NEW YORK -- It’s not clear when, exactly, Serena Williams decided to create a grown human being. But for some five weeks, a period that encompassed a disastrous loss at the French Open and her bizarre breakdown during a Wimbledon doubles match in July, Williams kept herself busy assembling a woman. Gorgeous. Tan. Part Latina, maybe. She named her Heidi. Williams worked up a Facebook page, complete with bio and photos, and even provided Heidi with her own French phone number.
Then she attacked. Carefully. Knowing that her hitting partner and “brother” of eight years, Sascha Bajin, would recognize her texting style, Williams made sure to tap out flirty messages with non-Serena-like spelling and phrases. And suddenly Bajin’s phone was filling up with texts from “Heidi,” who somehow got his number from “a friend” and yearned to meet him, go to dinner, anything. “Oh, my God. This went on for almost a month and a half. It was so detailed,” Bajin says. “I mean, there was some serious master planning.”
He told Williams about this new woman, the texts, the Facebook page. Serena never cracked. And Heidi looked good. If Bajin hadn’t dialed Heidi’s phone and heard it vibrate in Serena's bag, his catfishing might have never ended. Williams had planned a fake rendezvous, more trickery. “Take pictures of him and then I was going to send them to him,” Serena laughs. “It was getting really sick, dangerous.”
And well out of character -- or at least the public character that we’ve come to believe we know. Serena’s image, after all, boils down to the simplest of complexities: She’s a walking contradiction. Her features alternate between curvaceously feminine and fiercely macho. One minute she’s playing with a visceral “hate,” the next she’s sweetly telling a crowd how much she loves it. One day she’s an unstoppable physical force, glowering, screaming and rolling opponents like a cyclone, the next Williams’ body betrays her in some new, befuddling way.
On the face of it, so jarring a mix undermines the perception of Williams’ public regard. Though she entered Friday's U.S. Open semifinal against Ekaterina Makarova just two victories from tying Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova with 18 major titles, the sense remains that she inspires more respect than love. On Thursday a reporter asked the 32-year-old lone American hope, “Do you feel you are as appreciated in this game for all these Grand Slam titles -- or is there a sense of being underappreciated to some degree?” That a Brit would ask the same of Andy Murray at Wimbledon is unthinkable.
It’s even more curious when you consider that Williams is only the latest in a long line. Vexing contradictions have long fueled the Open era; polarizing personalities fill seats and juice ratings. The tension between John McEnroe’s beauteous game and ugly antics, between Andre Agassi’s punkish and near-saintly sensibilities, between Justine Henin's gamine appearance and titanic backhand, made them compelling in a way monochromes like Michael Chang, Ivan Lendl or Kim Clijsters could never be. Federer fans, wallowing as they do in Roger’s “class,” turn a blind eye to his flashes of temper or arrogance, but those qualities best reveal the roiling competitor within.
Still, Serena remains a unique case, even after accounting for her Hall of Fame sister, Venus, and the thought that a longtime “white” sport may still be coming to terms with the most dominant black player in history. Because while McEnroe, say, unspooled his neuroses before thousands, Williams' soft side has never been as obvious as her hard. Reflex volleys like Wednesday’s quip, when asked what the number 18 means to her (“It means legal to do some things,” Williams said. “It also means legendary”), pass largely unnoticed. But no one forgets her disingenuous offer, after threatening to shove a ball down a lineswoman’s throat following a foot-fault call in the 2009 U.S. Open semis, of “a big old hug,” and her off-court, freak injuries and illnesses sparked as much speculation as sympathy.
Yet all that will begin to fade -- and faster than you can imagine if Williams starts, as early as Sunday, piling up Grand Slam titles again. And if her “viral illness” at Wimbledon proves to be a one-off, if her body only breaks down from here on out in conventional fashion, Serena might yet be appreciated as a champion with nuance. “She’s very complicated,” says Patrick Mouratoglou, whose presence in her camp as reportedly her former paramour and current coach alone proves the point. “She really has some extra in different areas that makes her who she is, for sure. She thinks different.”
Classic Photos of Serena Williams
From her humble beginnings, Serena Williams has climbed to the top of the tennis world. Here are some rare photos of the woman Billie Jean King says is the best player in tennis history.
Serena Williams playing tennis in Florida in 1992.
