This story appears in the Dec. 21, 2015, issue of Sports Illustrated. To subscribe, click here.
Real life? For Serena Williams that’s the easy part now. That’s how it works when you zoom—beyond tennis, beyond $74 million in prize money, beyond one of the greatest late-career runs in sports history—into celebrity hyperspace. That’s how it is when each “Come on!” is taken as a war cry by everyone from “Lean in” women to age-defying codgers to body-shamed kids to #BlackLivesMatter protesters to, yes, the voices of racial conciliation. The outside world accommodates. Real life does you favors.
Indeed, in 2015 Williams hit this rare sweet spot, a pinch-me patch where the exotic became the norm. She danced with Donald Trump on New Year’s Eve. She spent a night telling bedtime stories to the children of Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg. Growing up, Williams had devoured every Harry Potter book, marveled at the business empires of Oprah Winfrey and Martha Stewart. Now J.K. Rowling was tweeting against a critic of Williams’s body, now Oprah was hustling to watch her at the U.S. Open, now Stewart was calling Williams “the most powerful woman I know.” President Barack Obama, the most scrutinized man alive, told her how great it was to watch her.
Even Williams’s most dubious moves paid off. In July, just as her drive for tennis’s first Grand Slam in 27 years hit the bell lap, she appeared in Pixels, a comedic bomb in which she anticipated a Lincoln Bedroom sex sandwich with Stewart and Peter Dinklage. Yet she escaped critical savaging, and, oh, the movie grossed $243 million. Williams’s November decision to chase down a cellphone thief in San Francisco seemed equally foolhardy—until, that is, the guy gave her phone back. Meekly.
No, this year only the game gave Williams trouble. Only the 78-by-36-foot confines of a tennis court, be it blue asphalt or red clay or green grass, produced the kind of pushback that no amount of money or fame can overcome. If the real world felt like one A-list club after another, eagerly waving Williams in, tennis was the world’s most annoying bouncer, forever checking her ID. Tennis made her desperate. Then it made her hurt.
The results, of course, hardly imply that: Williams, 34, won three major titles, went 53–3 and provided at least one new measure of her tyrannical three-year reign at No. 1. For six weeks this summer—and for the first time in the 40-year history of the WTA rankings—Williams amassed twice as many ranking points as the world No. 2; at one point that gap grew larger than the one between No. 2 and No. 1,000. Williams’s 21 career Grand Slam singles titles are just one short of Steffi Graf’s Open-era record. Such numbers are reason enough for Sports Illustrated to name Serena Williams its 2015 Sportsperson of the Year.
But the numbers lie. Her tennis year was all internal discord and quelled revolts; Williams battled her body like never before. A cough and cold had her vomiting before and, for the first time, during a match: the Australian Open final, in January, which she won anyway. Bone bruises in both knees, the residue of 20 years of pounding, flared during the spring hardcourt swing and never subsided. Her focus frayed, her footwork suffering, she arrived at the French Open nursing a right elbow strain that would plague her unparalleled serve the rest of the year. The whole Serena Williams construct—intimidation, power, will—had gone oddly fragile.
But she refused to buckle. Then, after gutting through three three-set matches in the first week at Roland Garros, including a third-round comeback over perhaps her toughest contemporary, Victoria Azarenka, Williams came down with the flu. Beset by chills, 101º fever and congestion, she could barely move, much less sprint after balls. Yet down a set and a break in the semifinal, Williams roused herself—from pitiful to pitiless—and won 10 straight games to crush Timea Bacsinszky 6–0 in the third.
At times, then, it became almost easy to forget Williams’s ailments, to marvel not just at her relentlessly lethal strokes and serve but also at the pure physicality that has pushed the women’s game to a level unforeseen by Graf and certainly by Margaret Court, who holds the Grand Slam record of 24 singles titles. But after that French semifinal Williams’s family found her curled up on a bench in the locker room, covered in towels and sobbing. Roland Garros was the 59th Grand Slam event of her career; her mother had never seen her so physically shattered with a major singles final looming. “It was heartbreaking,” says Oracene Price.
