In a match that at the very beginning felt like it might be a mismatch, Serena Williams found love with Alexis Ohanian, marrying the Reddit cofounder at a fairy-tale-themed wedding in the Big Easy. Vogue covered the nuptials first, and the festivities—as well as the preparations and family drama leading up to the ceremony—are the basis for episode 3 of HBO’s documentary Being Serena, which airs for the first time tonight.
I was in New Orleans for Vogue’s coverage of the wedding, practically embedded with the bridesmaids. Somehow I lucked out, and my borrowed Valentino dress even kind of matched those worn by Serena’s sisters and best friends, and for the day, I got to pretend like I was part of her entourage.
Amid the organized chaos that inevitably comes with any wedding and family of this size, we were able to orchestrate a photo shoot of Serena posing in her strapless Sarah Burton for Alexander McQueen wedding gown and cape moments before walking down the aisle. Because of this, I was in the makeshift dressing area inside the Contemporary Arts Center with the bridal party when Serena gave her speech thanking them for always being by her side. I even managed to befriend the crew from HBO, since we were interviewing all of the same subjects. But despite this proximity, when I watched Being Serena, I still learned things about that day that made me admire and respect her all the more.
The tennis superstar had just given birth to Alexis “Olympia” Ohanian Jr. two months prior in a delivery that was fraught with complications and ultimately resulted in an emergency C-section. Yet here she was, looking beautiful and getting married. I can only imagine how all over the place her emotions must have been, but she radiated a sense of calm, even when things went wrong. Unbeknownst to me at the time, her father and longtime coach, Richard, texted her an hour before the wedding was supposed to start, saying that he didn’t feel comfortable walking her down the aisle. “He was in New Orleans, he had a suit, and I know he was really excited,” says Serena in a voiceover. “But then he wrote me and said: Serena, I don’t want you to be mad at me, but I just can’t walk you down the aisle. I’m not myself anymore. I’m just too nervous.”
She quickly wrote back: “Daddy, it’s okay, if you don’t want to come to the wedding at all, that’s okay too. I’m not going to be upset with you about it, so I don’t want you to be upset about it.” She goes on to say: “Maybe a lot of daughters wouldn’t react the same way, but I know the struggles he’s had these last few years. His health is better now, but I know he still doesn’t feel like himself, doesn’t feel like he’s perfect. And if he doesn’t want to be up there in front of a lot of people, I completely understand. Look, when we first came on the scene, there were a lot of people who didn’t get him. I don’t think a lot of them wanted to get him. I don’t think a lot of him could have anyway. Our family knows what we have. We just want each other to be happy. That’s what matters. I don’t think anything could ever change that.”
And so, long before Meghan Markle’s father publicly debated whether he would go to his daughter’s wedding, it seems the duchess-to-be’s close friend Serena experienced a similar kind of disappointment. And, after having the grace to forgive her dad on the spot, the greatest female athlete of all time walked down the aisle alone, while her baby daughter looked on from the front row.
After Serena and Alexis said the vows they’d written themselves, there wasn’t a dry eye in a crowd that included Beyoncé, Kim Kardashian West, Eva Longoria, and La La Anthony. Following cocktail hour and a traditional New Orleans second line, the reception started with the newlyweds doing an epic choreographed first dance timed to Beauty and the Beast’s “Tale as Old as Time.” Serena was still breastfeeding, so in between spins around the dance floor and up on stage with New Edition during their surprise performance, she had to take time-outs to pump. She bounded in and out of the makeshift dressing room at the museum in her bedazzled Nike after-party sneakers to take care of business, never once complaining. The documentary sheds light on the internal maternal conflict she was grappling with—how long could she continue breastfeeding, particularly given her desire to compete again?
Fast forward to the final scenes of the episode, and Serena is playing in a match in Abu Dhabi, testing her tennis skills for the first time post-pregnancy. Before the Abu Dhabi match, she says: “They’d never had a women’s event here, and I thought, out of all of the stuff that I talk about in terms of helping women, this is something that I should really do, and who knows, some parent might decide their daughter, who they would have never thought of doing anything, put them in tennis. That’s how my dad put us in tennis, just from randomly watching someone, so you never know who you can affect . . . I really wanted to send the message that women can be strong, you can do what you want, you can dream big.” Serena: Message received.