A new Rolling Stone profile of Serena Williams has caused a stir in the tennis community and mainstream media, not only because of Williams’ controversial comments on the Steubenville rape case, but also because of her comments about other WTA players. I spoke with the author of the profile, Stephen Rodrick, via email about how the piece came together.
Q: How did the piece come about, and what was it like writing about a tennis player, coming from a non-sport-specific journalism background?
Stephen Rodrick: Well, I’ve written a ton about sports over the past 15 years from the NBA to arguing that Ryan Leaf would be a better NFL quarterback than Peyton Manning–oops!- to following a high school wrestling team for a season. But I usually catch athletes on the way down–they’re usually more interesting then. To be able to capture a player at the top of their game is so rare that I jumped at the chance.
The best I can equate writing about a tennis player is to writing about a boxer: they’re such solitary sports where you have a band of brothers and sisters behind the scene aiding and abetting your every move. It’s sometimes hard for a player to get out of that bubble and see themselves in a realistic light. I think Serena has actually done a great job of that: She’s out there in the world giving opinions, saying stuff and not worrying too much about the repercussions.
Q: I think your piece was so interesting because it gave the reader such a candid look at Serena’s personality behind her PR wall, including some WTA gossip. Were you surprised that Serena let her guard down like that for an interview, or did you feel that she was comfortable with being herself in front of a journalist?
SR: I wasn’t that surprised. Serena has a reputation for being outspoken and I think that’s what I got. I also feel that sometimes people like Serena are so cloistered–she mentioned never having been to a happy hour–that they are happy to talk with someone outside their circle. I think she was pretty happy to be getting away from her tennis compound and hitting a Panera and getting her nails done, just doing things that normal folks do all the time.
Q: Were you surprised when Serena made those comments about the Steubenville case — did it hit you right then that this would be something that would get a big reaction?
SR: There was a great story that Jason Horowitz did for The New York Observer on Joe Biden in 2008 that had a lot of great detail, but it got swallowed up by Biden’s quote about how ‘articulate’ Obama was. When you write a profile there’s always the fear that one statement is going to be cherrypicked and it will overwhelm the piece, but that’s just the way it goes sometimes.
If you read the entire piece, I think you’ll get a different understanding of Serena than if you just repeat the soundbite. You may like her more, you may like her less.
Q: Serena made those comments about a fellow top 5 player, and you indicated you thought she might be referring to Maria Sharapova. Was that just a guess, or was it pretty clear that she was?
SR: As I said in the piece, it was an educated guess. I tried to put together the puzzle pieces and do process of elimination, but Serena wouldn’t talk about it so I’ll have to leave it at that. But besides Venus, Serena is a loner out on the tour, it would not surprise me if she uses opponents dating her ex-boyfriends for motivation.
Q: I’m sure spending that much time with Serena must’ve been an unforgettable experience. Was there anything funny about that experience that didn’t make the cut in Rolling Stone?
SR: I think all the good stuff is in there. There’s not many times you get to almost kill the best tennis player in the world in a car accident that she tries to prevent by screaming warnings in French!
Stephen Rodrick writes for Rolling Stone, Men’s Journal, and The New York Times Magazine. He recently published his first book, The Magical Stranger. themagicalstranger.com