There are so many sides to Serena Williams. Slick and powerful in heels and leotard, she dances, squats and bounces beside Beyoncé in the video for Sorry. She has been lauded by Claudia Rankine, whose award-winning, book-length poem Citizen last year depicted Williams “as hemmed in as any other black body thrown against our American background”. She is the world’s top-earning female athlete. And arguably more than any of her contemporaries, her body has been the focus, the point of intersection, of so many arguments about femininity, power and race that it would almost be possible to overlook the tennis.
But the tennis, of course, is unforgettable. Williams has won 21 grand slams. One more – next week at Wimbledon, say – would bring her level with Steffi Graf’s total, and only two short of Margaret Court’s all-time record of 24. Williams has been playing since she was three. In September, she turns 35. If she stays fit, if the strength holds, if she keeps winning, if young rivals prosper temperately, maybe she can hurl herself through the narrowing gap of time to leave a new number in the record books. But meanwhile, she is singing karaoke at a pre-tournament party. When a TV interviewer points out that a strap of her crop top has slipped, she gives her shoulder a brief glance. “Yeah,” she says. “I know.” Through everything, she is a self-stylist.
How did you get involved with Beyoncé’s album Lemonade?
We’ve known each other a really long time. I’ve known the director [Dikayl Rimmasch] since he was nine. My lawyer – it’s his son. We kind of grew up together. They were like, “It would be good for Serena.” Beyoncé had so many inspirational women in that part, in her documentary video. She says she loves when I dance cos I dance like no one’s watching. I’m like, “Oh, but that’s different cos there’s no cameras, there’s no one watching.” But, yeah, that’s kind of what I was trying to do. It worked out good. She had a lot of people. She had Trayvon Martin’s mother, Michael Brown’s [mother] as well, the victims of that horrible violence we are seeing in the United States, as well as some beautiful ballerinas, body-imaging women who really love themselves and embrace themselves, so other people embrace them, too. It was really powerful putting African-American women together in her story, because she’s obviously a super strong African-American woman.
Did she explain it to you in those terms?
She explained it to me in different terms, but we kind of have a similar take on a lot of things. She’s gone through so much and been so positive.
Some people argue that only African-American women can truly relate to Lemonade …
No! I think women in general can relate to it. I think it was a powerful piece for everybody, I think it definitely, 100% crossed colour boundaries. Absolutely.
Did you and Beyoncé discuss some of the themes – infidelity, for instance?
Oh God, no. No, that’s not my … I don’t know about that. It was just getting together with strong women.
Female athletes often face the femininity police – especially Serena Williams
Erika Nicole Kendall
Over the years, your body has been described and criticised repeatedly. Why do you think people have felt so free to comment?
guess it’s a part of being in the public eye. You have to accept that people are going to have a say, whether it’s your body, or your face, or your hands. It could be your feet. Nothing is off limits. I think that’s why, growing up, my mum – not consciously, subconsciously – taught myself and all my sisters to be so strong. It prepared me for these moments.
Did she do that particularly with regard to body shape?
A little bit. Also my older sister, too. But she always taught us to love ourselves and I think that is a wonderful message that I spread now to so many females. It’s really important. You are who you are, you can’t change it. And you’re beautiful.