This story appears in the Aug. 25, 2014, issue of Sports Illustrated. Subscribe to the magazine here.
Is this the endgame? Or just another comeback in a career rife with returns, the lull before one final storm of glares and shrieks and pitiless winning? Only a fool dares to guess. Because after 17 years, 17 Grand Slam singles titles, 17,000 “Come on!”s, all we truly know about Serena Williams is that we never know what’s next. The one consolation is that she may well be as mystified as you.
America’s last tennis great, after all, contains multitudes. She has spoken for years about her atomized personalities -- Summer the English letter-writing lass, Psycho Serena, mean party girl Megan and “nuts” Taquanda, who has been on leave since her epic 2009 tirade against a lineswoman at Flushing Meadows. She has done so jokingly, but then, playing this month in Montreal, Williams raved one day that she felt fit and “ready to go the long haul” for the rest of the hard-court season, dismissed her U.S. Open chances the next (“really just looking forward to next year, to be honest”) and then two days later took umbrage when questioned about her mind-set heading into next week’s circus in New York City.
“Are you asking me that?” she said last week, eyes flashing. “You know, I’m more geared up for the U.S. Open. I’m doing everything I can physically, mentally, to make sure that I’m winning that tournament or I’m going to probably be upset.”
True, communication out of the Williams camp -- often by design -- has never been a model of clarity. But the mixed messages these days feel oddly appropriate. On one hand Williams, 32, has won a tour-high five tournaments this year, just began her 79th straight week at No. 1 and will enter next season with few points to defend. On the other her seemingly unstoppable, late-career assault on history has hit a bewildering and dramatic pause.
After piecing together one of the sport’s most dominant seasons in 2013, Williams has yet to advance past the fourth round of a major this year. Worse, on July 1 her already dismal Wimbledon ended with a bizarre forfeit in the doubles competition when, in a second-round match with her sister Venus against Stefanie Voegele and Kristina Barrois, a dazed and disoriented Serena struggled to hold on to the ball, wept during an on-court medical exam and launched eight horrific serves before the match was called off three games into the first set.
A few hours later the WTA and Wimbledon issued a release (based, according to both, on the Wimbledon doctor’s diagnosis) describing Williams’s ailment as a “viral illness.” By then, though, two of the game’s prominent voices -- ESPN’s Chris Evert and Pam Shriver -- had preemptively questioned that by speculating on-air that some kind of drug use had caused Williams’s state. The next day another face on the game’s Mount Rushmore, Martina Navratilova, declared to ESPNW, “You don’t know what’s going on, but virus was not it: That much is clear.” None of the above hold medical degrees. Twitter all but melted. (Williams denies any drug use.)
Two weeks later, while Serena was off recuperating -- and hitting daily -- on a 10-day vacation in Croatia, the sport’s elders gathered in Newport, R.I., for its annual Hall of Fame induction ceremony. Once, the idea of her surpassing Evert’s and Navratilova’s mark of 18 major singles titles had seemed a lock; Evert had already taken to calling Williams “the greatest tennis player of all time.” Now tennis history itself, it seemed, was forced to wonder whether she’d entered a final fade.
“I see a player completely mentally exhausted, a player who is fighting severe off-court emotional battles,” says 2014 inductee -- and one-time Serena rival -- Lindsay Davenport. “Whatever those are, I have no idea. But she’s a player who plays well when things are going well. You can see when things aren’t right. I don’t think things’ve been right all year.”
“It’s not the Serena I know,” says fellow inductee Nick Bollettieri, one of Williams’s former coaches. “It’s sad. I would never want [the episode at Wimbledon] to be remembered as the end. It would be a shame.”
What happened after Wimbledon, of course, was almost too predictable. Williams came back, hard. At July’s hard-court tune-up at Stanford, she put a typically vague gloss on her behavior in London, saying that it was “weird” to watch replays and that she planned to get more medical tests at season’s end. Then she began piling up wins, took her third Stanford title, moved on to the tour’s next stop in Montreal. When, at her first press conference there, a reporter asked about the “frightening” scene at Wimbledon, Serena said, “We talked about that last week,” tugged off her microphone and bolted the room.
She then crushed rival Sam Stosur 6-0, 6-2 in her opening match, and scratched and scrambled her way into the Rogers Cup semifinals. Too many sets were tighter than usual, and the fact that Serena then lost to a resurgent Venus for the first time in five years signaled rust in both serve and nerve. But for the first time in months, she seemed fully engaged.
