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Why Serena Williams Is Best Friends with Her Fiercest Competitor

Serena Williams wears a Rag Bone blanket dress. Tate solid bracelets.

Photographed by Annie Leibovitz, Vogue, Apr 2015

Fresh off her nineteenth Grand Slam, Serena Williams talks to Rebecca Johnson about fitness, forgiveness, and her loyalty with tennis opposition Caroline Wozniacki.

When a news pennyless final May that Northern Irish golfer Rory McIlroy had damaged off his rendezvous to tennis champion Caroline Wozniacki—over a write call, no less—Serena Williams immediately began phoning and texting her best crony on a veteran women’s tour. “I was devastated,” she says. “I had designed a bachelorette party!”

Six months later, Wozniacki and Williams are sitting, thigh to thigh, on a adore chair in Williams’s Palm Beach Gardens residence in Florida deliberating a debacle. “My phone was going crazy,” Wozniacki remembers. “But we didn’t wish to speak to anyone.” Most people got a summary and stopped trying. But Serena Williams isn’t many people.

“I kept calling,” Williams says unapologetically.

Wozniacki smiles during a memory. “First she texted, ‘If we don’t collect up, we am going to fly to Monaco.’ And then, ‘If we don’t answer a door, we am going to strike it down.’ So we thought, OK, we improved answer a phone. And we am so blissful we did. She wasn’t contemptible me, like a lot of people were. we mean, it’s not like anyone died. we was in shock, yet she was unequivocally useful since she had been by it before. She didn’t sweeten it, and she didn’t demeanour down on me. She was unequivocally there for me when we indispensable her a most, and that’s since we consider a loyalty is so clever now.”

Serena Williams’s chronicle of “7/11″ is a grand slam:

“I was proposal with how clever she was,” Williams says. “And we know, there will be other rendezvous parties.” She pauses a beat. “Many.”

And that’s when Wozniacki and Williams do a thing they do, oh, any 3 mins when they are sitting together. They detonate into giggles. Full on, eye-crinkling, doubled over, hiccuping guffaws, a kind we mostly see between teenage girls after a prohibited man from homeroom walks by. Could these be a same warriors who, usually weeks earlier, had left toe-to-toe in a bruising three-set compare in Singapore, a pitched conflict during that Serena broken a pole in a fit of rage?

“I don’t ever wish to stop,” says a series one–ranked womanlike actor in a world. Donna Karan New York red silk-jersey dress.

Photographed by Annie Leibovitz, Vogue, Apr 2015

“Let’s usually put an finish to this parable that women players can't be friends,” Williams says. “We can!” But traditionally, they haven’t been. Steffi Graf, Monica Seles, Maria Sharapova—champions all, yet zero remarkable for her cuddliness on, or off, a court. Roger Federer competence have cooking with Stan Wawrinka after a match, yet among a women, it’s mostly cold shoulders. “It’s something players favour to keep their edge,” explains Mary Joe Fernandez, a former top-ten actor who is now a captain of a American Fed Cup team. Having her sister Venus with her on debate competence have finished Serena Williams even some-more insular. When your best crony is with we day in and day out, since risk apropos exposed to another person? Especially if that chairman competence someday mount between we and a $3 million prize.

But as Serena Williams has entered a golden age of her career, a impulse when her fitness, justice intelligence, and mythological concentration have total to make her many unbeatable, she has finished something that has astounded many in a tennis world. She has mellowed. You can see it in her loyalty with Wozniacki. You can see it in a assured approach she cruised to attainment conflicting Sharapova final Jan in Australia. “I was unequivocally ease and positive,” she tells me after about her nineteenth Grand Slam title. “I knew we couldn’t get crazy on a court. we have finished all we wanted to do in tennis. There’s zero missing, so all we have to do is go out there and do what we do best.” Finally, we can see it in her recently announced preference to go behind to Indian Wells, a contest she had vowed to protest henceforth after a mostly white, mostly comparison assembly booed a then–nineteen-year-old actor via an whole match. The throng had believed that Venus had pulled out of a compare during a final notation to make certain a dual did not play any other in a semifinals. It is a covenant to her courage that Serena won on that formidable day, yet she spent a subsequent several hours tears in a locker room. “Say whatever we wish about me and Venus,” Williams would after write in her autobiography, “at a finish of a day we were usually a integrate of kids, perplexing to do a best.”

