As I’m writing the introduction to this story, the news breaks that Serena Williams has pulled out of the French Open with a pectoral injury.
She’s getting an MRI, and the prognosis is uncertain: Williams could be OK in two weeks, or she might not be better in time for Wimbledon, which starts soon. Sports injuries—and in Williams’s case, tightly calibrated comebacks (after the birth of her daughter, Alexis Olympia, last year)—can turn on a dime.
But that’s what badasses do; they keep at it. And Williams, of course, has badass in her bones. She first picked up a racket when she was 3 and has been serving, literally, ever since. Men’s champion Roger Federer recently called her the greatest player of all time.
I caught up with Williams earlier in the summer, when she was in New York promoting her HBO documentary, Being Serena. She was resplendent in a tropical-print Gucci coat, eating quite the oddest collection of food I’d ever seen on one plate (crab ... and cake). Because, yes, she is a champion, a mother, a wife, and an inspiration, but Serena is really ... Serena.
LAURA BROWN: Here’s my question. Big one. In your HBO docuseries, Being Serena, we see you take a pregnancy test and then leave it for two hours. How on God’s green earth do you take a pregnancy test and forget about it?!
SERENA WILLIAMS: [laughs] Because I didn’t think I was pregnant! Honestly, I thought it was impossible. I had not seen Alexis [Ohanian, Williams’s husband, the co-founder of Reddit] in, like, four weeks. So I literally took the test just to shut my friend up.
LB: But then you left it there. You were so convinced?
SW: Yeah, because I literally had a cycle just before. So I was surprised when I saw the result and even more surprised when the doctor said I was seven weeks along. I was in Australia, your home country.
LB: And playing in the Australian Open. Jeez, you must be spectacular at compartmentalizing.
SW: I had a really tough first round and an even tougher second round. I thought, “I’m probably going to lose early. That’s OK. I have a good excuse for the first time.” I talked to the doctor, and I was like, “Do I need to pull out? Because it’s not worth it. This is, like, my baby. Can I do anything that’ll hurt her?” She said, “No. But just be careful in the hot weather, because that can be a problem.” I played on a day that was 104 degrees and asked for a really early time. The tournament director was like, “You never like to go on early. In 100 years you’ve never requested 11 o’clock.” And I was like, “Just trying something new!” I didn’t want to chance it with the baby.
LB: And you went on to win the tournament—and your 23rd Grand Slam title. Is that the most badass thing you’ve done?
SW: Oh, absolutely! I was two months pregnant. I was literally nine weeks by the end of the tournament. I was almost done with my first trimester. Every day that passed I thought, “This is a dream.” It was like an animated Disney movie. And by the time the quarterfinals came, I was like, “I know I can beat this girl,” and at the semifinals I thought, “I know I can win this match.” I didn’t think I would win the final, so when I won, it was like, “OK, this is crazy.”
LB: So then you went home, and you just proceeded to chill?
SW: I went home, and I was pregnant.
LB: And now Olympia is 11 months old. She is so freaking cute! You made a really good one, you two.
SW: Right? We’ve got to have more [laughs].
LB: Do you want more?
SW: If I weren’t working, I’d already be pregnant. I hear everyone’s different, but I had a really easy pregnancy until the birth. Not even birth—after. [Williams had to undergo an emergency C-section when her heart rate dropped during contractions. After she gave birth, she suffered a pulmonary embolism, a blood clot in an artery in the lungs, which required immediate surgery and six weeks of bed rest.]
LB: You and your blood clots! You’ve got to just do everything hard-core, don’t you?
SW: I can’t do anything simple. And since she was born, I haven’t been apart from her for more than a day.
LB: What’s a typical 24 hours for you now?
SW: I wake up at either 2 a.m. or 4 a.m. to feed Olympia.
LB: Are you still breastfeeding her?
SW: Yes, and on top of that, I’m in the locker room pumping before a match because my boobs are so big. When I pump, they go down a size or two and I go out and play. It’s crazy. So I feed her, and then she snuggles with me, which is the best part of my day. Then we play, and after that I sneak away to practice, usually around 8 a.m. The only rule I have at practice is to be done at 1 p.m., because as much as I love tennis, I need to be with her. I want to put her above everything else I’m doing, so I take calls when she naps. I usually bathe her every night. We sing the “Rubber Ducky” song, and then I ask her if she wants the express wax or the deluxe. Express is when I rub coconut oil on really fast and then I put her diaper on. Deluxe is when I do it a little slower and give her a little massage. It’s so cute. She’s in bed by 7:30 at the latest.
LB: Does Alexis travel a lot?
SW: Yes, but we don’t go too long without seeing each other.
LB: Do you go on dates to keep the romance alive?
SW: We try.
LB: You started dating him about three years ago. When did you know he was “the one”?
SW: I had this sense, like, “I’m going to marry this guy, but I’m not ready yet, but I know I’m going to marry this guy.” I didn’t know his world at all, but I’ve always been tech-savvy. I had a few investments before I met him, and I wanted to know more. So we started talking, just as friends. Just casually chatting. I was getting hot when he was talking about it all [laughs]. So after that we just continued talking, and then, I don’t know—I love his world.
LB: So when are you going to get pregnant again?
SW: I don’t know.
LB: Well, next year you’re 38, that’s still good for playing.
SW: Roger [Federer]’s still playing. If he’s doing it—he’s older than me.
VIDEO: Behind the Cover: Serena Williams
LB: Roger just told The Wall Street Journal that you were the greatest player of all time. What did you think of that?