“I definitely didn’t see myself playing tennis at my age,” Serena said at her quarterfinal press conference in Montreal. “But it just so happens that I love to play, I love to compete. I’m having fun. I just really can’t let it go. ... I don’t want to let go. I won’t let go. That’s why I’m still here.”
She laughed then, as if “fun” is how you’d describe her summer, and everyone in the room, the world even, had moved blissfully along from Wimbledon too. Such willed amnesia is part of Williams’s greatness; on court no one flushes setbacks faster. It also proved key when faced with the tour’s early hostility, her parents’ divorce, her sister’s murder, withering criticism and life-threatening blood clots -- knee-buckling crises all, yet each time she came back roaring. “She’s always hungry,” says Serena’s coach, Patrick Mouratoglou. “She always wants more, so she’s constantly focusing on the next thing, never on the past.”
Problem is, even by Williams’s own oft-surreal standards, the Wimbledon spectacle was unforgettable. And for one whose career has prompted as many questions as it has brought titles, it threatened to become the biggest question of all. What, exactly, rendered sport’s strongest woman so helpless?
The drug tester showed up first thing the next morning. “Bright and early, as always,” Serena recalls. She was already awake then, still ill, in the flat she was sharing with Venus in Wimbledon village. “At seven, as I was throwing up, she knocks on my door,” Williams said. “I’m like, C’mon. They always come at the worst times.”
She says this on a Monday afternoon, two days before Williams began grinding through the field at the Western & Southern Open in Mason, Ohio. She had been up since 8 a.m., doing interviews, sketching dress ideas for 2016 with a Nike designer; now she was digging into a Caesar salad with salmon. She seemed healthy, said she was taking no medication, felt no aftereffects of her Wimbledon episode.
Yes, she had seen or heard most every rumor: She was high, or had overdosed on a prescription medication, or mixed two or three and experienced a bad reaction. Or she was with child. Williams says all are untrue.
“I have nothing to hide,” she says. “No, I didn’t take anything. If you want to ask me if I took drugs, I didn’t take drugs. I’m not on drugs. I’ve heard it all. I’m not pregnant; I wasn’t pregnant. Although I think a baby would be great, but there’s a time and place for everything. But no, I don’t do drugs. Never did ’em. I’m scared of ’em. I’m not on that stuff.”
Word had gone around that some in the women’s locker room that day, watching her distress live on TV, were pantomiming Serena drinking. But, Williams says, she wasn’t drunk, either. “God, no,” she says, laughing. “I wish.”
The executive director of the International Tennis Federation’s antidoping program, Stuart Miller, would not comment on the taking of Williams’s blood and urine samples. Typically, he said, his program receives testing results within a month of collection. A player is alerted to any possible violation soon after, but the result is not made public for another three months. Williams said last Friday, six weeks after her Wimbledon retirement, that she has received no such notification.
Her Wimbledon explanation: After losing meekly the previous Saturday in a third-round singles match to 25th seed Alizé Cornet, Williams took to her bed for the next three days, feeling dehydrated, dizzy and feverish, “just in my room, sweating like crazy.” She was not examined by a doctor. Venus urged her repeatedly to pull out of their Tuesday doubles match. “Begged me not to play,” Serena says.
Nothing may supplant the 1993 stabbing of Monica Seles in Hamburg as the most stunning moment to occur on a tennis court. But if you’re wondering where to rank Serena’s Wimbledon scene, consider this: The vision of one of the game’s greats in full dissolve was just barely the strangest thing on offer.
Yes, there was Serena, shuffling in behind Venus onto Wimbledon’s No. 1 Court, hair bedraggled and eyes dull under a stark English sun. She hadn’t warmed up at all, called for a tournament car only when she saw the previous match was ending. Mouratoglou, once her presumed boyfriend and the man credited with reviving her career, hadn’t seen her in two days. He knew she had been ill, but not to what extent -- and he was seated in the front seat of the car when she climbed in the back. They didn’t speak on the short drive to the All England Club.
Within 10 seconds of seeing Williams walk on court, Mouratoglou motioned from the stands to a WTA official on the court. “Send a doctor now,” he said. “Something is wrong. Don’t let the match start.”
Warmup balls bounced off Serena’s hands and racket like a plump new breed of butterfly, the crowd’s speculative murmur rising with each fumble. Then she sat passively courtside during a 14-minute delay, alternately teary or blank-eyed, while tournament doctor Jane Allen took her pulse and blood pressure, searching for measurable evidence of something wrong. When nothing was found, Williams insisted on starting play, managed to make contact with four balls, whiffed on another and then sent her serve -- any other day the best ever seen -- dribbling again and again into the net. Why not pull out?
