Now four episodes into its limited run, Being Serena is still proving itself to be way more than just another sports documentary. The HBO series begins with a pregnant Serena Williams weeks away from delivering her daughter, Alexis Olympia Ohanian Jr., the baby she didn’t expect to have. Now, one of the greatest athletes in the world has something other than tennis to live for: a growing family that was solidified once she married Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian in New Orleans last year, shortly after Alexis’ birth. In some ways, Being Serena capitalises on Williams’ star quality by giving fans an intimate look at what went on behind all the headlines she made last year. But the show also offers a perspective on Black motherhood and Black womanhood that is absolutely necessary right now.
Williams infiltrates white spaces on a daily basis. The tennis world deemed her and her family outsiders when she started playing professionally as a teenager in the late ‘90s. She and older sister Venus stood out when they showed up to play with heads full of beaded hair and a jubilant father/coach reacting animatedly courtside. When Williams first played at the Indian Wells Masters in California, she was booed. But it hasn’t deterred her from dominating the game that she loves. In episode four of Being Serena ,“Change,” she returns to Indian Wells to test her physical limits post-childbirth – and to prove to both fans and naysayers that she still has it. She leaves knowing that there is still work to be done. While WIlliams may have trained herself, out of necessity, not to focus on the context of her being a Black woman in a predominantly white field, as a viewer — especially a Black female one — it’s a heavy burden to bear.
Reading between the lines of her confessed love of the sport is Williams’ love for the lifestyle that it has afforded her. She has done the work unrelentingly for decades, and should absolutely bask in the fruits of her labor. (Fruits that also make Being Serena so entertaining to watch.) The huge homes in California and Florida that she shares with her husband often set a picturesque scene. She flies private across oceans with a team of helpers in tow. Clips of Beyonce, Ciara, Kelly Rowland, Anna Wintour, and Kim Kardashian at her wedding serve as reminders that Williams is more than a great tennis player. She is an A-lister with a glittery network that reaches far beyond the confines of the courts. But she is also a working Black mom. The tension between these two identities is the meat of Being Serena, and puts her in a well-known female conundrum: can she have it all?
While this is an issue debated within feminist spaces, it’s mostly been about white women. For white women, having a family and a career has finally become a possible choice, even with the realities of inequality in parenting and the workforce. But a choice it remains. For many women, mainly women of colour and poor women, this is not the case. They have always been juggling responsibilities and pinching pennies to support themselves and their loved ones. With a reported net worth of £59 million, Williams can afford options in how she moves forward with her career and being a mom. But whatever she decides will be judged through the lens of her Blackness; how she expresses that Blackness is layered into many parts of Being Serena. She’s constantly wearing a headscarves to keep her edges laid in her downtime. And she banters back and forth with her sisters in a way that suggests they argue about who makes the best potato salad.
In “Chapter 4: Change,” Williams realises that her game is not at 100% after facing life-threatening complications following the cesarean delivery of Alexis Jr.. She can’t physically train as hard while breastfeeding, and her attention is divided between making the epic comeback she wants and caring for her infant. So her coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, gives her an ultimatum: commit to a month of intense training in Europe before the French Open, or don’t compete at all. The stakes are high, and Williams is forced to compromise. She packs up and heads to France – but with Baby Alexis. It means she won’t see her husband for a month and she’ll still have to nurse, but she’s going to make it work. Williams doesn’t offer any clear answers to having it all. She is doing what Black women always do: getting shit done the best way she knows how.
Being Serena is being shown on HBO now in the US (UK release TBC).