Serena Jameka Williams was born on September 26, 1981, in Saginaw, Michigan to Richard and Oracene Williams. The youngest of Richard’s five daughters, Serena and her sister Venus would grow up to become great tennis champions.
Serena’s father — a former sharecropper from Louisiana determined to see his two youngest girls succeed — used what he’d gleaned from tennis books and videos to instruct Serena and Venus on how to play the game. At the age of three, practicing on a court not far from the family’s new Compton, California, home, Serena withstood the rigors of daily two-hour practices from her father.
The fact that the family had relocated to Compton was no accident. With its high rate of gang activity, Richard wanted to expose his daughters to the ugly possibilities of life “if they did not work hard and get an education.” In this setting, on courts that were riddled with potholes and sometimes missing nets, Serena and Venus cut their teeth on the game of tennis and the requirements for persevering in a tough climate.
By 1991, Serena was 46-3 on the junior United States Tennis Association tour and ranked first in the 10-and-under division. Sensing his girls needed better instruction to become successful professionals, he moved his family again — this time to Florida. There, Richard let go of some of his coaching responsibilities, but not the management of Serena’s and Venus’ career. Wary of his daughters burning out too quickly, he scaled back their junior tournament schedule.
The Williams Sisters
Serena and her older sister Venus were groomed for a tennis career from the age of three years old by their father. With their signature style and play, Venus and Serena changed the look of their sport. Their sheer power and athletic ability overwhelmed opponents, and their sense of style and presence made them standout celebrities on the court. The close-knit sisters lived together for more than a dozen years in a gated Palm Beach Gardens enclave in Florida, but they went their separate ways after Serena bought a mansion in nearby Jupiter in December 2013.
In 1999, Serena beat out her sister Venus in their race to the family’s first Grand Slam win when she captured the U.S. Open title. It set the stage for a run of high-powered, high-profile victories for both Williams sisters.
In 2008, Serena and Venus teamed up to capture a second women’s doubles Olympic gold medal at the Beijing Games. The next year, Serena and Venus purchased shares of the Miami Dolphins to become the first American women of African descent to own part of an NFL team.
At the 2012 Summer Olympics, Serena claimed her fourth overall Olympic gold medal by teaming with sister Venus to defeat Czech Republic stars Andrea Hlavackova and Lucie Hradecka in women’s doubles.
Seeking to add to her hardware collection in the summer of 2015, Serena had to overcome her big sister to advance past the fourth round at Wimbledon. A few days later, she defeated Garbine Muguruza in the final to claim her second career “Serena Slam” and become the oldest Grand Slam singles champion in the Open era.
At the 2015 U.S. Open, she again squared off with Venus in a tough quarterfinal matchup, this time pulling away in the deciding third set. The outcome left her two wins shy of the calendar year Grand Slam, a feat accomplished by just three women in the sport’s history. But it was not to be. In a shocking upset, unseeded Roberta Vinci, ranked No. 43 in the world, dashed Serena’s quest by pulling out a 2-6, 6-4, 6-4 win in the semifinals.
Just hours after her singles win at Wimbledon in 2016, Serena and Venus won the doubles championship, their sixth Wimbledon win together.
At the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio, the Williams sisters experienced a shocking upset when they were bounced out of the first round of women’s doubles at the Rio Olympics by Czech duo Lucie Safarova and Barbora Strycova. The Williams sisters had originally been seeded as no. 1, had an Olympic record of 15-0, and had won gold three times previously.
Serena scored a historic victory at the 2017 Australian Open, winning her 23rd Grand Slam title after defeating her sister Venus, 6-4 6-4. With her 23rd win, she surpassed Steffi Graf’s total and captured the world number one ranking.
Reflecting on her victory, Serena credited her sister as an inspiration. “I would really like to take this moment to congratulate Venus, she is an amazing person,” she said. “There is no way I would be at 23 without her. There is no way I would be at one without her. She is my inspiration, she is the only reason. I am standing here today and the only reason that the Williams sisters exist.”
’The Serena Slam’
In 1995 Serena turned pro. Two years later, she was already No. 99 in the world rankings — up from No. 304 just 12 months before. A year later, she graduated high school and almost immediately inked a $12 million shoe deal with Puma.
In 2002, Serena won the French Open, the U.S. Open, and Wimbledon, defeating sister Venus in the finals of each tournament. She captured her first Australian Open in 2003, making her one of only six women in the Open era to complete a career Grand Slam. The win also fulfilled her desire to hold all four major titles simultaneously to comprise what she’d dubbed “The Serena Slam.”