“I hate to let people down,” Serena says. “I felt like, I don’t want anyone to be upset thinking I pulled out because I lost [in singles]. I’m no quitter. I should have just taken that moment and said, What the heck are you doing? Just stay in bed today.”
Oddest of all, though, was the way that Venus let it all play out. Though the sisters’ cheery opacity has made them, even after two decades, more famous than known, no one doubts their mutual devotion. Yet as Serena sat in distress, Venus stared unhurriedly into space. When Serena’s strokes began fluttering about, she just blinked and played on.
Observers, of course, had no way of knowing that beneath her poker face, Venus had repeatedly told her sister during warmups to walk off the court. “I wanted her to put the racket away, but I tried not to be bossy,” Venus said in her first statement on the matter, at last month’s tournament at Stanford. “She kept saying, ‘I want to try.’ She tricked me into letting her try.”
That it took Venus 29 days to speak came as no surprise: Silence in the face of fevered speculation is a Williams family trait. We’ll never know if this stems more from self-protection or plain lack of interest in what the world says or thinks— -- Serena’s spin control, post-Wimbledon, consisted of tweets and bikini shots from Croatia -- but there’s another reason the term “viral illness” was met with widespread skepticism. A career’s worth of mixed messages had finally caught up with her.
Serena’s most mind-bending two-step, of course, came at the 2009 U.S. Open: Two days after shaking her racket and threatening to shove “this f------ ball down” a lineswoman’s “f------ throat” during the semis, Williams followed up a tepid first apology by declaring she wanted to give the terrified official “a big old hug.” So jarring a flip may capture what Mouratoglou calls her “extreme” nature, but the visuals couldn’t have felt less real.
Such moments, media catnip, have a way of obscuring everything else in the Serena conversation -- her unassailable legacy as a racial pioneer, that historic 2001 U.S. Open final against Venus, the Serena Slam and the mesmerizing, controversy-riddled battles against Justine Henin and Jennifer Capriati, her considerable personal charm. Serena dabbles in acting. With her Wimbledon symptoms hardly hewing to the popular image of a virus, it was easy, again, to wonder the worst.
Her medical issues have always been cause for confusion. No event, save the murder of her sister Yetunde in 2003, had a more profound impact on Serena’s life than the moment she cut her feet on broken glass in a Munich restaurant on July 7, 2010. “The weirdest thing that ever happened to me,” Serena says. “I didn’t even know I was bleeding.”
She had just won her fourth Wimbledon. She and her hitting partner, Sascha Bajin, and Williams’s 16-year-old nephew were walking out a back exit when she felt a surge of pain. The group stopped, and “by then I look down and there’s a massive puddle of blood on the ground,” Williams says. “And meanwhile there’s blood footsteps because I almost hit an artery; like massive bloody steps. I’m, like, ‘O.K., guys.’ By then I’m getting really woozy. ...”
The lacerations on the bottom of her left foot and on the side and top of her right required 18 stitches and later surgery to repair a right-toe tendon. They also touched off a yearlong absence from the game and a two-year Grand Slam drought, and they may have contributed to her potentially fatal pulmonary embolism and subsequent hospitalization for a bulbous hematoma on her stomach. Yet the restaurant was never named or sued, and the story of how she sustained the injuries was widely described as both a glass dropped and a glass stepped upon. The following day Williams played an exhibition match against Kim Clijsters in Belgium before the largest tennis crowd in history, and within the week she wore high heels -- with visible Band-Aid strips -- to Carmelo Anthony’s wedding and her own pre-ESPYs house party, and bounced on a trampoline for the cameras.
The point isn’t that the feet weren’t injured. Clijsters saw the vicious wounds up close. Serena, who says she only wears heels for show on red carpets, was still wearing a walking boot and wheeling herself about on a knee scooter six months later. But the conflicting accounts and images in the aftermath only compounded the lack of confirmed fact. Then, on March 2, 2011, the same morning that Williams released a statement from Los Angeles saying that she’d had emergency surgery for the hematoma and was “at home now and working with my doctors to keep everything under control,” she showed up in Las Vegas for an appearance at an Autodesk sales conference.
