A New Serena Williams Documentary Chronicles the Quest and Ultimate Loss of the Serena Slam
Remember how devastated we all were when Serena Williams lost in the U.S. Open semifinals and missed her chance at the Serena Slam? It was one of the most surprising upsets in tennis history. Her rival, Roberta Vinci, was an unseeded player who had never even won a set against Williams, but last September she advanced to the finals while Williams went home defeated.
That shocking loss is chronicled in the new Epix documentary Serena, which premieres tomorrow and charts the superathlete’s attempt at winning a calendar grand slam at age 33. The film, directed by Ryan White, kicks off after Williams has won the Australian Open in early 2015. The doc chronicles Williams’s life on and off the court: her daily physical therapy sessions, the extensive team that’s like family to her, and what she does in her very brief moments of downtime. The immense pressure is an omnipresent force, which weighs heavy on Williams as she attempts to make tennis history. “Billie Jean King told me pressure is a privilege,” she says early in the documentary. Later, after winning the French Open, sportscasters were quick to wonder aloud whether she’ll be able to do the same at Wimbledon. “I can’t believe I’ve just won three (majors) in a row and everyone’s like, ‘Oh, you can win more,’” she says. “Stop putting all this pressure on me.”
Williams is a charismatic protagonist to follow along the ride. She laughs easily, pokes fun at herself, and dances excitedly to Gloria Estefan’s “Conga” while Drake, her rumored boyfriend from back then, watches her. It’s also particularly thrilling to see her win the French Open championship, even as she was battling a harsh bout of the flu. She can barely get out of bed while resting at home before a match, but later she dominates one of her toughest opponents on the court.
While the film mostly focuses on her epic 2015, it does briefly show vintage clips of the Williams sisters growing up in Compton, California, and training with their father, Richard, who was Serena’s coach until 2012, when Patrick Mouratoglou took over. The relationship between the two sisters is complex. One moment they’re laughing together at home, the next day they’re competing against each other at Wimbledon. “Venus asked me if I was okay,” Serena says of her sister after she beat her at one of their matches. “When Venus loses, I lose.” It’s hard not to notice that while the two still live together, there are no interviews with Venus during the entire documentary.
Even though we all know where the film is inevitably going, it doesn’t take away the momentum of watching Williams win her way into the U.S. Open semifinals. And while she didn’t achieve the coveted Serena Slam, the doc does manage to touch upon Williams’s other triumph in 2015: returning to Indian Wells after a 14-year boycott. In 2001, Venus and Serena were set to play each other in the semifinals of the California tournament, but the day of the match, Venus withdrew due to an injury. Serena advanced to the finals and many accused their father of match fixing. When Serena showed up to the match, the audience booed the Williams sisters. Watching that old footage, it’s impossible not to sense the racial undertones of the jeers. But last year, Serena chose to finally return to the Indian Wells court and was received with overwhelming applause. The camera pans in and briefly catches her with tears in her eyes. Trust me, it’s impossible not to find yourself welling up with her at that moment, too.
Serena Williams’s version of “7/11″ is a grand slam:
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