMD with obviousappreciation.

But what about sibling rivalry? How can two sisters compete on such a grandscale without hurt feelings, disappointment, or resentment?

"We talk about it sometimes," Williams admits. "Honestly, I really, reallywant to win -- of course I do. But if I can't win, then I want Venus towin."

"They aren't quite as competitive with each other," opines Macci, whorecalls the first match the two sisters played as rivals, when they wereteenagers. "It's probably not conscious. But if you follow tennis, you noticethat [when they play each other], they don't have that intense desire todestroy the other person, the competitive rage you need to win -- the same fireSerena had when she recently blew Sharapova off the court." Williams sums it updifferently: "We truly want the best for each other."

So what's next for Serena Williams, besides the French Open later this month(May 27-June 10) and the U.S. Open in September, when the eyes of the tennisworld will be on her to see if she takes her ninth --and perhaps 10th -- Slam,and maintains her comeback status? "I stay in the present, I think abouttoday," she says simply.

And a decade from now? Does Williams see herself still competing?Commentating from an announcer's box like her colleague, former champion TracyAustin? Running a fashion empire? Starring in Hollywood films?

"I just met with my people the other day about the clothing line, so that'sin the works. And being in a movie -- well, well, that would be a dream cometrue. But in 10 years, I want to be a mom. Definitely. I think I want to haveat least three."

As for her philosophy for success -- on court and in life -- Williams servesup a kind of bravado we haven't seen from this tennis ace in years: "Someone'sgotta win, so it might as well be me."