By the time Serena began reeling about at Wimbledon, all the groundwork for guesswork had been laid. “Nothing is clear,” Shriver says. “And if you think about the mystery of the cut foot, the pattern in the past is that you’re never sure of anything. That will probably continue. There will be mysteries.
“Whether more will be revealed? I don’t know. But what we saw was an alltime great champion unable to strike a tennis ball.”
After umpire Kader Nouni announced the end of the Wimbledon doubles match, Venus -- looking to the public like Venus again -- gently took her sister’s hand and guided her back toward her chair. The women are 34 and 32, respectively, but for those three short steps it was as if 25 years had dropped away and they were wandering across some baked street in Compton. “I remember there were times when she’d walk me home, she’d give me her lunch money, she would always protect me, she’d always take care of me,” Serena says. “Like I am almost her baby. She would die for me.”
It bears repeating, still: The Williams sisters may be the greatest sports story ever. Separately they’ve won five Wimbledons apiece; together their 24 Grand Slam singles titles equal the alltime haul of Margaret Court. They can seem blasé about this at times, especially Serena, but don’t worry. She’s amazed.
“Love is, I think, one of the strongest things that you can have,” Serena says. “I have a sister, and she knows exactly what I’m going through. She knows everything about me. She is the only person I can really talk to after I lose, because only she knows how I feel. Nobody else. They can feel, they can try, but they’re just not on that level. Only she understands it.”
There’s a remarkable scene in the 2013 documentary Venus and Serena. Serena is walking on a treadmill at the 2011 U.S. Open, furiously ripping into Bajin for a “patty-cake” hitting session before that day’s win, demanding that he raise his game to help raise hers. Rarely, if ever, has there been so revealing a glimpse -- even as she uses the n-word in her rant -- of both her professionalism and paranoia. “I go out there playing girls that want to beat the f------ hell out of me,” she says. “They don’t play patty-cake against me. They hate me.”
Much has happened since. Serena, a practicing Jehovah’s Witness who studies Biblical texts “about love and bonds not just for your sister but your fellow man,” has spent the last three years watching Venus manage a body sapped by the fatiguing effects of Sjögren’s syndrome. All Serena’s fiercest rivals have moved on, and her warm relations with younger pros like “bestie” Caroline Wozniacki have made for a sweeter, if far less interesting, tour.
But nothing’s changed. She can like someone in the locker room, but between the lines Serena insists that she despises her opponents -- and remains certain that the feeling is mutual. “You’ve got to have that hate,” Serena says. No exceptions. “I hate Venus when I’m playing her,” she says.
This was two days after their semifinal match in Montreal, where for the first time in five years after five straight losses, Venus came back to beat Serena in three sets. More than any other, it was the moment that showed Venus could indeed compete again at a high level. What Serena said simply didn’t seem possible. Everyone knows: It must be conflicting to play your sister, your closest friend. You can’t hate her. ...
“I hate -- and I did,” Serena says of the Montreal match. “I was so mad every time she hits those winners and she gets those balls. It’s like, Oh, I can’t stand her right now. I think it can be easier to hate a sister actually, right? Because you can get so mad at your sister and still ... in 10 years, who cares? Who is going to remember this? They’re going to remember the win, and you’re going to remember the important moments. You’re not going to remember, Should I be nice? Should I not hit this shot? No, you’re not going to think about that. You’re going to think about the big things. That’s where my mind goes when I play Venus or anyone I get along with.”
Maybe all she needed was a good crisis. Maybe controversy, doubts, any kind of friction, is what makes her great. It’s as good an explanation as any. When Williams arrived at her final Open tune-up in Mason on Aug. 10, she was still trying to reclaim the high-octane game that she’d been missing all year. “Yeah, it’s a difficult moment,” Mouratoglou said before her first match. “We’re here to face it and find solutions. I don’t know if it’s going to pay off now or in six months, but it’s going to work.”
He’s seen it before. Fresh off her breakup with her boyfriend, the rapper Common, and a first-round loss in the 2012 French Open, Serena hunkered down at her Paris apartment and asked the 44-year-old Frenchman if she could train at his nearby academy. The first day, the man who calls himself the Mastermind watched her hit: She was 30, hadn’t won a major in two years; her footwork was shot. After 30 minutes Williams stopped and said, “Talk to me.”
