The 23-time Grand Slam winner talks about what strength really means and how it’s shaped her life and career.
For a living legend like Serena Williams, strength could look like a lot of things. It could be a 128-mph ace launched down the centerline or a primal scream that makes the stadium seats quiver. It could be muscles crafted by hours on the tennis court. Or strength could have nothing to do with muscles at all.
“To me, it’s not necessarily about being the person that lifts the most weights,” said Williams, who sat down for an exclusive interview as part of her new partnership with Tonal. “It’s all about being your strongest in your mind and being able to conquer anything that you set your mind to. Mental strength, that’s the strongest asset you have now. I think that’s really important.”
Williams now joins other elite athletes as both an investor and a partner, and while she doesn’t need much of an introduction, here are some quick stats: Williams started playing tennis at three years old. She turned pro at 14 and is heading into her 27th year on the Tour. With more Grand Slam titles (23) than any other active tennis player and four gold medals at the Games, Williams is recognized by many as the greatest tennis player—some argue, the greatest athlete—of all time.
She is now an icon, an entrepreneur, an activist, an ambassador, and an investor. Here, the passionate and outspoken superstar discusses her strength journey, her training routine, and how she learned to accept her power on and off the court.
On Her Strength Journey
Williams entered the scene back in 1995 and changed the landscape of tennis forever. On top of innate skill, Williams’ style, attitude, and demeanor have always been a topic of conversation. In those early days of her career, she struggled with her own understanding of strength.
“My view of strength has definitely evolved over the course of my life and the course of my career,” said Williams. “I feel like, at the beginning of my career, I didn’t embrace strength. I felt like I had it, looked it, I felt it, and I was it. But I didn’t embrace it.”
Williams admitted she didn’t think the public embraced her strength at first, either. That was until she began to own her power herself. “I think once I embraced it and didn’t really care about what other people said or what people thought, people started to realize that strength is beauty, and there’s something amazing and beautiful about being strong,” she said.
On Embracing That Strength
The journey to accepting yourself and your body can be a long and winding road for many of us. Williams is no exception. She’s been vocal throughout her career about the path to embracing her strength in all the ways it shows up, from spending 319 weeks ranked No. 1 in the world, to overcoming a life-threatening health scare in 2011, to winning the 2017 Australian Open while eight weeks pregnant. It’s that acceptance she intends to pass on to her daughter.
“What I’ve learned about embracing my power and strength and what I would like to pass on to my daughter is to love who you are,” Williams said. “And that’s really the message that I’ve always passed on. I definitely want her to embrace herself and love herself and understand that it’s important to have self-confidence.”
Williams has learned to leverage that self-confidence to not only smash serves on the court but to also crash through glass ceilings. Her fashion line, S by Serena, aims to empower women through accessible and inclusive styles, and her venture capital fund, Serena Ventures, seeks to encourage and invest in diverse, early-stage entrepreneurs with mission-driven companies. The fund has over 50 portfolio companies and a $33 billion market cap as of November 2021, according to Worth.
On Her Training Evolution
Although a younger Williams once told the New York Times that she avoided weight training earlier in her career, that approach has evolved. Williams now supplements hours of tennis-specific training with strength work, particularly to fortify a body that has two decades of world-class performances on record.
Williams made clear that strength training is critical for any athlete to balance weaknesses and stave off injury. “If you have a weak knee, then you need to strengthen things around it to make your knees stronger,” she said. “If you have a weak shoulder, then you need to strengthen the muscles around it. You can’t just not strengthen it. It’s part of your career.”
On Navigating Injuries
At age 40, Williams has toed the line for more than 1,000 professional matches (with a nearly 85-percent win rate by the way). You don’t run through that gauntlet unscathed.
Due to the nature of her sport, Williams said she has suffered from both shoulder and knee issues in the past, so pre-hab, mobility, and strength training to protect her joints are essential elements of her routine.
She regularly focuses on strengthening the muscles around the knees and adds shoulder exercises and stretching to improve her range of motion. She said she focuses on strengthening her VMOs (vastus medialis oblique muscles, one of the four quadriceps muscles located at the front of the thigh above the kneecap) and PNF (proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation) stretching, a technique that helps improve range of motion) to stay in playing shape.
While Williams admitted those are “some of the most boring exercises,” they are essential to her longevity in the game.
On Her Legacy
Williams’ daughter is, without a doubt, a prime player in the tennis legend’s strength story. In a 2018 interview with Vogue, Willams shared that she was Googling names when she landed on Olympia, a Greek derivation of “strong.” And while motherhood brings an added element to training sessions, the intensity doesn’t waver.
“My body changed,” she told Tonal. “But I’m always intense. I trained all the way through pregnancy.”
It’s that level of commitment that led her to ultimate self-acceptance, and what she’s likely to pass on to her daughter and extend to all women. “One message I would like to share with all women and particularly women of color is: embrace yourself. Love yourself. I love me. And it shows when you do you, you attract better people and better energy around you.”