Growing up in Compton, Calif., Serena worked tirelessly with Venus and their father to hone her skills.
Their California roots got Serena and Venus a photo op with President Ronald Reagan and wife, Nancy.
All five of the Williams sisters were exposed to tennis at an early age, but Serena and Venus seemed to display the most interest and strongest prospects.
In 1992, Serena, then 10, and Venus, then 12, stunned the tennis world when they each won their single divisions in the Southern California Junior Sectional Championships.
After several years living in Compton, Richard Williams relocated the family to Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., to enroll Serena and Venus in Rick Macci's renown tennis academy.
Serena was on hand for Venus's pro debut at Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum Arena in October 1994. The family, including mom Oracene, are pictured here before that event.
Serena was in Venus's shadow for several years, but has matured into the more accomplished player.
At 17, Serena became the first African-American woman since Althea Gibson to win a Grand Slam title.
Venus and Serena, pictured here with Lindsay Davenport and Monica Seles, helped lead the U.S. in its 4-1 Federation Cup victory against Russia in 1999.
The sisters got in touch with their patriotic side during a 2000 photo shoot for SI. Serena has won four Olympic medals while representing the U.S., three in doubles and the other in singles.
Despite their undeniable skills and stockpile of titles, the Williams sisters have been accused of slacking off when pitted against each other in competition. Venus and Serena have vehemently denied those claims. Serena leads the head-to-head series 14-11 through August 2014.
Serena lost in hair-raising fashion in the quarterfinals of the first three majors in 2001, but made the final of the U.S. Open, which she lost to Venus.
Serena capped off a busy 2001 by carrying the Olympic torch in the leadup to the 2002 Games in Salt Lake City.
Julie Foudy, Summer Sanders and Serena appeared with Ronald McDonald at the World Children's Day Event in New York City in November 2002.
Serena created a stir when she competed in this cat suit at the 2002 U.S. Open.
Serena's appearance on the Tonight Show with Jay Leno coincided with her inclusion in the SI Swimsuit issue.
Serena's swimsuit poses didn't stop with SI. Here she poses during a December shoot.
Serena had a clothing line with Puma in the early years, but signed with Nike in 2004.
Serena in action at Fairmont Stadium in Arizona, where she had won the State Farm Classic the year before.
Serena's victory over Venus in the 2003 Australian Open made her the fifth woman to hold all four Grand Slam singles titles simultaneously. The media dubbed it the Serena Slam.
Seven-time NASCAR champion Richard Petty showed Serena around the garage area when she attended the Ford 400 in Homestead, Fla.
Pictured with Laura Harring and David Coulthard, Serena helped present the 2003 Comeback of the Year Award to soccer phenom Ronaldo at the Laureus World Sports awards.
Serena turned heads again at the 2004 U.S. Open, when she took to the court in this outfit. Officials told her to ditch the knee-high boots.
Serena's 2005 Australian outfit wasn't quite as flamboyant, but reinforced that she does have a fashion sense about her.
Seen here playing with her two dogs, Bambi and Jackie, Serena struggled through 2005 as a variety of injuries caused her to have her first non-Top 10 finish since 1998.
Recovering from a knee injury, Serena didn't win a single tournament in 2006 and finished the year ranked 95th in the world.
Serena celebrates a point during the 2007 Australian Open finals against Maria Sharapova. Williams, who was unseeded because of her World No. 81 ranking, continued on to beat Sharapova and win the tournament.
Serena made it to the quarterfinals of Wimbledon in 2007, where she lost to world No. 1 Justine Henin.
Serena unveiled her trench coat look at Wimbledon in 2008.
Serena lost 7-5, 6-4 to Venus in the finals at Wimbledon in 2008.
Serena and Venus rejoice after they beat Anabel Medina Garrigues and Virginia Ruano Pascual of Spain during the gold medal match at the Beijing Olympics.
The victory was their second consecutive gold medal in doubles.
Serena reacts after defeating Jelena Jankovic to win the 2008 U.S. Open title.
Serena poses with Kim and Khloe Kardashian and rapper Common, whom she once dated.
Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross with Serena and Venus after it was announced they had become minority owners of the NFL football team.
Serena kids around after winning a title in Melbourne.
Serena had an 18-match Grand Slam tournament winning streak snapped at the 2009 French Open.