Mouratoglou had been watching her closely for years, but more so since he stumbled upon her notebook in a tournament car at Wimbledon in 2010 and found himself entranced: page after page of meticulous notes on strategy, practice habits, tennis at large. He has coached Marcos Baghdatis, Aravane Rezai, Jeremy Chardy, Grigor Dimitrov. “I’ve never seen a player who has a notebook where he or she would write during practice what she needs to think about, when she serves, what she needs to focus on,” he says. “She doesn’t want chance to be part of the result. This is a very professional approach that I’ve not seen many times. Players don’t write.”
Mouratoglou had always defended Williams’s father, Richard, when other coaches and the French media dismissed him as a lucky amateur; the man, he’d argue, produced two alltime champions! Now one of them was declaring that she’d do whatever it took to win again.
Mouratoglou told Williams things she’d heard before -- your balance is off, you’re not coming forward, no one can beat you -- but now packaged in his own coruscating ambition and thick reports on opponents. A month later she won Wimbledon.
Mouratoglou split with Dimitrov, perhaps the most gifted young male on tour, soon after; Serena wanted him full-time. “She’s not like any other,” Mouratoglou says. Then came their tear, 102 wins, five losses: Serena winning Olympic gold, the 2012 U.S. Open, Roland Garros for the first time in a decade, another U.S. Open, a career-high 11 titles in ’13. Her tennis was smarter, more patient. “She became a student of the game,” Evert said. “She had a second life.”
Williams insisted on displaying her major trophies not at home in Florida or California, but in a showcase at Mouratoglou’s academy. “I feel like I found a diamond,” Serena said last week. “Patrick has brought a lot to me. He’s definitely brought peace and calm and a lot more. He’s everything I’ve ever needed and more. I’m very grateful for that.”
He was also married with three children. Soon photos appeared of player and coach canoodling, arm in arm, about Paris. Maria Sharapova called them out at a pre-Wimbledon press conference in 2013 -- “Maybe she should talk about her relationship and her boyfriend that was married and is getting a divorce and has kids” -- but Williams didn’t seem to mind. She looked, and played, as if ecstatic.
Word around tennis is that for at least the last few months, the partnership has been strictly professional. As always, Mouratoglou declined to comment, but he is now divorced. Asked last week if they are -- or were -- a couple, Serena said, “It’s just coach and student. Absolutely, we’re not together at all.”
Whatever the situation -- and however long it can last -- their dynamic seems to be humming again. “I never thought she would’ve hung in for this long,” Roger Federer said last week. “It didn’t look good for a few moments in her career; you thought she was going to say, I’ve had it, and walk away. But she’s kept herself in great shape and has been playing well. I’m really happy for her.”
In Ohio, Williams’s serve came and went, but the verve resurfaced when needed. Down 3–1 to Ana Ivanovic in the first set and facing three break points, she unleashed Taquanda or Psycho to crack some sizzling forehands and bullet serves and one clever ace to hold, then stalked to her chair screaming, “Come on, Serena: Fight. ... B----!” From there, the 6-4, 6-1 win, her first Western & Southern title, was never in doubt. Williams heads into the Open on a 12-1 hard-court roll, her best stretch all year. The one blot was that loss to Venus in Canada, but Mouratoglou blames himself. Usually he provides Serena with detailed breakdowns of opponents’ flaws. For her sister, he couldn’t bring himself to point out even one.
“Because I thought it was very special, I didn’t want to go too far,” Mouratoglou said. “Serena had beaten her every time for so many years, so I didn’t feel like I had to do more -- and I respect their relationship. But looking back, she lost. So it was bad.”
Still, Williams is right. In a decade such a small loss won’t be remembered. Who knows? Maybe what happened at Wimbledon, too, will be seen as a mere blip, the setback that set up one more dramatic climb. Maybe she’ll have moved past even Steffi Graf’s mark of 22 majors, and everyone will dwell only on big things.
“She cares. Serena wants to make history. She likes being famous,” says Billie Jean King. “Up to now I would’ve said Graf: Best singles player, and Martina: Best singles, doubles and mixed. But I think Serena is probably our best athlete ever. She’s the best ever, but she’s still got to earn the titles. She’s got to win and she knows it.”
Lord knows, the New York crowd will be with her now. Being the host nation’s best hope and the oldest No. 1, ever, confers privileges, not least of which is a slobbery forgiveness -- see Agassi, Andre and canonization -- of every old quirk and ugly incident. Who can beat her? No. 3 Li Na is out, Victoria Azarenka is hobbled, Sharapova hasn’t beaten Serena in a decade. Venus presents a unique problem, but Mouratoglou vows that he is through being kind.
“Next time it’s going to be different,” he said. “I don’t think she’s going to lose against her again.”