Injuries come and go, yet that wound refused to heal. Every year, officials during a contest begged her to come back. Every year, she pronounced no. Even a new owner, billionaire Larry Ellison, and his multimillion-dollar makeover of a tournament—there’s now a Nobu—did not lean her. Then, about a year and a half ago, Williams spent Christmas vacation reading Nelson Mandela’s autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom. His comment of his struggles caused her to simulate on how she was walking by her possess life. “That’s when we confident we had to go back,” she says. “I always speak about forgiveness, yet we indispensable to indeed uncover it. It was time to pierce on.” After she finished a proclamation in February, we could many hear a tennis universe whine with relief. As Mary Joe Fernandez says, “She’s changed, yet so has tennis. We’re never going to see anything like a Williams sisters again in American tennis, so carrying her behind during such an critical contest is like saying a round close. She’s one tough cookie, yet she has a biggest heart.”

There are a few linespeople out there who competence disagree about a heart—more than once Williams has mislaid her rage with officials over a indeterminate call—but it is a complexity of her impression that creates her such a constrained figure. We adore Serena Williams because, honestly, who among us hasn’t mislaid it during some point? Anyone in a open eye for that prolonged contingency get fed adult with certain aspects of celebrity. A few months after Palm Beach Gardens, we followed Serena down to Buenos Aires, Argentina, where she was personification in a Fed Cup tournament, a medium eventuality she would routinely pass adult were she not dynamic to play for a U.S. in a Olympics subsequent year (if she qualifies, it will be her fourth time during a Games). Seated during a press discussion after trouncing her opponent, she seemed dismissive of a questions from a 25-year-old bloggers—“Have we had a possibility to see a city?” “Why are we wearing prolonged sleeves?” On a other hand, progressing in a day she hugged me hello. Hugged! In all my years of essay profiles, we can’t remember any theme ever hugging me. Like we said, she’s complicated.

Williams is a initial to acknowledge that her heart doesn’t always come through. As she tells me in Florida: “On a court, we am fierce! we am meant and we am tough. we am totally conflicting off a court. My certainty usually isn’t a same. we wish we was some-more like we am on a court. Nobody would know that we am constantly great or complaining.”

“No,” Wozniacki objects, mock-horrified. “You do that?”

She does. Only mins earlier, Williams had been angry about a covering of winter weight that had staid around her body. In a few weeks, she will start a heated training that precedes her Grand Slam events, training that will clearly compensate off during a Australian Open. “I should have left on a diet weeks ago,” she moans.

“We all get that off season,” Wozniacki reassures her. I’m not certain what they were articulate about. Both demeanour distinctively fit. Earlier that month Wozniacki had even run a New York City Marathon, a plan she undertook to assistance her forget that Nov was a month she was to have been married. And Williams has prolonged been among a many absolute players on a tour, thanks, initially, to Venus, who insisted they sinecure a physiotherapist when they were still teenagers. “Nowadays everybody goes to a gym,” Serena says. “But when we won my initial Grand Slam, we had never been.” Even then, however, she was changeable about her naturally robust physique, refusing to lift weights lest her arms get bigger. “I hated my arms,” she remembers. “I wanted them to demeanour soft.” To this day, she uses TheraBands instead of weights to equivocate overdeveloping her muscles.

Once a sisters started training seriously, all in women’s tennis changed, of course, something Mary Joe Fernandez remembers all too well. “When we started out, it was about being unchanging and steady. When they started attack with so many power, everybody had to change their diversion too.” At 28, and recuperating from wrist surgery, Fernandez didn’t consider she could make that transition, so she retired. Now, however, she appreciates carrying a Williamses around on a Fed Cup debate so a younger players can see adult tighten usually how tough they work. “Serena is in a gym any day and before any match, doing her stretches and warm-up. She is so clever yet so flexible. She can do a splits. Her core is like a rock. That things doesn’t come naturally; that comes from work.”

Unlike many chosen athletes, Serena Williams has spent her whole life competing conflicting a chairman to whom she is substantially closest in a world. As a child, she was so preoccupied by sister Venus that their mom would force Serena to sequence initial during restaurants; otherwise, she would usually get whatever Venus was having. Even now, good into their 30s and millionaires many times over, a dual sisters continue to live together in a Florida palace usually fifteen mins divided from their father (their mom lives in L.A.). When she is in town, Serena will have her father come over and manager her from a sidelines while she rallies with several attack partners. (The many interesting impulse in Maiken Baird and Michelle Major’s documentary on a sisters from a few years ago is examination Serena insult Sascha Bajin, her submissive attack partner, for returning a round too gently to her. “You were just, like, attack patty-cake!” she fumes.)

