Williams was born in Saginaw, Michigan, in September 1981. She started playing tennis at age 4 after she, sister Venus Williams and their family moved to Compton, California. Their parents, Richard Williams and Oracene Price, coached the girls in the sport. When Serena was 9, they relocated to West Palm Beach, Florida, so she and Venus could receive further instruction.
Serena made her professional debut at the Bell Challenge in Quebec, Canada, in October 1995 at age 14. She became a top-10 player by 1999. She achieved her first Career Grand Slam in 2003 at age 21 after winning the US Open, Wimbledon, the French Open and the Australian Open. Her Wimbledon victory in 2002 launched her to the No. 1 ranking for the first time ever.
Although the athlete suffered injuries and dealt with naysayers, she continued to dominate in her field, earning title after title. She also forged her own path when she failed to find tennis players with whom she could identify.
“There weren’t a lot of role models for me to look up to [in the sport] and say, ‘Wow, I want to look like this!’ … I kind of had to be that role and be that person,” Serena explained in her February 2019 Allure cover story. “Venus and I started out being successful, continued to be successful, and we were also unapologetically ourselves. We were not afraid to wear braids. We weren’t afraid to be Black in tennis. And that was different.”
Along the way, the tennis star learned to love herself. “I’m interested in doing the best that I can and winning Grand Slams and being a champion and, you know, everyone has different goals. … I’m not out here thinking, ‘OK, I’m not going to go to gymnastics class today because I don’t want to look fit,’” she told Time in 2015 of her body image. “I literally was born with this most amazing body, and to be historic, and to be amazing, and to be badass. And if anyone doesn’t like it, then they don’t have to. Because at the end of the day, I like it. And I know a lot of other people who like it too.”
Serena intends to pass on those values to daughter Olympia, whom she welcomed with husband Alexis Ohanian in September 2017.
Scroll through the gallery below to see Serena’s extraordinary life in photos.