You could say that “Being Serena,” an HBO documentary series that premieres Wednesday, has excellent access to Serena Williams. But that would be an understatement.
This is access so intimate that it invites viewers into the delivery room as she gives birth by Caesarean section on Sept. 1 to her daughter, Alexis Olympia Ohanian Jr., and later as she deals with life-threatening post-surgical complications.
Considering Williams’ normally private, reticent persona adds to the surprise.
“We are in the inner sanctum of her private life,” HBO CEO Richard Plepler said Wednesday at a screening of the first two episodes attended by Williams, her husband, Alexis Ohanian, her sister, Venus, and VIPs such as Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour and models Bella and Gigi Hadid.
While Williams permitted images from her private life, she did have plenty of control over the final product. She is associated with IMG, the talent management company whose original content group teamed with HBO Sports on the five-part series.
So this is no unauthorized tell-all. But, again, the access is extraordinary as it chronicles Williams from the time she left the tennis circuit after winning the 2017 Australian Open through pregnancy, birth, marriage and her competitive comeback.
The French Open, her planned return to grand slam tennis, is scheduled for May 27 to June 10, which would make for a nice bookend for the producers as the series draws to a close.
Executive producer Michael Antinoro said Williams was sold on the project by HBO’s documentary reputation, and by the notion of having everything recorded for personal reasons.
“She wanted to do something that I think felt like a documentary not just for her fans but for her and her family, her soon-to-be family,” Antinoro said. “So it was important for her to tell that story, and she understood this is less about her tennis career and more about her life and a transition, so she really wanted to treat it the right way, and she trusts us.”
Once she committed to it, Antinoro said, “She doesn’t do anything less than 100 percent. We didn’t have to have the conversation with her like we do with some other people, athletes or teams, where it’s, ‘Hey, you really need to do this.’ She’s like, ‘If I’m going to do this, I’m going to do this.’
“So she gave us a lot of access. I think that’s because, again, this is an important story for her. It’s wasn’t like, ‘You want to get in there and see practice and how you win tennis matches?’ This story is not about tennis.”
Tennis fans will, though, likely appreciate the context of Williams’ last 15 months as they prepare to watch her fully return to the circuit.
“No question,” said Mark Shapiro, an executive producer. “The preparation, the setbacks, the difficulties, the competition, the hardships, doing it all at this age, doing it all after so many hours on the court, doing it all while pregnant, doing it all after having a baby. And we’re talking about maybe the greatest athlete of all time, no matter the gender.”
Said Antinoro, “She can come back, of course. She can play, of course. She’ll win tournaments. I don’t think anybody doubts that. But she doesn’t want to do that. She wants to come back and be Serena, and as we know there’s only been one Serena.
“To me, that’s the interesting part. Tennis fans will be like, ‘Wow, is she going to get back to that place?’ And I think she 100 percent believes she will, but the journey itself, I don’t think she knows where that will take her . . . She knows what she wants to be, and I think tennis fans will be as interested in that for the tennis part as for her life.”