Burnout & Comeback
In August 2003, Serena underwent knee surgery, and in September her half-sister Yetunde Price was murdered in Los Angeles, California. Three years later, Serena seemed burned out. Plagued by injuries, and just a general lack of motivation to stay fit or compete at the same level she once had, Serena saw her tennis ranking slump to 139.
Serena credited her faith as a Jehovah’s Witness, as well as a life-changing journey she made to West Africa, for renewing her pride and competitive fire. In 2008 she won the U.S. Open. By 2009, Williams reclaimed her place atop the world’s rankings, winning both the 2009 Australian Open singles (for the fourth time) and Wimbledon 2009 singles (for the third time). She also won the doubles matches at both the Australian Open and Wimbledon that year.
Injuries and Retirement Speculation
In 2011, Serena suffered a series of health scares after doctors found a blood clot in one of her lungs, which kept her away from tennis for several months. Following several procedures, including one to remove a hematoma, speculation rose as to whether Serena would retire from the sport.
Serena’s health improved by September 2011, however, and she looked like her old dominant self at the U.S. Open before falling to Samantha Stosur in the finals.
Serena stumbled badly at the 2012 French Open, enduring a first-round loss for the first time at a major tournament. But she was back in top form in London in July 2012, defeating 23-year-old Agnieszka Radwanska in an emotional three sets to claim her fifth Wimbledon singles title and first major championship in two years.
At the 2012 Summer Olympic Games, Serena beat Maria Sharapova to take her first gold medal in women’s singles.
15th and 16th Grand Slam Titles
Serena continued her winning streak to her next Grand Slam event. In September 2012, she beat out rival Victoria Azarenka to take the singles title at the U.S. Open. According to USA Today, Williams wasn’t sure that she’d emerge victorious. “I honestly can’t believe I won. I was really preparing my runner-up speech, because I thought, ‘Man, she’s playing so great.'”
By this time, Serena had captured 15 Grand Slam singles titles and 13 Grand Slam doubles titles. “I would like to leave a mark,” Serena once said about her standing in the tennis world. “I think obviously I will, due to the fact that I’m doing something different in tennis. But I don’t think I could ever reach something like a Martina Navratilova — I don’t think I’d ever play that long — but who knows? I think I’ll leave a mark regardless.”
In June 2013, Serena took her second French Open title — as well as her 16th Grand Slam singles title — in a 6-4, 6-4 victory over defending champion Sharapova. “I’m still a little bit upset about that loss last year,” Serena said in an interview with ESPN following the match. “But it’s all about, for me, how you recover. I think I’ve always said a champion isn’t about how much they win, but it’s about how they recover from their downs, whether it’s an injury or whether it’s a loss.”
2013 Wimbledon Loss and U.S. Open Win
Nearly one month later, Serena competed at Wimbledon, where she suffered a shocking loss (6-2, 1-6, 6-4) in the fourth round to Germany’s Sabine Lisicki, the No. 23 seed.
Her career-best 34-match winning streak over, Serena told Sports Illustrated, “I don’t think it’s a huge shock. [Lisicki] is a great player. Her ranking has no effect on what she should be. She should be ranked higher. She just has a super, super game to play well on grass.”
At the 2013 U.S. Open, Serena made a strong showing. She knocked out her younger rival Sloane Stephens in the fourth round before upending Azarenka to clinch the U.S. Open title. It was the second year in a row that the pair had faced off in the finals.
20th Grand Slam
Serena clinched her third straight and sixth overall U.S. Open singles title in 2014 by defeating her good friend Caroline Wozniacki. Her winning ways carried into the new year, as she beat Sharapova to claim the 2015 Australian Open championship. At the French Open in June, Serena managed to overcome illness to win the tournament for the third time and claim her 20th Grand Slam singles title, good for third place all-time.
“When I was a little girl, in California, my father and my mother wanted me to play tennis,” she told the crowd in French after her victory. “And now I’m here, with 20 Grand Slam titles.”
2016 Losses and Wins
Serena opened 2016 by advancing to the Australian Open final, where she lost in three sets to Angelique Kerber. After notching career WTA title No. 70 with a win at the Italian Open, she advanced to a French Open final rematch with Muguruza, but this time succumbed to the Spanish player in straight sets.
On July 9, 2016, Serena found her way back to victory, defeating Kerber 7-5, 6-3 at Wimbledon and winning her 22nd grand slam title. With her historic win, Serena tied Steffi Graf for the most major championships in the Open era of professional tennis, which started in 1968.