SW: It’s incredibly flattering—he’s inarguably one of the greatest of all time. It’s really cool to get that encouragement from your peers, especially someone like him. I just feel like he gets it.
LB: But back to baby-making.
SW: I don’t know if I want to play if I have another baby, but you’re right. I need to talk to Alexis. We need a plan.
LB: OK. Since this is our first-ever Badass Women issue, who do you think is badass?
SW: Well, obviously Beyoncé. That goes unsaid. Rihanna goes unsaid. Kate Middleton!
LB: Could you imagine having a baby and then, right after, you put on makeup and go out to greet the public?
SW: No. And she was … standing!
LB: I would be scared something would go … awry.
SW: [laughs] Me too! So she’s officially No. 1.
LB: You were just at the royal wedding. Was it fun?
SW: Yeah, it was super fun. You know, I’ve known Meghan [Markle] for years, so it was good to see my friend happy.
LB: You looked so good. How much planning did you put into your two dresses?
SW: A lot. I worked with [Valentino designer] Pierpaolo Piccioli [for my reception look], and I had a great time. The first thing he showed me, I was like, “This is it. I don’t need anything else.” It was such a big hit. I was supposed to wear heels originally, and I’m thinking, “C’mon, Serena—reception. Heels or shoes? Heels or shoes?” I decided to go with the shoes [laughs].
LB: Yeah, you had to go with the sneakers! It was perfect.
SW: I chose comfort, style, and cool.
LB: I loved your Insta videos that whole day.
SW: Yeah, they were funny, right? That’s how I think you should be. I think it should just be really fun and not pressured, you know? Sometimes it feels like a lot of pressure. It should be what you want, when you want it, and how you want it. That’s kind of how I live my social media life. I just want to be myself.
LB: What’s the second-most badass thing you’ve done? Playing pregnant was the first.
SW: I think going back to Indian Wells. For me, that was really badass. [In 2001, Williams and her sister Venus faced unfounded accusations that their father was fixing matches. When Williams went out to play in the finals, the crowd booed her. Williams boycotted the tournament until she decided to return in 2015.] I was so nervous. I remember before I went back, I was thinking, “I don’t know what I’m doing. I don’t want to get booed again.” To walk out on that court again was really badass, to just face up to it. I was literally afraid. I was a teenager [when it happened]. It really affected me, and I didn’t realize how much until I had to go back.
LB: What makes you nervous off the court?
SW: Mostly things about Olympia. Like, is she OK? What is she doing? Did she fall? Did she sit? Even when she crawls I shadow her so she doesn’t hit her head. I have a padded floor—everything makes me nervous about her. Is she in the car? Who’s driving? Why am I not driving? I want total control.
LB: So as you’re the first cover of the Badass issue, what are your tips for being a badass woman?
SW: You have to be confident. Someone who’s a badass is incredibly confident and unapologetically herself. And she doesn’t care what anyone else says—but in a positive, not a negative, way. It’s more like standing up for yourself and others. The whole #MeToo movement, those women are badass. They’re not afraid to say what’s wrong and what affected them.
LB: When is the first time you remember being unapologetic?
SW: That’s a good question. I don’t know. It took me a while because I’ve faced so much criticism, whether it was about my body or something else—it was always something. I always felt like I had to be softer or apologize, kind of indirectly, for who I am. And I don’t know when it happened, but something changed. I just became who I am and realized there’s nothing wrong with me. I understand who I am. I’m the most impatient person [laughs]. I’m like, “Now, now, now, now, now!” So I know there’s some room for improvement.
LB: What would you say to girls who don’t really feel they have a voice? How would you tell them to be a badass in their family and their community?
SW: Being a girl is not easy—in some areas especially. You have to be really brave. And I realize I am saying this from the United States, so I have an opportunity to speak more than the next person—I’m saying that with the understanding that maybe they can’t. It’s really just about being aware and educating yourself so you can help other people be aware. Once you do that, even if you reach one person, that’s more than none.
LB: Speaking of having a voice, do you actually hear people in the stands when you’re playing?
SW: Yeah, it’s weird. I hear a lot of people. But then someone from my team will be in my box, like, “Did you hear me?” And I’m like, “No, but I heard the guy way up there in row 280, seat B.” But I try to block it out because you’ve got to be able to hear your inner voice.
LB: That seeding thing at the French Open was something else! [Williams was not given a seeding despite being ranked No. 1 in the world prior to giving birth to Olympia.]
SW: You know, it’s interesting, because historically they haven’t seeded a player [who has come off maternity leave]. It’s just because it’s me that it’s big news—this has been happening for a while. But I’m glad attention is being brought to it because something needs to be changed, and, hopefully, it will be.
LB: What is the greatest obstacle you’ve faced since getting back on the court?
SW: I’m an incredible mental player, but I’m also a physical player. You can’t play a sport without being physically ready. It’s difficult to come back as a professional athlete who was once “Serena.” There are records out there that I want, and I’ll get there, but in due time. I’m always in the fast lane. I’m always extra. I have to be willing to do the work, and I have been. Because, to be honest, I feel pressure to be Serena. But these days I keep telling myself I don’t have to be anything. This is for me.
Fashion editor: Julie Pelipas. Hair: Angela Meadows. Makeup: Natasha Gross. Manicure: Naomi Gonzalez for Artists by Timothy Priano. Production: Suzette Michelle Kealen for First Shot Productions.
For more stories like this, pick up the August issue of InStyle, available on newsstands and for digital download July 6.