'Being Serena' captures vulnerability, strength of Serena Williams
By definition, nobody is like Serena Williams. Nobody else in the Open era has won 23 Grand Slams, and as far as we know, nobody else has won a Grand Slam while pregnant. But in "Being Serena," we're presented with a Serena Williams we haven't until now known, one who goes far beyond her larger-than-life public image to a woman who is imminently relatable, one who is surprisingly vulnerable, unsure of herself, scared.
"Being Serena," a five-part documentary series by HBO Sports, premieres Wednesday on HBO and offers an unprecedented look into the tennis legend's life and personal struggles. Williams has always been known publicly as a private and guarded person, understandable given the level of undue criticism, racism, sexism and body shaming to which she's been subjected since the very start of her career. In following her pregnancy, the birth of her first child, her impending wedding, her anxiety about motherhood and her postpartum journey back to tennis, the series opens the world to the woman within one of the greatest athletes of all time.
HBO has been particularly adept at gaining access to notoriously reserved sports stars. In 2011's "Derek Jeter 3K," the network gave audiences a similar look into Derek Jeter's life and home as the former Yankees shortstop was approaching his 3,000th hit. But what HBO has managed to achieve in "Being Serena" is even more impressive and impacting, capturing some of the most intimate moments in Williams's life, with cameras by her hospital bed as she undergoes a C-section and raw, tear-strewn interviews in which she recounts the life-threatening complications she endured post-labor.
The series premiere, "Fear," begins with Williams discovering she's pregnant just as she was starting the 2017 Australian Open, which she would win to capture her record-setting 23rd Grand Slam without dropping a set. "Deep down I know the reason she didn't drop a single set in the Australian Open is because she just wanted to get off the court as soon as possible, because she was looking out for the baby," Williams' now-husband, Alexis Ohanian, said in the series.
That episode captures a side of Williams we're not used to seeing. "There's no escaping the fear," she says in the series. "The fear that I might not come back as strong as I was. The fear that I can't be both the best mother and the best tennis player in the world."
Williams notes that fear has been a constant theme throughout her life and career. In fact, that fear is what helped her get to where she is today. "I came from Compton," she said. "There was a lot to be afraid of. There was a lot to run away from. But ultimately, that fear, it drove us forward."
Throughout the episode, Williams's attitude toward her pregnancy echoes her attitude toward her tennis, from that self-described fear to her need for perfection in everything, including decorating the baby's room, and motherhood itself. "I guess it's the same attitude I have in tennis -- I want to make sure I'm the best."
The episode ends with all other concerns falling to the wayside, as the baby's health becomes the primary concern. Fourteen hours after Williams and Ohanian arrived at the hospital to induce labor, the baby's vitals start to drop, and the need for a C-section increasingly becomes a reality. It was the last thing Williams and Ohanian wanted; with her history of blood clots, any surgery could be life-threatening.
"I was terrified. It was a whole new kind of fear," she said. "Tennis? I don't think it ever felt so far away. And I don't think my life ever felt so unsure."
The second episode of "Being Serena" is entitled "Strength," and captures Williams's remarkable fortitude amid both physical and emotional vulnerability. The thought of a C-section is daunting, but she's trying to find any type of control, any source of strength, for the sake of her daughter. "I want the first thing my baby sees when she looks up at her mom to be a strong woman," she says.
Perhaps the most emotional and intimate moment in the first two episodes is when the doctors deliver the baby and hold her up for Williams to see for the first time. She raises her hands to wave to her daughter before asking, "Is she OK?"
Much of the rest of the episode deals with the extreme complications Williams suffered as a result of her C-section. She couldn't breathe and was placed on oxygen. When her doctors had to reopen and restitch her, in true form, Williams took control and asked for a CAT scan to check for a pulmonary embolism, which she had had years before. Doctors found blood clots and inserted a filter to prevent them from reaching her heart.
After five days in and out of the operating room, Williams and her baby finally return home. Visibly drained, Williams walks into her house carrying a bassinet and says, "I'm supposed to be the strongest athlete, and I don't feel like it right now."
In the remainder of the episode, Williams looks toward her wedding and her comeback to tennis. Seven weeks after giving birth, she can finally hit tennis balls again, but the contact of ball and racket hurts, a sensation she's not used to. "I just feel out of shape," she says.
Despite the labor complications and the startling image of a physically weak Williams, her inner strength never wanes, even if her confidence is shaken. "As a mom myself, it's like a new kind of strength I have to get used to," she says.
In its first two episodes, "Being Serena" is an emotional and intimate profile of a woman whose headline presence tends to overshadow her humanity. While future episodes following her return to training might be of interest to most sports fans, it's those tiny moments captured, like when she's singing songs from the movie "Moana" to her baby, that make the series truly compelling.