“I have definitely had some sleepless nights with a lot of stuff, coming so close and feeling it and not being able to get there,” Serena told reporters. “This tournament I came in with a different mindset. In Melbourne I thought I played well but Angelique played great, and better. So I knew going into this one I needed to be calm and be confident and play the tennis I’ve been playing for well over a decade.”
At the 2016 U.S. Open, Serena suffered another surprising defeat, leaving the competition early after she was defeated by Karolina Pliskova in their semifinal match. With the loss, she also gave up the No. 1 ranking which she’d held for 186 weeks.
23rd Grand Slam, Pregnancy and Birth
Serena went on to clinch the 2017 Australian Open to win her 23rd Grand Slam title. Later that year, she revealed she was two months pregnant during the game. She gave birth to her daughter in September and returned to the courts in late December 2017, hoping to shake off the rust in time to defend her Australian Open title.
However, Serena withdrew from the opening Grand Slam tournament in early 2018, noting she wasn’t quite ready yet after the birth of her daughter in September. “I can compete—but I don’t want to just compete, I want to do far better than that and to do so, I will need a little more time,” she said.
Serena finally returned to competition on February 11, teaming up with Venus for a doubles match in Fed Cup play. Clad in her “Wakanda-inspired catsuit,” Williams looked to be rounding into form at the French Open, before pulling out with a pectoral injury prior to her eagerly anticipated fourth-round match against Sharapova. Recovering from the setback, she proceeded to march through the Wimbledon women’s draw in July, her run ending with a loss to Kerber in the final.
At the end of the month, just before a match against Johanna Konta at the Mubadala Silicon Valley Classic, Serena learned that the man who murdered her half-sister had been paroled three years short of his full sentence. She subsequently suffered a lopsided defeat, and later told Time how heavily the news weighed on her during the match.
The star athlete was back in the news in late August when French Tennis Federation President Bernard Giudicelli said he was instituting a new dress code at the French Open to prevent the reappearance of the notorious catsuit. After insisting she had no problem with the ruling, Serena went on to wear a custom-designed tutu for the start of U.S. Open play, in which she easily dispatched her early competition en route to a third-round matchup with big sister Venus.
2018 U.S. Open and 2019 Runner-up Finishes
Just one year after giving birth, Serena was back in top form at the 2018 U.S. Open. During the final match against Japan’s Naomi Osaka, Serena got in a heated dispute with the umpire after he determined that her coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, was giving her hand signals from the stands, so the umpire gave her a coaching violation.
Serena denied any cheating and accused him of sexism and attacking her character. “You owe me an apology!” she said. She then got a point penalty for smashing her racket and a penalty for verbal abuse. Osaka won the match, 6-2, 6-4, and Williams was later fined $17,000 for the incident.
At the 2019 Australian Open, the site of her last Grand Slam crown, Serena played her way into a quarterfinal match against Karolina Pliskova of the Czech Republic. However, she lost despite being up 5-1 in the third set, a stunning collapse for a champion known for her nerves of steel.
A few months later, Serena was outplayed in a third-round French Open loss to 20-year-old American Sofia Kenen. She got back on track and advanced to the Wimbledon final, before suffering a straight-set loss to Romania’s Simona Halep. Serena then breezed through her draw at the 2019 U.S. Open but was unable to overcome 19-year-old Canadian Bianca Andreescu in the final.
Although she finished the year without a Grand Slam win, Serena earned a consolation prize by being named the AP Female Athlete of the Decade.
2020 U.S. Open
Taking a medical time out after a third-set point during the semifinals on September 10, 2020, Serena called over her trainer while clutching her left ankle. She eventually lost to Victoria Azarenka, 1-6, 6-3 and 6-3.
Over the course of her career, Serena Williams has won a record 23 Grand Slam singles titles, beginning in 1999 with the U.S. Open title. Her most recent victory came with the 2017 Australian Open when she surpassed Steffi Graf’s record for most wins in the Open era.
In the cover story for the February 2018 edition of Vogue, Serena revealed the major health complications that came with giving birth to Alexis Olympia. After undergoing an emergency cesarean section, Serena experienced sudden shortness of breath, leading to the discovery of blood clots in her lungs. Additionally, doctors found a large hematoma in her abdomen that had been caused by hemorrhaging at the site of her C-section.
Following multiple surgeries, Serena was able to return home after a week. However, she was then unable to get out of bed for another six weeks, leaving her feeling helpless at times when it came to tending to her newborn. Despite the toll it took on her emotions, she told Vogue she was willing to consider having more children, but understandably was in no rush to do so.