Living legend Serena Williams wowed the world in April when she revealed that she won her 23rd Grand Slam singles title (a record unmatched by any player, male or female) during the first trimester of her pregnancy.
Now, in a new interview on Uninterrupted, the tennis star grants the rest of us mortals a true "stars — they're just like us!" moment when she tells the story of hitting a major financial milestone early in her career.
Most people who earn their first paycheck aren't sure whether to frame it or hide it. So perhaps it's unsurprising that after Williams received her first million-dollar check, she tried to process it in the most normal way possible: through the ATM.
“I went through the drive through to deposit my check and they were like, 'I think you need to come in for this…', so I ended up going inside," Williams tells businessman and manager Maverick Carter. "I should have taken a picture of it. I guess selfies didn’t exist back then."
The story is a "hilarious tidbit," as espnW.com puts it, but it also shines a light on the prevailing attitude she has about her sport. Williams has always presented her pursuit of excellence in tennis as equal parts work and passion. The added dimension of her success, however, is financial gain, something she has had to learn how to manage along the way.
"I’ve actually never played for money," Williams says. "I just thought you would go out there and you would hold a trophy."
She explains that her father (who was recently inducted into the American Tennis Association Hall of Fame) maintained a hands-off approach as she moved up. Richard Williams, who is famous for his support of his daughters, told Serena that he wouldn't take a coaching fee or any other money from her, and that her financial decisions would also remain her own. That meant that any stumbling blocks she met along the way, as well as any triumphs, would be placed squarely on her shoulders.
"Since I was a teenager, I’ve made every financial decision in my life," Williams explains. "I’ve had to learn how to make good ones and how to make bad ones, which I think helps you make better ones."
Despite her million-dollar lesson, both she and her sister Venus are icons when it comes to pushing women to be in control of their money, not to mention charging institutions with giving women that agency. Toward the end of the interview, Williams tells Carter that she sees Billie Jean King as the blueprint for who she'd like to be as a player and a professional.
King, a former reigning champion in tennis, founded the Women's Tennis Association in 1973 and threatened to boycott the U.S. Open the same year over pay disparities between male and female players. (She was offered $10,000 for winning first place, compared to her competitor's $25,000 award.) After that, the U.S. Open became the first tennis tournament to dispense equal prize money, regardless of gender.
The Australian Open followed suit in 2001, the French Open conceded in 2006, and Wimbledon finally caved in 2007 after years of advocacy by Venus Williams, who wrote an open letter about the issue of equal pay in tennis: "Wimbledon has sent me a message: I’m only a second class champion." Greatness, badassery, and comaraderie obviously run in the family — and are ideals that Serena hopes to extend to future generations.
"Honestly, I feel like if I'm able to open the door for the next person, that means a lot for me, too — and hopefully, they'll be able to do better than me," she tells Carter.
To the question about what she would want for her own child, she adds: “If my daughter were to play in a sport and she was able to have equal prize money, or equal pay, or equal rights, I feel like that would be a success. And if not, I would really want her to speak up for it. Any daughter of mine will have a voice."