At 11:10 the night before I interviewed Serena Williams, I saw a Snapchat update from her. It read: "Live one day in my life with me." What followed was an image of Williams, surrounded by her glam squad, with the caption: "Getting ready to go on TV, I'm so tired." In the next frame Williams rallied—she looked strong and sexy at HSN, promoting her fashion line. Hour after hour through the night, she dared followers to keep up. Before we met, I checked her Snap one last time and found a photo of her slippered feet: "5 minutes up. Going to interview." So I should not have been surprised when she walked into the restaurant in a Snuggie. Her attire made it clear that she knows how to take care of herself. A champion knows that tiredness is not weakness.
And Williams isn't just a champion; she's the champion. I've followed her tennis career since the very beginning. As the youngest of four sisters, I barely dared to breathe when she first bested Venus on court. (Any little sister knows you're never ever supposed to beat your big sister.) She's unquestionably dominant. Williams broke open a historically white sport and has endured commentary both racist and sexist (as when a white male sports writer for The New York Times suggested her "large biceps" weren't feminine or when the former CEO of the Indian Wells tournament recently said, "if I was a lady player, I'd go down every night on my knees and thank God that Roger Federer and Rafa Nadal were born because they have carried this sport"). But she never got distracted. Instead she focused on her game, racking up more Grand Slam titles than any man or woman currently playing. Now Williams is nearing another milestone: She is one Grand Slam away from tying Steffi Graf's singles record. Once a sport of finesse and speed, tennis is now a game of power and endurance because of Williams. She's the defending Wimbledon champion and in hot pursuit of another gold in Rio de Janeiro, the only kind of medal she has ever won at the Olympics. Put simply: She has been at the top of her sport for nearly two decades. Respect.
And her strength has captivated the world. Beyoncé asked Williams to share her throne with an unexpected cameo in Lemonade; Epix will air Serena, an intimate documentary in June. (My favorite moment: when she rips her pants doing aerial acrobatics, only to laugh it off.) In person Williams is so utterly present, thoughtful, emotive, and human. She is quite simply slaying—in a Snuggie.
Read Melissa Harris Perry's interview with Williams below. For more, pick up the June issue of Glamour on newsstands, subscribe now, or download the digital edition.
MELISSA HARRIS-PERRY: You have been in our lives a long time, playing pro tennis for nearly 20 years. Is the game still fun?
SERENA WILLIAMS: Yes! When I first started really playing, in '98, I was super excited to see all the people I grew up watching.… I loved Monica Seles, Steffi Graf, and Pete Sampras…. Now it is different yet somehow more exciting. Everything now is a bonus.
MHP: You're one Grand Slam away from tying Graf's singles record. Do you think about it when you're playing?
SW: I do. But it's not the end-all, be-all. It's something I would like to achieve, but I've achieved so much on the court and off already.
MHP: You've got Wimbledon coming up. What's your strategy there?
SW: I'm going in as defending champ. So that'll be exciting. I want to have fun. Serve big. Play aggressive on the grass.
MHP: You've also got the Olympics later this summer. Any concerns given everything we're hearing out of Brazil right now?
SW: I'm not taking Zika lightly. Especially being older, I definitely am going everywhere protected. I'm protecting myself.
MHP: You have been called "the world's greatest athlete." Do you welcome that label? Does it feel accurate to you?
SW: Oh my gosh, I don't know. That's so hard to say. I try to be the best that I can be every day. I have bad days. I had a bad day the other day. I hit for only, like, 30 minutes, and I stormed off the court. But that was the best I could do on that day. So am I the greatest? I don't know. I'm the greatest that I can be.
MHP: What do you need from a coach now? Do you need somebody who's like, "OK, I know you've done the best you can do today," or somebody who's like, "Get back on the court"?
SW: I probably need that "Get back on the court" kind of coach. [Laughs.] If I'm not playing well, I do get down on myself because I am a perfectionist. [So I need] someone who believes in me more than I believe in me, someone willing to work as hard as I work. I don't understand what no means or what failure means; I only understand what yes means and try again means.
MHP: You and Venus were the original black-girl magic. People who do not know you feel a personal stake in every match you play.
SW: That's something. I meet people who say, "Girl, I watch every match, and I pray for you." I feel that energy and those prayers. Sometimes when I'm down on the court, in the back of my mind, I'm thinking, "They want me to win. Is there anything else I can give?" It encourages me to do better, to fight harder.
MHP: Does it also make losing harder?
SW: No one takes a loss harder than I do. In any sport. I hate losing more than I like winning.
MHP: How do you come back from a loss like the U.S. Open in 2015?
SW: I work harder. I study to see where I went wrong. But I carry the loss. My coach has said to me, "When you win a match or a tournament, you don't even think about it—the very next minute you're like, 'Now I've got to focus on Wimbledon.' You should take the losses the same way." I need to look at those losses as learning experiences.
MHP: Twitter ate Drake alive after your loss at the U.S. Open [then rumored to be her boyfriend, he was accused of having distracted her]. Is that fair?
SW: No. I don't think that was fair. I'm the one who's playing, who's making mistakes or making winners. I'm not one to blame anyone else for anything. And I don't think anyone else should either. I played a really good opponent that day. And I wasn't at my best.
MHP: You're going to be 35. Some folks believe your thirties, especially for athletes, are meant to be this time of wrapping up. What about being in your thirties makes tennis harder, or easier?