“I was crying so hard,” Serena says. “I didn’t want to win. I just wanted to go home. I said, ‘I can’t play anymore.’ ”
Twenty-four hours later Williams, unable to take flu medicine for fear of failing a drug test, was still shivering. She went to bed sure that she would have to pull out of the final. She woke up on championship Saturday and called the tournament referee to warn that she might withdraw. “If I’d had a 101º fever, I’d default,” says Chris Evert, winner of 18 majors. “But she’s just different from everybody else.”
By 10 a.m. Williams, still feverish, was hitting on a practice court. By 11 she had decided to play that afternoon. Get on and off fast, she told herself. But No. 13 Lucie Safarova—and Williams’s wayward serve—pushed the final to a third set, and the effort of wrenching it away 6–2 left Williams spent. “After it was all finished? She had nothing,” says her older sister Isha Price. “It took her another week to get O.K. It was a victorious moment, but it was really scary. Because it was, like, Not again. What the hell?”
Exactly the thought of the other women on tour. The following month Williams, aching but no longer ill, danced through the raindrops at Wimbledon, surmounting a two-break third-set hole against Heather Watson in the third round (“I was on my way out,” Williams says), dodging Azarenka over three sets in the quarters and bludgeoning Maria Sharapova, soon to be the No. 2 player in the world, in the semis and rising star Garbiñe Muguruza in the final. For the second time in her career, Williams had won four straight majors over two seasons: the Serena Slam. Now the oldest woman in the Open era to win a major singles title, she was ranging the tennis landscape like some sci-fi force cooked up by James Cameron and Nick Bollettieri: wounded, hunted yet adapting to every new adversary.
All year Williams kept coming, on a path more arduous than anyone knew, and she put together the best season by a woman in a quarter century. “I do want to be known as the greatest ever,” she says. To many she already is. But that’s not the sole reason why we arrive, now, at this honor. It’s also because Williams kept pushing herself to grow, to be better, and tennis was the least of it. The trying is what’s impressive. The trying is why we are here.
The first hint that this might be a different Serena Williams in 2015 came in Melbourne, during the Australian Open final. Blasting 18 aces and sharp off the ground, she produced perhaps her cleanest performance of the year, yet Sharapova still made her labor. Serving at 3–all, game point, in the second set, Williams cracked a seeming service winner and screamed “Come on!” even as Sharapova blocked the ball back. The chair umpire called hindrance. She docked Williams a point.
The last time she received such a penalty, in the 2011 U.S. Open final, Williams lambasted the official (“Are you the one who screwed me over last time here? . . . Don’t look at me. . . . If you ever see me walking down the hall, look the other way”), lost focus and lost the match. She had also lost two years earlier when, on match point in the U.S. Open semis, she infamously threatened a line judge over a foot-fault call, incurring a record $82,500 fine. This time? Williams wiped her face and, two points later, ripped a forehand winner. She celebrated with a slow fist pump and a sardonically soft “Come on.” Then she fired another ace.
“I just kind of laughed,” Williams says. “A few years ago I wouldn’t have been able to laugh. I haven’t lost that part of me; I’m very passionate on the court, but I’ve learned to be fierce more on the inside. It was a Grand Slam final. I said, ‘Serena, just laugh. You’ve been here before.’ I learned from that experience.”
No one suggests that Serena has evolved into the sport’s ambassador of peace and quiet. Her fans love her combustible displays as much as her detractors loathe them, and between Williams’s spray of f-bombs in the 2015 French Open final and her screaming, “Yes, bitch! Yes!” after blasting a winner during this year’s U.S. Open semis, both camps can rest assured that her core remains molten. “I’ve seen some growth,” her mother says, laughing. “I’ve seen some maturity . . . maybe 10% more.”
For those who think that’s hardly enough to justify an award that for 60 years has emphasized an athlete’s “manner,” consider the fact that profanity never disqualified a male candidate (cough, Tiger Woods), that microphone technology has improved greatly over the decades and that the only safe pick might be a champion like American Pharoah (page 144), who may well be cursing in a language you don’t know. Besides, taken in the long continuum of tennis bratitude, 10% is no small amount. Since joining forces with coach Patrick Mouratoglou in June 2012, Williams has been calmer, more circumspect with officials and more gracious to her opponents. And, this year, she brushed aside justifiable rage and fear of public humiliation—not to mention a point of family honor—to address the darkest chapter of her career.