Venus, a interior designer, has flashy their Florida residence with a accidentally delicate polish. The floors are glossy marble; a clear chandeliers are as vast as grass mowers. The upholstery on a ottoman is leopard-skin print. When we visited, there was a vast wooden bin in a corridor that had nonetheless to be opened. Inside lay Serena’s prize for winning a U.S. Open a few months progressing (thanks to a muted Wozniacki in a final). How prolonged had a bin been there? we asked an assistant. She wasn’t sure. When you’ve won that many Grand Slams, what’s another trophy?

In sequence to kick her sister, Serena schooled early on how to undo her emotions from a chairman on a other side of a net. “I don’t demeanour during Venus on a court. we can’t,” she said. “If we am winning, we competence feel contemptible for her. If I’m losing, we will wish to strike her out.” With a conflict of her sister’s conflict with Sjögren’s syndrome, a autoimmune illness that has drastically depleted Venus’s appetite and caused a horde of other health issues, Serena feels even some-more conflicted about assault her on a court. “She has left by so much,” she says, unexpected serious. “Living with her, saying her go by it, we don’t even know how she’s still playing.” (She is, though—and now ranked seventeen.)

Serena Williams hates losing so badly that she won’t play a diversion during practice, preferring instead to combine on a structure of a singular point. “I am such a perfectionist, if we remove a game,” she says, “I go crazy.” As many as she wants to win, she can’t assistance feeling kind of bad when her good crony loses. After that bruising showdown in Singapore, Williams slipped a note into Wozniacki’s bag, a sketch of an eye and a heart. It was a gesticulate both proposal and surprisingly girlish, yet it worked. “I was dissapoint we couldn’t tighten that compare out,” Wozniacki says. “So when Serena came into a locker room and said, ‘I’m sorry,’ we was insane and said, ‘Will we retire?’ But afterwards we got a note, and it was sweet, so we got over it.”


Photo: Getty Images

Younger than Serena by roughly a decade, Wozniacki has a point. At 33, many players unequivocally should retire. But Williams isn’t many people. “It is unimaginable what Serena is doing right now,” says Brad Gilbert, a former veteran actor who is now a tip coach. “She won her initial vital during seventeen, and now she’s winning during a age of 33? That’s a operation of sixteen years. Whether for group or women, that kind of longevity in tennis is unheard-of.”

Williams now belongs to an row of athletes—Tom Brady, Tim Duncan—who continue to perform during a tip turn good past their approaching prime. Williams attributes her possess staying appetite to a earthy training she started so young—and a reduced schedule. “I don’t know how people play 32 tournaments a year. The limit we played was seventeen, and even afterwards we didn’t feel like we had a life.” By personification less, she has avoided a earthy and romantic burnout that leaves so many players ill-natured or ambivalent. It was during a absences imposed by injuries, generally a blood clot in 2011, that she began wondering if she’d ever play again. “I unequivocally missed being out there,” she says. “Not a throng or a atmosphere. we usually missed attack a ball. we confident then, Wow, when am we going to retire? Because we don’t ever wish to stop.”

Five years ago, it was Wozniacki who was ranked series one, an startling attainment for a actor afterwards usually 20 years old, yet some assume she never would have finished it that distant had players like Justine Henin and Kim Clij­sters not been circuitous down their careers. As harmed players like Williams and Maria Sharapova returned, Wozniacki’s ranking bounced around, mostly staying in a tip ten. (She’s now ranked during five.) But for dual years she was one of a unequivocally few people in a world, like Williams, to breathe a rarefied atmosphere of series one.

Strangely enough, it’s not a position possibly of them quite relishes. “It’s tough and waste during a top,” Williams observes. “That’s since it’s so fun to have Caroline and my sister, too. You’re a aim when you’re series one. Everyone wants to kick you. Everyone talks behind your back, and we get a lot some-more criticism. God dissuade we lose. It’s like ‘Why?’ Well, we am human.”

“The misfortune was when they said, ‘Caroline was beaten by a actor ranked next her,’ ” Wozniacki says. “Hello—when you’re series one, everyone is ranked next you.

