Leading up to the premiere of the HBO docuseries Being Serena, which aired Wednesday night, the network promised viewers “unprecedented access” to Serena Williams’ life—including her pregnancy, new motherhood and marriage, all while filling in the details of Williams’ ascent to become one of the greatest athletes of her generation.
But first, there’s “Fear”—the name of the first episode in the five-part series.
“Fear” begins at the 2017 Australian Open, which Williams won while being eight weeks pregnant with her daughter, Olympia Ohanian.
“I didn’t even want to win,” Williams says as she recalls her performance. Her then fiance, now husband, Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian speculates that she won every set she played because she was so eager to get off the court. (Williams’ sister Venus, whom she defeated in the championship, jokes that the faceoff was unfair because it was “two against one.”)
So where does “fear” come in for Williams? The eight-time top-ranked tennis player in the world says her fear is that “I can’t be both the best mother and the best tennis player in the world”—a concern that, frankly, is one only Williams could have.
But Williams does build a bit upon that idea of fear, emphasizing that she’s had to live with the feeling her whole life.
“Without fear, without doubt, without discomfit in what we’re doing, what is there for any of us to overcome?” Williams asks.
Throughout the 30-minute episode, viewers see Williams continue to train throughout her pregnancy as she and Ohanian navigate their journey as first-time expectant parents.
Next week’s episode, titled “Strength,” will take the cameras into the delivery room and follow the four-time Olympic gold medalist as she delivers her baby (the exact moment Williams sees baby Olympia is captured on film), self-diagnoses a pulmonary embolism, returns to the tennis court and gets fitted for a wedding dress.
Williams doesn’t speak as much in depth about the life-threatening blood clots she experienced post-delivery as she has in the past—a void some viewers will surely feel, especially because her experience became symbolic of the disproportionate maternal-health challenges black women face.
And outlets like the Los Angeles Times and Slate both note that despite the intimate moments, Williams comes off as guarded; the Times writes, “[The documentary] often has the approving, not to say, hagiographic flavor of authorized biography.”
But seeing Williams—a black woman who, at just 36 years old, has completely redefined her sport and recast our image of who a great tennis player can be—grapple with fear, mortality and exhaustion in real time feels like a gift from a woman who has already given us so much.