Serena Williams’ body has always been up for discussion.
Our greatest athlete has never been able to enjoy her accomplishments and athletic prowess without an onslaught of racist and misogynistic criticism. Lest we forget The New York Times devoting an entire piece to analyzing Williams’ body, while describing how her “slender” rival Maria Sharapova maintains her feminine physique. When she announced her pregnancy, Williams’ body faced even more scrutiny. Should she be playing tennis? When she discussed her pregnancy in Vanity Fair, she revealed that she’d been eight weeks pregnant when she won the Australian Open. It took concealing her pregnancy to avoid the media onslaught that would’ve surely ensued if she were to publicly compete while with child.
That’s what makes Being Serena so beautiful: It’s a peek behind the curtain into the legendary athlete’s life, displaying her steely resolve when it comes to competition, but also her vulnerability when it comes to complications in her pregnancy. The five-episode HBO docuseries depicts Williams at the start of the Australian Open as she learns that she’s pregnant and revolves around how Williams sees her life in her child. A woman who has faced intense scrutiny her entire life knows that her daughter will face the same. Growing up in Compton, Williams has fought tooth and nail for her seat at the table—and to be recognized as one of the world’s greatest athletes, with no asterisk for her sport or gender.
Being Serena comes months after the release of Sharapova’s memoir, Unstoppable: My Life So Far, where the doper hilariously attempted to compare herself to Williams. “First of all her physical presence is much stronger and bigger than you realize watching TV. She has thick arms and thick legs and is so intimidating and strong. It’s the whole thing—her presence, her confidence, her personality,” Sharapova wrote of first encountering Williams at 17. She followed it up with: “Even now, she can make me feel like a little girl.”
In Being Serena, however, Williams has no time for Sharapova and their nonexistent feud. This show is about motherhood and her engagement to now-husband Alexis Ohanian, along with the real traumas that privately affected her—like delivering their daughter, Alexis Olympia, via C-section. Witnessing Alexis as she’s removed from Williams’ body and held up for her mother to see is every bit as powerful as seeing Williams dominate on court. It’s equally powerful when Williams explains how her stitches tore, and she realized she needed a CAT scan to check for a possible pulmonary embolism, which she also suffered in 2011: “I was on my death bed at one point—quite literally. I’ve had a serious illness but at first I didn’t appreciate that. At first people said it would be fine, it would be all right, but it turned out to be a lot more serious. If it had been left two days later, it could have been career-ending—or even worse. They told me I had several blood clots in both lungs. A lot of people die from that.”
Williams’ precaution ended up saving her life, as doctors were able to prevent the blood clots from reaching her heart.
“There’s no escaping the fear, the fear that I might not come back as strong as I was; the fear that I can’t be both the best mother and the best tennis player in the world,” Williams says, while also admitting she wants “the first thing [her] baby sees when she looks up at her mom to be a strong woman.” It’s rare to see Williams so open, so afraid, but this is also not a moment where she’s been caught off guard.
After all, the HBO series is a bit like Life Is But a Dream, the 2013 Beyoncé documentary that gave viewers a behind-the-scenes look at her pregnancy with daughter Blue Ivy and allowed them to share in her pain of having suffered miscarriages in the past. For women like Beyoncé and Williams, these documentaries have offered a way for them to open themselves up to the world in a controlled setting—not a lens where the more propagandistic members of the media accuse Beyoncé of racism and anti-white rhetoric, or a lens that pits Williams against a vastly inferior athlete. No doubt Williams, who also guest-starred in Beyoncé’s Lemonade visual album on HBO, saw what opportunity a documentary with the network afforded the other most powerful black woman in America and sought the same.