Even before the 2020 tennis season was blacked out, Serena Williams had blacked out her new Wilson racket, all part of the process for making a change to her on-court equipment 25 years into her professional career and with 23 Grand Slam singles titles stacked on her trophy case.
For Williams, the transition into a new Wilson frame has come with the same obstacles that the entire world has faced. Professional tennis was one of the first sports to cancel events, with the announcement of the Indian Wells cancellation coming March 8, just days before Williams was set to fly to California for the world’s fifth largest tournament. Since that time the May French Open has moved its dates to September and Wimbledon canceled its summer event for the first time since World War II.
Williams played with the blacked-out Wilson prototype for the first time on tour in January, even using the new frame during the year’s first Grand Slam, the Australian Open. Williams, who already has a “signature” Wilson Blade SW 104, alongside Roger Federer as the only current Wilson athletes with signature frames, wanted an increase in control without sacrificing power to support her aggressive play. That request sent Wilson into months of design, prototyping, lab testing and on-court playtesting in order to get the frame to the point Williams was comfortable playtesting on the WTA Tour.
Ron Rocchi has worked with Williams since she turned pro in 1995 and says Williams has always shown an elevated interest in technology. “With an athlete like Serena, it is always best and most efficient to be on court with her,” he says. “I might bring five or six different things in the beginning where they are radically different and see what she’s gravitating toward. In this particular playtest we kept taking a large amount of options and narrowing it down.”
The playtest never really ends, though, even with Williams playing with the new design in Australia. Players may get to a point where they’re willing to try a racket in a practice match and then maybe a real match. But even then, a bad experience in a tournament — whether the racket had anything to do with it or not — may force the player somewhere else. Rocchi, though, new the new design was where Williams was headed when at one point, she told him to quickly get her a few rackets from Chicago to Florida to train with.
“There are no boundaries with Serena,” he says. “What do we make to really optimize her at this point in her career to let her play her best tennis?”
Making a gear change for a professional player, let alone one the caliber of Williams, doesn’t come without intense playtesting. Williams took the time to chat with Complex, amidst makeup tutorials with daughter Olympia and silly family videos, about her racket, lockdown routines and her role in American tennis.
How do you describe playtesting your new Wilson racket?
It is hard. The playtesting is hard because as a tennis player it is different, the tennis racket is such a specific thing and it is really interesting, as a tennis player, just how to deal with that. It is really an involved process and it is a long process. You have to take your time. It is not an overnight switch and at some point, you need to have a leap of faith. You can test it for hours and hours and hours and literally maybe even months sometimes. Some things that might feel good to you might feel terrible a week later. People from Wilson came down (to Florida) and for me it was ‘Wow, you are flying again?’ They like to be there in person and take in-depth notes.
What specific changes were you looking for?
I play with a big frame (104 square inches) and a big racket and I’m not complaining about it, I have done pretty well with it, but the change I was looking for was to have a little more control. I am always asking Wilson is there a new technology, something I can be doing? I love new technology. I am in that industry and business and I love the idea of never being left behind.
Is the change a matter of feel or do you rely on data?
It is just how does this feel in your hands. Tennis players are very sensitive. If we don’t have a good racket, we aren’t winning a match. We need to be able to be comfortable with our rackets or else it is not going to be good.
Has your perspective on tennis gear changed over the years?
Yeah, over the years I have always been pretty open-minded and even more so now. I am just continuing with that no matter how long I am in my career I am being open-minded. I want to be able to continue to change with the times.
How involved were you with the process with Wilson?
It took me a few months. We had a tremendous amount of play tests a few months ago, maybe 10 months ago. And the person who came down, Ron Rocchi (who has worked with Williams since she turned pro in 1995), he decided he needed to go back into the lab and create another racket. He came out with a new racket after four months. We tried six of them and I was getting frustrated. The less information, the better. I want to go off how I feel, so we kind of took that and talked about what I liked. It took several months and, in the end, I ended up jumping in the water. This is what I wanted to do, jump in the deep end.
Does the new racket feel comfortable yet?
I think the last time I hit, I don’t know, I think it was. I think it will be a process. It doesn’t change overnight, so I am looking forward to seeing what happens.
You enjoy design, how involved did you get in the aesthetics of the racket?
It is definitely different, and I like to leave that to the pros, companies like Wilson. I definitely like other things better, fashion, not racket design.
What has been important for you to focus on this time while away from the tour?
Being a mom. I think that has been my main focus and that has really been it, the only thing that I can focus on. And being positive.
Are you learning anything interesting from this time?
I am just learning, I think, everyone is looking to learn from this. We will just have to see what the lesson is for each person. I think it will be different.
How have your reactions changed as more events get canceled, such as Wimbledon?
Well, I knew (Wimbledon) was going to be canceled. It had to be just for safety, but when it happened, I was just like ‘this is real.’ That is always a shock to your system. I am not going to be working for the next several months, what do I do? What’s next? I think that is a lot of the big questions people have had. For me, I have positives, I have a family, I have my companies and I think mostly about what other people are thinking, how to keep that positive attitude going.
Your on-court legacy is well established in your 25 years of winning titles, what kind of off-court legacy do you hope you’re establishing?
Honestly, I don’t know. I don’t think the person trying to establish a legacy says I want to be this. I just want to be real and that is all.
At Fed Cup in early 2020 you called yourself the ‘ultimate veteran,’ how much involvement do you have or want to have in helping younger Americans along on the tour?
That is definitely interesting. I want to be helpful and that is the whole thing for me, helping young women and young tennis players come into themselves and enjoy (themselves). I think they are learning now that there is more to life outside tennis. It is not just about playing tennis, it is about being the best person and a great competitor on and off the court and hard-working all trickles to other things you do in your life.
Women’s tennis is arguably the most prominent women’s sport in the world, what needs to happen for the game to continue to grow?
I think the game is growing well. There are so many amazing young players that are going to grow the game even bigger. Women’s tennis is doing very good. It will be interesting to see what happens to all of tennis. Even after the pandemic will everyone be even more interested and miss tennis and being around tennis? Women’s tennis continues to be great.
Has this time away allowed you to train with the new racket?
I haven’t been training. I’m not going to start until (the end of April). I want to practice social distancing and I don’t want to get sick. For me, I have a daughter and husband to protect. I am trying to do the right thing, although, I can hit with my sister (Venus Williams) soon, so maybe we will start training together.