There is a lot about Serena Williams the public knows: she’s a 23-time grand slam winner, a fashion mogul, a wife, mother and the greatest athlete of all time. If you’re a fan of Williams, especially one who follows along with her adorable Instagram posts featuring her daughter, Olympia, or if you’ve watched Williams come back from injury after injury to continue to dominate her sport, you may think you know everything there is to know about the GOAT — including the fact that her resilience is almost as famous as her power serve.
But you may not know that while Williams has been racking up accolades and building an empire, she’s also been managing debilitating migraines throughout her career. “I've dealt with migraines my entire adult life,” Williams tells Refinery29 over the phone in an exclusive, albeit quick, interview. “In the past, I would get about two migraine attacks per month. There's a lot of stuff to do, my tennis career, [being] a mom, [my] various business ventures. And I think stress has a lot to do with it.”
I've dealt with things my whole life, I've dealt with lots of stuff and I always pushed through... but when it comes to this, it just came to a point where I couldn't push through anymore.
As more athletes like Naomi Osaka and Simone Biles take the time they need to rest and focus on their mental as well as physical health, the humanity of these competitors we’ve looked up to our whole lives is taking centre stage. Even the strongest and fastest athletes in the world need to slow down sometimes. “I've dealt with things my whole life, I've dealt with lots of stuff and I always pushed through,” Williams says, and I can’t help but think of all the moments I’ve watched her push through pain, frustration or unfairness on the court. “I think systematically women in general are always taught just to deal with it and it'll be okay,” Williams says. “I never stopped. I'm always, always pushing through, but when it comes to this, it just came to a point where I couldn't push through anymore.” The freedom to say “no” and to set boundaries is one Black women specifically have had to fight for in sports, and the world is still waking up to, and learning to accept, that Black women athletes can — and should — protect their peace.
Learning her boundaries and when to say “no” has given Williams the freedom to pursue more opportunities she’s passionate about. On top of running a fashion line, multiple business endeavours, and casually being a sport icon, Williams has added executive producer to her resume (she just signed a first-look deal with Amazon Studios). Now, she and her sister Venus Williams (along with their sister Isha Price) are co-executive producers of King Richard, the upcoming Hollywood biopic based on their childhood and starring Will Smith as their father, Richard Williams. When asked about the film’s trailer, which dropped recently to enthusiastic Twitter buzz, Williams says she gets emotional “every time” she watches it. The response to the trailer was overwhelmingly positive, but there were commenters who wondered why the origin story of tennis legends Venus and Serena Williams isn’t really about Venus and Serena.
There would be no Venus and Serena if it wasn't for Richard.
“My dad was an amazing guy — is an amazing guy, I should say — and I think he was way ahead of his time,” Williams says about why the film is focused on her father. “He's always thinking on a different level. Even now, he is always thinking five steps above everyone else. And the way he taught tennis with techniques, the way he pushed myself and my sister, it was a great opportunity to tell his story.” Williams ends her defence of the film with the bottom line: “There would be no Venus and Serena if it wasn't for Richard.”
Williams says watching actors play her and her sister is “definitely surreal [and] interesting.” The thought of Williams reliving her youth onscreen makes me think of her three-year-old daughter Olympia and the fact that she already seems to be skilled with a racket (if you believe Instagram that is). So, would Williams want her daughter following in her GOAT footsteps? “I'm hoping not, but [tennis is] the only thing that we can do socially distanced so, she's spending more and more on the tennis court. I'm like, what's happening here?” Williams says with a laugh. And why wouldn’t she want to have the Williams tennis dynasty continue with the next generation? “Pressure, expectation. Those are just a few things that come to mind immediately,” Williams says without hesitation, and laughs off any seriousness associated with posts of Olympia playing tennis. “I just think she’s cute!”