Serena famously lost her temper at the 2009 U.S. Open, berating the line judge for calling a foot fault. She was assessed a point penalty, which happened to be on match point in the semifinal, giving the victory to Clijsters, 6-4, 7-5.
Serena is seen here enjoying a White Sox-Yankees game with former Bronx bomber Reggie Jackson.
Other than her 2002 victory in the French Open, Serena had never made another final at Roland Garros. That is, until she won the 2013 edition.
Queen Elizabeth II meets Roger Federer, Serena, Novak Djokovic and others on Day 4 at the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club. It was the first visit by Queen Elizabeth II to the Championships in 33 years.
Serena didn't lose a set in winning Wimbledon in 2010.
Serena and Venus, the two-time defending doubles champions at Wimbledon, lost in the quarterfinals in 2010. Serena cut her foot on a piece of glass a few days afterwards and missed the rest of the season.
Serena and Venus at the end of their exhibition match at La Macarena bullring in Medellin.
Serena along with Kim Kardashian and Sean "Diddy" Combs at a 2012 Pre-Grammy gala.
Serena on the red carpet at the Vanity Fair Oscar party in West Hollywood. That same week she underwent emergency treatment for a blood clot in her lungs.
Serena, Tim Tebow and Venus at the 2012 Vanity Fair Oscar Party.
Serena was overcome by emotion after winning her fifth Wimbledon title. The victory came a little more than a year after she had been hospitalized with a pulmonary embolism. It was the first Wimbledon title by an over-30 woman since Martina Navratilova in 1990.
Wimbledon singles champions Serena Williams and Roger Federer at the Wimbledon Championships 2012 Winners Ball. It marked her third Wimbledon title in four years.
Venus and Richard Williams congratulate Serena after she won her first major title in two years.
Serena poses with members of Engine 54 Ladder 4 Battalion 9 in New York the day after winning the U.S. Open.
Serena won seven tournaments in 2012, including the WTA Championships in Istanbul.
Serena plays a forehand during the 2013 Australian Open. She lost in the quarterfinals to Sloane Stephens, who later in the year said several critical remarks about Williams.
Two points from defeat in the Open final, Serena regained her composure to come back and win the last four games, beating No. 1-ranked Victoria Azarenka 6-2, 2-6, 7-5 for her fourth U.S. Open title and 15th Grand Slam title overall.
Serena poses after winning the Sony Tennis Open 2013 in Key Biscayne, Fla.
Serena finally cast off her Parisian demons—she hadn't been past the quarterfinals since 2004—to win her second French Open title 11 years after her first title in 2002.
Serena wins the U.S. Open against Victoria Azarenka in 2013.
Serena Williams and Caroline Wozniacki pose with Miami Heat's Greg Oden and the NBA Eastern Conference championship trophy in 2014.
Serena Williams and Caroline Wozniacki pose together in the water on May 31, 2014, in Miami Beach.
Serena Williams plays a backhand in her semifinal victory over Madison Keys in the 2015 Australian Open. Serena would go on to defeat Maria Sharapova in the final match for her 19th grand slam singles title.
Serena Williams poses with the Coupe Suzanne Lenglen trophy after winning the singles final against Lucie Safarova at the 2015 French Open.
Serena Williams in action against Lucie Safarova in the Finals of the 2015 French Open.
Serena Williams plays Maria Sharapova in a semifinal match at the 2015 Wimbledon Championships.
Serena Williams arrives at the 2015 Wimbledon Champions Dinner at The Guildhall in England.
Serena Williams attends Nike's "NYC Street Tennis" event in August 2015.
Serena, with Estelle, Jason Biggs, Jenny Mollen and Uzo Aduba at the 2nd Annual Delta Open Mic, a few days before the 2015 U.S. Open began.
Serena Williams attends the 2015 Taste of Tennis New York at W New York Hotel while in town for the start of the U.S. Open.
Serena Williams did an inpromtu split during her match against Bethanie Mattek-Sands at the 2015 U.S. Open.
Serena Williams wipes sweat away after falling 3-0 in the first set to Bethanie Mattek-Sands at the U.S. Open.
Serena Williams in action against Kiki Bertens at the 2015 U.S. Open.
Serena signing autographs for fans at the 2015 U.S. Open.
