With 23 grand-slam wins on the women’s pro tennis tour spanning nearly three decades—from her first, at 17 years old, in September of 1999, to her latest, at 35, in January of 2017, and the most in the open era—Serena is in the heart of every conversation concerning the best athlete of her time. “If I were a man, then it wouldn’t be any sort of question,” she told me. She may well be right, a society still conditioned to believe that men are better than women in everything except the superfluous.
Alexis, on the other hand, had never seen a tennis match until he met Serena, in May of 2015 in Rome. He knew so little about the game that the photo he excitedly posted on Instagram of her playing her first match in the Italian Open showed her foot faulting.
Alexis decided he would surprise Serena by proposing to her on December 10 in virtually the same spot he had first met her: the Cavalieri. It was an intricate and tactical plan, several months in the making. Serena was scheduled to play in an exhibition in India, so Jill Smoller talked her into making a stopover on the way back and spending the night at the Cavalieri. Then the exhibition was canceled. There was no reason for Serena to go to Italy. Plus, she was beginning training for the Australian Open, and when Serena gets close to a grand-slam event, practice becomes a personal Hacksaw Ridge—fury, broken rackets, sometimes tears. Now going to Rome?
Alexis scrambled to enlist the help of others. Serena’s executive assistant, Dakota Baynham, secretly packed her bags. Tommy Hilfiger did a major solid by scheduling a meeting at her house in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida, to discuss some fashion-related items so she would be there to get picked up for the airport. Jill came to the house and told her that she had to go to Italy because Alexis wanted her there under the guise of a spontaneous trip, much like the one they had taken to Disney World a few weeks earlier.
Serena wasn’t happy. Actually, she was livid. But after she got on the plane, she realized that he was flying her out for only one reason. “I knew it was coming. I was like, ‘Serena, you’re 35, you’re ready. This is what you
Alexis picked the same room they had shared a year earlier, the hotel at his instruction filling it with flowers. He took her downstairs to the same table by the pool area where they had first met. No one else was there, since the hotel, also at his instruction, had cleared everyone else out. He retold the story of how he had met her for the first time at this exact spot two years earlier. On the table was a little plastic rat.
Alexis got on one knee and proposed.
Once Serena knew she was pregnant, she called Alexis and told him he needed to come to Melbourne earlier than planned. She did not give him the reason, but Alexis thought it was likely health-related and immediately got a United flight out of San Francisco. When she saw him, not a word was said.
She handed him a paper bag with the six positive pregnancy tests.
He was as shocked as Serena. But there wasn’t time to dwell. The Australian Open was about to begin, and an immediate medical determination had to be made on what risk there might be in playing. The doctor who examined her thought she was about three or four weeks pregnant—it was almost impossibly hard to tell because the fetus was so small—and said there was no risk whatsoever. When Serena returned to the States and had a subsequent exam, it was discovered that she had actually been more advanced, about seven to eight weeks, but she said she still would have played. There were only five people who knew during the tournament: Alexis, Jessica, Jill, Venus, and the doctor. Not even Serena’s coach knew. Nor did tournament officials.
It is a typical day in Palm Beach Gardens, the temperature in the mid-80s and enough humidity to get your attention. Serena is on the back patio, curled up on a white outdoor couch trimmed with wicker. There is none of the pouty celebrity I-would-rather-be-doing-anything-other-than-this monosyllabic slouch, nor is every answer punctuated with Sorry-I-have-to-take-this-call. There are a few moments when she pauses and talks to Chip, her beloved teacup Yorkie, who is slightly bigger than her hand, and whom she calls “her son” and clearly means it.
She is now a little more than six months pregnant and showing, which is helping her face the reality that she is having a baby, because “it just doesn’t seem real. I don’t know why. Am I having a baby?
“If you would have told me last year in October or November that I would have a baby, not be pregnant but have a baby, I would have thought you were the biggest liar in the world. This is kind of how I am right now. This is happening sooner than later, and it’s going by so fast.”
If there is no giddiness, there is no panic. Says her friend Diondria Thornton, Serena “loves being pregnant.” But it’s not that simple. “I can also see competition creeping in on her. Is this over yet? I think she’s getting this itch . . . to see her intensity and her workout—‘I have to stay fit. I have to get back on the court.’ Very determined to get back on the court.”
Marriages are impossible to predict. Fairy tales become broken tales, love stories turn into stories of love lost, initial euphoria into a wish for marital euthanasia. The trouble with love is that it comes with the guarantee of nothing.
Read the full interview here.