As professional tennis gears up for the Wimbledon Championships next week, a new documentary on EPIX puts the spotlight on one of the sport’s greats.
“Serena,” premiering Wednesday (June 22), brings viewers up close and personal with Serena Williams, the four-time Olympic gold medalist and 21-time Grand Slam champ, as she pursued the calendar year Grand Slam (achieved by winning the Australian, French and U.S. Opens and Wimbledon) in 2015.
Shot from March to September in verité style, the feature-length film follows the 34-year-old legend and her day-to-day machinations as she wins matches on the court and interacts with family, friends and colleagues off it. It also captures her life as a businesswoman and explores her drive to succeed and the pressures of being World No. 1.
“I think Serena is often not seen as a human being,” says Ryan White, the film’s director to Zap2it, “and I think I even felt that before I made this film, of just thinking that she’s impervious (to pressure). She’s so famous and so successful and so talented that the emotions of a human being might not exist, and that was important to me once I got to know her, was like, wow, she’s a fully dimensional human being just like we all are who goes through these moments, and portraying that was one of my top goals.”
White was granted near full access to Williams after her victory at the Australian Open in January and was in the right place at the right time as she won the French Open and Wimbledon, and the possibility of the calendar Slam took shape.
The pressures of that pursuit are front and center of the documentary, and in one candid interaction at Wimbledon, Williams is seen getting friendly advice from tennis great and former coach Billie Jean King.
“It was seeing Serena as a student,” White says. “… It was the most simple things that we all learn when we’re kids or teenagers on the tennis court, like when you get nervous don’t forget to use your feet and make sure you’re using your strength in those moments. But you really see Serena internalizing it and I just thought, whether it made it in the film or not, as the person observing it, it was like an incredibly special moment to me in tennis, to see… two legends like that.”
Of course, the story doesn’t have a happy ending. Williams lost to Roberta Vinci in the U.S. Open semifinal and her hopes for the calendar Slam were dashed. It proved to be one of the more painful episodes in Williams’ life and shortly thereafter she withdrew from public view and the rest of the ATP Tour schedule.
At that point, White gave Williams her space. White has shown the finished documentary to Williams and he says she was happy with the final product.
“I don’t think she would ever choose to sit down and rewatch her 2015 year,” he says. “But luckily, at least according to what she told me, she really loved the film. She really thinks it captured something special in her career and the team around her and the machinations of how a very professional team like that works, and so she’s been fully supportive. I mean, she thinks it captured the real her and I’m relieved to hear that.”