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In a revealing essay and photo spread, Serena Williams confesses how hurt she was by the last US Open

The focus of Serena’s comeback has been her physical conditioning, but in a vulnerable personal essay, she says her mental state needed similar work

Serena Williams came through drippin’ in the new issue of Harper’s Bazaar.

Or, with her 6-4, 4-6, 6-3 win over Alison Riske in the Wimbledon quarterfinals Tuesday, perhaps a certain Jay-Z lyric is more appropriate for this moment: I guess I got my swagger back.

This year has not been easy for Williams, 37. She’s been forced to exit multiple tournaments because of injuries. At times, the quest for her 24th Grand Slam singles title, the one that would tie her with record holder Margaret Court, has seemed grueling, frustrating, even heartbreaking. Nevertheless, she has persisted.

The same day Williams beat Riske, 29, Harper’s published a personal essay in which she addressed how much the events surrounding her loss in the 2018 US Open final to Naomi Osaka, where she was penalized for receiving coaching and arguing with the chair umpire, took a toll on her psyche:

“I was hurt — cut deeply. I tried to compare it to other setbacks I’d had in my life and career, and for some reason I couldn’t shake the feeling that this was about so much more than just me. … This debacle ruined something that should have been amazing and historic. Not only was a game taken from me but a defining, triumphant moment was taken from another player, something she should remember as one of the happiest memories in her long and successful career. My heart broke. I started to think again, ‘What could I have done better? Was I wrong to stand up? Why is it that when women get passionate, they’re labeled emotional, crazy, and irrational, but when men do they’re seen as passionate and strong?’ ”

“I wasn’t quite sure when the actual magazine was going to come out,” Williams said in a news conference after her mixed doubles match with Andy Murray on Tuesday. “It was all coincidental.”

The essay was accompanied by a gold-soaked photo spread, styled with frocks from Tom Ford, Stella McCartney, Ralph Lauren Collection, Lanvin, Missoni and Michael Kors and set off by big, bronzy, natural, Diana Ross hair. The dresses are gold. The shoes are gold. Even a Gucci accessory that covers her entire left ear and places a big fat emerald at the lobe is gold.

I told you she came through drippin’.

In one cover shot, Williams’ back is to the camera. A sequined cape billows out to reveal her bare, unretouched rear. She looks coquettishly over her shoulder as if daring the viewer to kiss it, and also illustrating the meaning of “callipygous.” It is a visual nose-thumbing to the Tennis Establishment.

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“I’ve been called every name in the book. I’ve been shamed because of my body shape. I’ve been paid unequally because of my sex. I’ve been penalized a game in the final of a Major because I expressed my opinion or grunted too loudly…And these are only the things that are seen by the public. In short, it’s never been easy. But then I think of the next girl who is going to come along who looks like me, and I hope, ‘Maybe, just maybe, my voice will help her.’” @SerenaWilliams goes unretouched on our August 2019 issue and gets candid in a personal essay on BAZAAR.com. Link in bio Photography by @alexilubomirski Styling by @menamorado Hair by @vernonfrancois Makeup by @tyronmachhausen @maybelline #SerenaWilliams wears @ralphlauren, @bulgariofficial and @louboutinworld

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“Of course, there are times when loving tennis is hard,” Williams confesses in her essay. “… I felt defeated and disrespected by a sport that I love — one that I had dedicated my life to and that my family truly changed, not because we were welcomed, but because we wouldn’t stop winning.”

Boxers have public faceoffs at their weigh-ins. Williams has the art-directed cover of a Hearst property. Her target is not her on-court opponents but the entire infrastructure of her sport.

The words — clear, direct, intentional — are a stunning and unexpected display of vulnerability and seem to mark a breakthrough for Williams. She reveals how much the fiasco during the US Open final against Osaka had wounded her. The slings and arrows that pathbreakers inevitably face had taken their toll, so much so that Williams sought the counsel of a therapist. These were not physical scars she could simply work out in the South Florida humidity with a basket of balls and a hitting partner.

“It wasn’t very easy,” Williams said when asked Tuesday about seeing a therapist. “I’ve had a lot of things happen to me at [the US Open] in general. It was just important to always try to better yourself in any way that you can.”

When she played Riske on Tuesday, she was doing so without having had a typical day off to rest. On Monday, Williams beat Carla Suárez Navarro 6-2, 6-2. While unseeded, Riske was unrelenting. In the third set, she saved three break points and nearly tied it at 4-4. At one point, Williams slipped and fell along her baseline, allowing Riske to win a point. But then Williams forced the game to deuce with a tidy drop shot. She clenched her fist and reveled for a second over the point. The competitive fire, the sureness of self, and most of all the fight, got reignited. There was no waffling on Centre Court. Williams quickly took the lead again with another drop shot.

Like the U.S. women’s national soccer team, Williams has faced gendered disrespect with defiance and been labeled as arrogant for doing so. But then, like the USWNT, she wins and wins, and wins some more. Is it still arrogance if you win? Like Megan Rapinoe, whose spread-armed victory celebration pose screams, “Are you not entertained?” Williams deliberately posed for images that could be seen as risky for an athlete who refuses to fade quietly into emeritus status. Lose, and you look frivolous. Doubters start preparing various forms of crow: roasted, flambéed, grilled. Comparisons to Terrell Owens set in.

But win, and then — well, then you’re a legend. Then you’re Ali.

Regardless of what happens in the semifinals on Thursday, it would appear that Williams has conquered her greatest and wiliest opponent: herself.

Peter Bodo contributed to this report from Wimbledon.

Soraya Nadia McDonald is the senior culture critic for Andscape. She writes about pop culture, fashion, the arts and literature. She is the 2020 winner of the George Jean Nathan prize for dramatic criticism, a 2020 finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in criticism and the runner-up for the 2019 Vernon Jarrett Medal for outstanding reporting on Black life.