Serena Williams is on pace to become the greatest women’s tennis player of all time. She's won four Olympic gold medals and 21 Grand Slam titles, and she’s the only person in history, male or female, to win three of the four major tournaments six times each.
The quest to be called “the greatest of all time” is intricately linked to performance in the four tennis majors each year: the Australian Open, the French Open, Wimbledon, and the U.S. Open. These are where Serena has excelled. With 21 titles, she currently trails only Steffi Graf (22) and Margaret Court (24). And if Serena’s recent performance is any indication, she may surpass them in the near future. At age 33, she still going strong and is having arguably the best year of her career.
In January of this year, Serena won her sixth Australian Open, despite grueling physical conditions and excessive heat. Organizers of the tournament, hosted in Melbourne, even changed their extreme heat policy just before this year’s Open to prevent heat stroke and other heat-related illnesses. In the tournament final, Serena — for the first time in her nearly 20 years as a professional — vomited during a match.
She followed up that performance with victories at the French Open (her third) and Wimbledon (her sixth), pulling off several comeback wins in the process. Now her sights are set on the U.S. Open and her first calendar-year Grand Slam, which would be a truly historic moment in the sport. The only two women to complete that feat in the past 60 years are Graf (1988) and Court (1970).
Serena’s dominance of the sport spans beyond even her singles play. She’s also won 13 Grand Slam doubles championships — and her partner is none other than her sister, Venus, one of the sport’s top players in her own right.
History and Cultural Impact
Serena doesn't come from the typical American tennis background of country clubs and tennis camps. Her father, Richard Williams, grew up in poverty in Louisiana, raised by a single mother. After moving to Compton, California, he trained and coached Serena and her older sister, Venus, through their adolescent years.
Almost 20 years later, the Williams sisters have changed the face of American tennis, with their style of hard-hitting play, their passion, and being the sport’s “greatest ambassadors,” according to Katrina Adams, chairman of the United States Tennis Association.
In particular, Serena’s style of play has shaped how tennis is played today. She combines finesse with power, looking to end points quickly with well-angled shots and aggressive returns. It’s a style now emulated by up-and-coming stars and young players alike.
Thanks in large part to Serena’s success, youth tennis programs have grown across the country (especially in urban areas), larger crowds are attending women’s tournaments, and the prize money has increased as well. Since Serena won the 2001 U.S. Open and drew a huge TV audience, CBS has aired the finals of the tournament in prime time ever since.
Serena’s Health Scare
In 2011, at age 29, Serena suffered a life-threatening pulmonary embolism, a blood clot that traveled to her lungs. Her condition could have been fatal if she hadn’t gotten to an emergency room as soon as she did.
The blood clot damaged part of one lung, and the star athlete would need to be on blood thinners for several months. Her recovery was daunting and emotionally draining, but once she was assured that she could make a full recovery and play tennis again, she said, “Now I have the chance to come back.”
Serena not only came back to play tennis, but in 2013 she became the oldest women’s tennis player to ever achieve a world No. 1 ranking. She has also won eight grand slam titles since the embolism.
Since she was diagnosed with the life-threatening blood clot four years ago, Serena now has a new outlook on her career and the way she lives her life. She has learned to heavily focus on her training, nutrition, and recovery to return and remain at the elite level she enjoyed in her 20’s.
"Serena's career has taken many twists and turns, but she has been the most dominant player of her era"
A Commitment to Training
In a 2015 match in Perth, Australia, Serena dropped the first set 0-6, a score that would make lesser athletes throw in the towel. Yet Serena knew exactly what her body needed, and she asked for a cup of coffee at the break.
Caffeine is believed by some to help the body burn stored fat to use for fuel. Serena knew she needed a jolt of energy to fight through the blistering heat. Once play resumed, her strategy paid off and she went on to win the next two sets and the match, 6-3, 6-0.
Serena’s diet has become a staple of her preparation, and although her nerves prevent her from eating much before a match, she told Glamour magazine that she balances her protein and carbs in a winning combination. But Serena doesn't believe in depriving herself. She'll eat an occasional pizza and fries — just in moderation.
Serena has also learned the value of putting in the work before, during, and after training. Her routine consists of two hours of tennis drills, working on all aspects of her game, plus training at the gym, doing cardio and Pilates. Pilates focuses on balance and helps tennis players not favor one side of their body more. During and after these workouts, Serena uses a cooling towel to maintain her body temperature and speed up her recovery.
She is a big advocate for enjoying what you do, so she will regularly change up her routine. She loves to run and workout on the stationary bike and elliptical machine. When that gets stale, she will partake in Bikram yoga (hot yoga) and dancing. Serena will occasionally reward herself with a quick dancing session after a tough workout to keep it loose and fun.
A Continuing Legacy of Winning
Serena's career has taken many twists and turns, but she has been the most dominant player of her era, thanks to a rigorous work ethic, tireless devotion to mental and physical preparation, and tremendous tennis talent as she continues to find creative ways and strategies to remain a champion.