“There are always people who aren’t going to like you,” Williams says. “Look during Jesus; there are people who didn’t like him.”

“Wait, are we comparing yourself to Jesus?” Caroline asks. It is, I’ve noticed, her purpose to bend Serena in a ribs whenever she says anything too distant out.

“Oh, God, no, we am distant from it. As everybody knows. But as a Christian, we do try to be Christlike.”

She got an event to be magnificently forgiving of Wozniacki in 2012 when Caroline blatantly pressed her bra and dress in an fabrication of Serena’s physique during an muster compare in Brazil. It was meant as a joke. “I never would’ve finished it if Serena and we weren’t friends,” Wozniacki says. “And hey, who wouldn’t wish large boobs?”

“Me,” Serena puts her palm up. “Hello? Me!”

Nevertheless, distinguished African-American women like Whoopi Goldberg took displeasure during a mimic of a overripe Hottentot Venus, a visible meme that a immature lady from Denmark, a daughter of a veteran soccer actor creatively from Poland, competence not entirely grasp. And so Williams, who had a unequivocally opposite coming-of-age in crime-ridden Compton, California, and even mislaid her sister Yetunde to a pointless act of squad violence, came to her friend’s defense. “I wasn’t offended,” Williams says. “And we felt bad for her since this lady does not have a meant bone in her body.”

“She was unequivocally there for me when we indispensable her a most,” says Caroline Wozniacki of Williams. Michael Kors sapphire belted swimsuit.

Photographed by Annie Leibovitz, Vogue, Apr 2015

One of a few women who do know what it’s like to be during a tip of women’s tennis is Chris Evert, who has watched a Williams/Wozniacki loyalty with a reduction of déjà vu and some bemusement. “In a past, a Williams sisters always stranded together, so it’s good to see that loyalty rise between a dual of them. On a court, they have such opposite styles—Caroline is unequivocally reserved, and Serena is some-more emotional. She unequivocally wears her heart on her sleeve. But when we speak to them we see they have a lot in common. Caroline is always happy and doesn’t stop talking, and Serena is a genuine girl’s girl.” (That’s for sure. Before a speak could start, a dual spent a good 5 mins purgation over cinema on an iPhone of garments Caroline had recently bought.)

Like Williams, Evert grown a tighten attribute with her rival, Martina Navratilova. But distinct Williams, Evert eventually felt a need to emanate some distance. Practicing with a foe incited out to be bad for winning. “She’d gotten to know my diversion so well,” says Evert, “she started assault me.” Williams says she has enjoyed pity plan with Caroline, but, tellingly, a dual have never indeed strike together usually for fun. When, final year, they common a residence in a Bahamas for a few days, Williams suggested they try it, yet Wozniacki demurred. “I play tennis all year,” she says now. “On my vacation, we did not wish to hit.”

Instead, a dual got adult any morning, put on their bikinis, and strike a pool. At night, they went out. Williams claims a group swarmed all over Caroline, while ignoring her. “I am unequivocally shy. we don’t speak to guys.”

“You don’t speak to guys?” Caroline says in disbelief. “That is a lie.”

“Friends? Yes. But a potential? No. we get shaken that we will contend a wrong thing, and afterwards we usually start laughing.”

“Serena travels with a large entourage,” Caroline explains. “Some guys get intimidated by that. Both of a dream guys are out there, usually waiting.”

Earlier, Williams had talked about her enterprise to start a family and have children, yet now she shrugs. “I guess,” she says, sounding unconvinced. “I’m not even looking for it.” When a tennis does end, she has skeleton to enhance her seductiveness in conform over her stream wardrobe line on a Home Shopping Network into something some-more high-end. She also hopes to boost her munificent activities—there’s a propagandize in Kenya she has funded, along with a nursing grant named after her slain sister, and a partnership with a Equal Justice Initiative, an Alabama-based nonprofit that provides authorised illustration to bankrupt clients. But for now, and a nearby future, Williams isn’t prepared to take her feet off a pedal. As she says, “I feel like we have a enterprise to be improved than ever. we am never, ever, satisfied. we always wish to do more, be more, strech a new level. Not usually in tennis yet in all we do.”

Fashion Editor: Sara Moonves
In this story: Hair: Holli Smith; Makeup: Francelle; Production Design: Mary Howard; Produced by Beth Henning


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