Through the public eye, it’s easy to view every aspect of Serena Williams’s life as picture-perfect. She’s not only one of the greatest athletes of our generation — with 23 Grand Slam tennis titles and four Olympic gold medals — but she’s also a new mom to an adorable eight-month old daughter with charming husband, and Reddit co-founder, Alexis Ohanian. Still, what the media so often fails to recognize about Williams is the adversity she had to overcome to make it to the top as a Black female athlete, as well as the more personal insecurities she continues to face about being a “good-enough” mother. In a raw look into the anxiety and pressures that lurk within the greatest tennis player in the world, the five-part HBO documentary series “Being Serena” lets Williams take the reigns and write her own life story for a change.
In the first episode of the series, titled “Fear,” Williams encounters a series of unexpected, yet significant challenges. Just days before she was set to take on her sister, Venus, in the final match of the 2017 Australian Open, Serena had a bewildering dream that she was pregnant. Her suspicions rang true and, after receiving clearance to play from her doctor, she went on to win the title (with Venus joking that it wasn’t a fair match because it was really two against one).
From then on, the documentary showcases Williams coming down off of her good-news high and sinking into a deep hole of fear. Worries about not being the best mother and tennis player of all time rise to the forefront of Williams’s thoughts. Not to mention, Serena stays terrifiedly cognizant of the riskiness of her future delivery (considering her past history with blood clots during surgery). All of this pressure to be perfect and the uncertainty that comes along with being a first-time mother appear to suck the confidence right out of our champion, her vulnerabilities manifested and exposed.
As the camera — sometimes intimately handled by her husband, Alexis — follows Serena around the house, to training sessions and, ultimately, into the delivery room, we become privy to some very private moments. Even though filmed celebrity births are nothing new to television, the way in which Williams documents the entirety of her pregnancy sheds light on the not-so-glamorous parts of the process. In this way, “Being Serena” rarely feels forced or manicured as a series and ends up playing out more along the lines of an upscale home movie.
The most heartwarming instances of the premiere episode occur when Serena gets up close and personal in a one-shot frame and provides some very conversational video diary updates. She vows that she will return to tennis even stronger after the birth of her daughter, using the documentary as a source of motivation to re-watch down the road. As the credits role and no formal director is cited, the most remarkable aspect of “Being Serena” is revealed — its honest, first-hand perspective.
Even without an uber dramatic storyline or intense, singular moment of conflict, “Being Serena” wins in its willingness to highlight vulnerability and the unpleasant truths associated with change. As the episodes go on, the documentary will surely continue to offer some much-needed reassurance to those feeling isolated by their anxieties because in the end, even those who seem unstoppable are still human.