SW: Who says that your thirties is when you're supposed to be done? I would like to know who made that rule! I was talking to my mom one time, like, "Gosh, I'm 30." And she's like, "In your thirties you're even stronger than in your twenties." I didn't believe her, but I have played better in my thirties. And I played pretty well in my twenties, don't get me wrong! But my consistency is better, my momentum is better, my wins are quicker.
MHP: The U.S. women's soccer team has been challenging inequity in women's sports, fighting for equal pay. It's an issue facing NCAA women in multiple fields [including tennis, where women make 80 cents for each dollar men earn]. Want to weigh in on this?
SW: These sports have a lot of work to do. And I really hope that I can be helpful in that journey because I do believe that women deserve the same pay. We work just as hard as men do. I've been working, playing tennis, since I was three years old. And to be paid less just because of my sex—it doesn't seem fair. Will I have to explain to my daughter that her brother is gonna make more money doing the exact same job because he's a man? If they both played sports since they were three years old, they both worked just as hard, but because he's a boy, they're gonna give him more money? Like, how am I gonna explain that to her? In tennis we've had great pioneers that paved the way—including Venus, who fought so hard for Wimbledon to pay women the same prize money they pay men, and Billie Jean King, who is one of the main reasons Title IX exists.
MHP: You mentioned kids. Do you want a family of your own?
SW: Yeah. I definitely want to have kids one day. That's something I've always wanted since as long as I could remember. And the older I get, the more I'm like, "I'm too young!" [Laughs.]
MHP: The older you get, the more real it gets, the more you realize how hard parenting is, right?
SW: Yeah. I was just joking with Venus about this yesterday and saying, "I'm far too young!" Hopefully I'll be able to mature one of these days, get serious, and at least have them pretty fast.
MHP: Many of us came to know your sister first. What about living with Venus now is different from when you were girls?
SW: I just moved about a month ago; we live across the street [from each other]. Found my freedom. [Laughs.] It was hard, though. I didn't even want to go that far. Incidentally, all my stuff is still at her house, so I haven't really moved out. If anything, we haven't changed much since we were kids. We really are the same people.
MHP: What do you learn watching Venus play?
SW: It's remarkable she plays at all, given her Sjögren's syndrome [an autoimmune disorder that can cause joint pain]. She's back, winning tournaments. She didn't allow society to tell her, "You have this disease; you can't do that anymore." I look at her, like, "She's not playing at 100 percent. You are. You don't have excuses." Knowing what she went through helped me try to be a more positive person.
MHP: You do seem quite determined to live all the way out loud—you have a playfulness, a joy. But it has come at a cost, for instance, with what happened at Indian Wells in 2001. [Serena was set to play Venus in the semifinals, but after Venus pulled out due to tendinitis, a rival accused their father of fixing the match. When Serena came out to play in the finals, the crowd booed and jeered, and her father said people yelled racial slurs at him. Williams won but boycotted the tournament for years, returning only in 2015.] Have you developed tools over time for dealing with [attacks]?
SW: I try not to be protected. Because I feel like you can become a little bit of a robot. That's not who I am. And I don't want to be monotone. It's important to be yourself, whatever the cost.
MHP: One of my favorite Serena moments was your impromptu twerking tutorial on Snapchat this spring. What prompted that?
SW: I had to leave my house at 3:30 A.M. for a photo shoot. By the time noon rolled around, I was so tired. I started making these silly videos, [including] the twerk tutorial. I was being super sarcastic. I said, "Engage your glutes" and "Squeeze those quads." [Laughs.]
MHP: What makes you laugh?
SW: I'm quick to make fun of myself. If you dish it out, you should be able to take it. You can throw a dart at me, and I will laugh. I'll throw a dart at myself. I don't take myself that serious at all [off] the court. I'm the class clown of the group.
MHP: Can we talk fashion? You're deeply involved in your line.
SW: It's definitely not something I just slap my name on…. My mom taught me how to sew when I was super young; I used to make clothes for my dolls. When I finally went to [fashion design] school [in 1999], I really took to pattern making. Everyone in class was good at something; I was the person, if you need help with your patterns, you come to me and I would help you out.
MHP: Speaking of school…Maya Angelou was my college adviser, and I understand that she was your favorite poet.
SW: I love "Phenomenal Woman." The experiences she had of being African American in the U.S.—that itself is a task. I appreciate the hardships she went through for our generation. I'm super influenced by the black people that paved the way for us.
MHP: What is the legacy that you want to leave?
SW: I never thought about leaving a tennis legacy. I always thought about leaving a legacy of fulfillment, living out your dreams, and giving back. I'm proud to have opened [two] schools in Africa and one in Jamaica [through the Serena Williams Fund and its partners]. I was given a lot. I was given two parents. That's already starting above a lot of kids. And then I was given the opportunity to play tennis and parents who supported that. I feel I can give back.
MHP: What do you see as the kind of legacy that you want to leave in communities like Compton, where you grew up?
SW: I never left my roots. You can identify me as someone that didn't become high and mighty. Humility is a defining [trait] all of us can forever learn, and I try to be as humble as anyone can be.
Melissa Harris-Perry is the Maya Angelou Presidential Chair at Wake Forest University and the host of the live-event series Nerdland Forever. Follow her @MHarrisPerry.