Serena Williams celebrates after defeating Venus in their quarterfinal match at the 2015 U.S. Open.
Serena and Venus hug after their quarterfinal match at the 2015 U.S. Open.
Serena Williams accepting the 2015 Sports Illustrated Sportsperson of the Year award.
Serena Williams after a win over Maria Sharapova at the 2016 French Open.
Serena Williams after winning the 2016 Wimbledon title, her 22nd Grand Slam crown, which tied Steffi Graf for the most in the open era.
Says filmmaker Maiken Baird: “There are so many elements to Serena, it’s hard to know where to begin.”
Let’s start with race. The sisters’ stand on never returning to Indian Wells -- after their father claimed to hear racial slurs during the raucous, boo-filled final there between Serena and Clijsters in 2001 -- has its detractors, and it has long overshadowed her snap decision, in 2000, to become the first athlete to boycott playing in South Carolina while the Confederate flag flew over the statehouse. Yet, like Venus, Serena has been strikingly careful about a subject that her parents have never been shy in addressing.
While filming more than 450 hours for their documentary, Venus and Serena, directors Baird and Michelle Major raised the issue repeatedly, only to have Venus say, “Look, race is not a winning topic.” And they were hardly the first to be rebuffed. Over the years many reporters have received a rote or bland answer. The sisters won’t go there, not casually anyway. “That’s how they feel: Only on their terms, they’ll be drawn into it,” Baird says. “But they won’t just be drawn into it at all times.”
Meanwhile, Serena has built two schools in Africa -- with a third to come. Her foundation has financed college educations in the U.S. for four now-graduated youths, with four more currently attending. She has a home in Paris. Her entourage features a Serb-German hitting partner, a Korean-Canadian physio, a French coach, a white female American agent and a white male fitness trainer pushing 60. “Team Serena,” she calls it. The idea of being pigeonholed by skin color alone never held much appeal.
“I feel more proud than you can ever imagine that I am black and I am in this sport,” Serena says. “I feel great about it. At the same time, I’m human. I’m woman. I’m powerful. I’m minority. I’m not only black. I’m playing for women. We fight for equal prize money, we fight for equal rights. I mean, I’m not just fighting one war here. It’s much bigger than that. And that’s what I’m proud to be a part of -- not just for one group of people.”
There are some who will cock an eyebrow at just about anything Serena says, doubt her every explanation about Wimbledon doubles and Indian Wells and all those early, awkward matches against Venus. So be it. The honesty of her game, her need to dominate and win, has never been in question. Bajin feels it whenever they hit, and especially when the stakes start to rise.
“I don’t know what her secret is, how she keeps the competitiveness in her mind,” Bajin says. “Trust me, I keep my body in shape to set an example for her. But after a certain round -- let’s say quarters, semis, finals of a tournament -- she somehow raises that pressure and makes my court seem so much bigger than her side. That’s something that can’t be taught: how she mentally forces her will on you.
“This is my eighth year now, but I still feel it and there’s nothing I can do about the pressure. So I can only know how these girls feel on the other side. Her court for some reason seems to start shrinking and my court seems endless. And mentally that pressure is there from the moment she walks on the court.”
It has been a down year for Williams so far. She says she feels no pressure at the Open, but a title would salvage the season. Here she finally, and so easily, made it past the fourth round of a major for the first time in 2014, and make no mistake: She feels revitalized. She wants to stay “on this roller coaster as long as I can,” and sees no end to the ride just yet. Who does? She’s still No. 1.
“I am and always will be, ‘til the day I die, the most passionate person you’ll ever meet, maybe,” Williams says. Then, of course, she contradicts herself. “I’m sure there are other people who might be more passionate -- I take that back. But for me I live and die. It’s more than my job; it’s my life. It’s my career. It’s me. Tennis has given me more opportunities than I would have ever dreamed of, than I would have ever hoped for, than I would have even asked for.
“It’s incredible. Yeah, I’ve had a couple bumps. It makes for a better tale, you know? I’ve appreciated every bump because if you don’t learn then you’ll never grow. I’m still growing. I’m still learning. Every day.”
Five weeks ago, that would’ve been hard to believe. Williams seemed almost lost. Now her coach, hitting partner and opponents had best be on guard. She’s capable, again, of just about anything.