Behind the Story: The Serena Williams Rolling Stone Profile

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.

Amy can be spotted on a tennis court in the Philadelphia area, shanking backhand volleys.

7 Responses

  1. Jason
    Jason June 19, 2013 at 1:47 pm |

    According to this piece, what Serena said wasn’t all that apart from cherry picked sound bites, so why are haters jumping all over Serena? is it because she called out on drunk teenagers to exercise precaution when hanging out late at parties?

    Sigh!!!! Haters indeed will find a reason to hate.

    1. Tom
      Tom June 19, 2013 at 2:43 pm |

      I kind of agree with you. I personally didn’t find her comments all that offensive but definitely understand why they have been. She let her mouth shoot, and apologised, mostly, can’t we move on. I never thought she was a loner, definitely doesn’t find her best friends on the tour. I got the impression she was on friendly terms with Vavara, and Svetlana and Wozniacki maybe even Vika at some point. She was all chummy with Maria at WTA champs. My impression of Serena hasn’t been tainted by this, but It was great to see the journalists point of view over the issue, thanks for that. (I still can’t believe she used someone not going to “cool parties” to against them, this ain’t the 7th grade)

  2. tenisla
    tenisla June 19, 2013 at 3:04 pm |

    I thought Serena was very friendly with players in the lockeroom. I’ve never heard here described as a “loner.” Not by the tennis media. As Doug said this guy is a non-beat writer, so how would he come to said conclusion in one interview with a player. It lends me to discount his story on the top 5 WTA player story was even true. Still, her comments were off base. That beings said I think if this were a scenario where a person went to a bad part of town and was shot by a hoodlum or gang-member and was told he was “lucky” to be alive and asked “why” he was in such a part of town? Honestly, I don’t think those comments would be taken with a grain of salt. Would we call that perpetuation gang culture.

    If a parent was to tell there daughter months after being raped “I don’t want to drink in excess to the point of drunkenness and I don’t want you around people you don’t know well ever again” then would that a reprehensible statement that condoned the rape and blames the victim (his or her daughter)? Honestly the moral high ground fallacy is what irks me the most. Honey don’t please, don’t drink or take drinks from someone you don’t know. These are cautionary statements parents make on a daily basis. Would they condone “rape culture” in this case.

    This is the height of liberalized self-righteous feminism and entitlement that irk, me. We can’t even give cautionary advise to kids, even after bad situations have happened.

    If Serena had a daughter and said those statements as a parent, would she be in the wrong? I’m curious.

    1. SNLR
      SNLR June 19, 2013 at 4:52 pm |

      I don’t think it’s a sign of “liberalized self-righteous feminism and entitlement”. It’s just acknowledging the fact that a rape victim is not to blame for the rape.

      Gang rape is not just “doing something stupid” and if your statement contains the words “I’m not trying to blame the girl, but…” then you really just shouldn’t be talking. Serena was completely wrong. Not just “off base”, what she said was completely and utterly wrong. Why is that so hard to accept?

  3. S
    S June 19, 2013 at 4:13 pm |

    Serena’s “what do you think?” to the reporter and her, “I don’t know…” tells me that just like the rest of us, she was trying to make sense of a terrible situation. I think her remarks were off the cuff and about a situation/ case that I bet she probably wasn’t following very closely, but who really knows?

  4. BadToss
    BadToss June 19, 2013 at 11:45 pm |

    Serena’s mouth is her own biggest enemy–we all know that–but this guy isn’t making much more sense. Do we believe for one minute, for one second even, that he didn’t know that his quoting that line was not only going to dominate the piece, it was going to cause a shitstorm that would put his (possibly fading) name in lights? He doth protest a bit too much.

  5. Mauricio
    Mauricio June 22, 2013 at 5:08 pm |

    As a parent of a teenage daughter, I have told her these are some of the rules she should live by:
    1. Never accept drinks from strangers, unless in a sealed container.
    2. If at all possible party with a group of friends, where not all are going to be drinking.
    3. Know your drink limits, DO not cross it.

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