Mention the name Serena Williams in casual conversation and you’ll most likely hear some of the same adjectives again and again: fierce, tough, strong, competitive, aggressive, dominating, unbeatable. That last one is perhaps the most accurate. She’s the number one female tennis player in the world with 21 Grand Slam titles and counting, has won four Olympic gold medals, and holds more WTA titles than are possible to mention here. And she was the first woman to grace the cover of Sports Illustrated’s Sportsperson of the Year issue.
But the new, original EPIX documentary SERENA: The Other Side of Greatness, directed by Ryan White, offers a rare and revealing glimpse into the private life of an elite athlete like nothing we’ve seen before.
The “other side” of Serena is smart, savvy, sweet, silly, generous, reflective, vulnerable and, quite simply, fun. Oh, and she loves karaoke.
You don’t have to be a tennis fan to appreciate and marvel at this incredible, drama-filled film that follows Serena for an entire year in 2015 as she attempts a feat that had not been accomplished in tennis for more than 27 years: to win all four Grand Slam titles in one year -– referred to as the Calendar Slam -– and cement her legacy as the greatest female tennis player of all time.
In between scenes of watching Serena put in the unbelievably hard and relentless work of training, practicing, competing (and winning) over and over and over, we also get to see a woman talk candidly and honestly about the pressure that comes with all of it. We get to see where and how she lives and interacts with her tight-knit, protective family. We get to see the special and unique relationships she has with her coach Patrick Mouratoglou and her sister Venus (who Serena sees as her toughest opponent). We get to see her blow off steam in the karaoke room. We get to see her adorable dogs. We get to see the impact she has in the African-American community. We get to see how she celebrates after a big win.
Most poignant, however, is what happens when she loses.
I’m not giving away the ending when I write that she didn’t win the Calendar Slam. Her loss in the semi-finals to Roberta Vinci at the US Open was all over the news. It was an incredible upset and a devastating moment. Devastating to Serena, her team, her family, and her fans (myself among them). I know how the story ends but I still got teary-eyed and sad watching it again. I kept hoping for a different ending to the story. But ultimately it’s this loss that gives the film one of its most heartbreakingly intimate moments. It’s this loss that gives us a chance to see all the sides of Serena. And it’s worth watching just for that.