TIME

SERENA, IN PROGRESS

As her comeback reaches its biggest stage, the tennis icon opens up about motivation, insecurities and life as a working mom

ON A BRIGHT, CLOUDLESS EARLY-AUGUST DAY IN Silicon Valley, Serena Williams opens the back door of the Spanish-style home she shares with her husband, tech entrepreneur Alexis Ohanian, and walks down a flower-lined path to her office. Lemon trees bloom near the entrance to the backyard tennis court; in the clear distance, airplanes slip over the San Francisco Bay. Serena—who long ago ascended into the pantheon of stars known by a single name—swaps her pink Crocs for sneakers, and grabs a broom and dustpan to sweep pine needles off the hard court.

Just three nights earlier, Serena suffered the worst defeat of her 23-year professional career, a 6-1, 6-0 drubbing at the hands of Johanna Konta in the opening round of a U.S. Open tune-up tournament down the road in San Jose. That it was only her fifth tournament since giving birth to her daughter in September—or that in the fourth, Wimbledon, she made it to the finals in one of the most spectacular displays of will, skill and grit in the history of the game—didn’t make the loss hurt any less.

Serena has won 23 Grand Slam singles titles, one short of Margaret Court’s all-time record. The U.S. Open, which begins on Aug. 27 in New York City, is her last chance to even the score this year. And with age and the demands of parenthood looming over her singular career, Serena knows every chance matters. So, time to work.

She pounds shots from every angle, moving side to side, sending one ball screaming crosscourt at a cone target near the baseline. After a few hundred swings, her fitness guru, a white-haired sexagenarian named Mackie Shilstone, suggests she take a 30-second break. She insists on 20. He offers her water. She refuses.

Finally, Serena calls time. She sits on a wooden bench and fiddles on her iPhone. She’s tinkering with designs for her new clothing line when Alexis Olympia Ohanian Jr. waddles out the back door. Mom’s thwops and grunts have woken her from her nap. Serena leaps up to guide Olympia down the stairs to the court, counting off the steps in French: “Un, deux, un, deux.”

The moment can’t last. Serena isn’t done with her workout. Shilstone’s waiting to chase her all over the court and make her dodge tennis balls he tosses

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