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‘In the Arena: Serena Williams’ director on what makes a GOAT

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‘In the Arena: Serena Williams’ director on what makes a GOAT

Gotham Chopra is the director of “In the Arena: Serena Williams,” an eight-part docuseries that examines Williams’ most formative moments on and off the court and features firsthand perspective from the 23-time Grand Slam (singles) winner. Coproduced by ESPN, Religion of Sports, Tom Brady’s 199 Productions and Williams and Caroline Currier’s Nine Two Six Productions, “In the Arena” is an expansion of the Emmy-winning “Man in the Arena: Tom Brady” series, also directed by Chopra. The docuseries premieres on Wednesday on ESPN+. New episodes are available each Wednesday at midnight ET.

The director discussed Williams’ legacy and her evolution from tennis.

ESPN: “In the Arena: Serena Williams” — how did this project start?

GOTHAM CHOPRA: I’m in the business of GOATs. I’ve always enjoyed working with the greatest and trying to deconstruct the components of greatness. I had breakfast with Serena a couple of months before we started shooting, and the first thing she said to me was, “Boy, you’re persistent.” I think Serena, while she still kind of refuses to use the word “retired,” she’s in a place where she’s reflecting. It was a slow evolution over the years. But it was the right thing at the right time.

When we started filming, she was six months pregnant. Then she gave birth, and there was a new human being there. Obviously, there was a physical transformation. She’d moved from one stage of her life to the next.

ESPN: How do you build trust while filming?

GC: It happens before the cameras start rolling. It’s a relationship. But I also think there’s something therapeutic about this process, especially when you’re asking someone to reflect. [Serena] and I now communicate regularly. She’s part of the process. I’m not a reporter; I’m a filmmaker and storyteller, and I’m working with you to figure out what story you want to tell. What parts of yourself are you willing to share in this moment? And I’ll push. The function of a relationship is earning that trust. But the secret is time. You need that time.

ESPN: How did the series evolve from the idea you pitched?

GC: The 23 Grand Slams have been chronicled. You can watch them and hear all the commentary. You form a point of view. Then you start talking to the subject or some of the people around her — Venus, or her coaches, her mentors — and then you start to get these anecdotes about what you thought you knew.

Serena — she was processing some of the stuff in real time. She hadn’t really thought about her legacy. Maybe it’s because she hadn’t really, in her mind, retired. She would get emotional. She’d, at times, be at a loss for words. But then you go with it. You must be willing to go with the subject and where they’re going to take you.

ESPN: What specifically drew you to share Serena Williams’ story?

GC: I admired her from afar, but if you go back to that first breakfast I had with her, I asked her, “What is the one thing that was the superpower over all of that success?” She thought about it and said, “I showed up and I did the work. I can’t tell you how many times I woke up and I didn’t want to go to practice and hit balls. I also can’t tell you how many times I didn’t, across those 20 years.”

I’ve heard this consistently with Tom [Brady], Steph Curry, Kobe Bryant, Simone Biles. People have this perception that greatness is a gift you get. And it’s like, no, the secret is that willingness to work. Grinding, dealing with failure. That’s another thing — Serena remembers the losses more than she does the wins. That willingness to get up and keep going is greatness to me. She embodies that.

ESPN: What was the biggest challenge you encountered?

GC: Serena is singular. Tennis is singular. It’s pretty insular. What’s unique about Serena and, to some extent, Venus is that they are African American women. They were so young. They were from Compton. Their dad and mom were their coaches and were very “other” from the tennis world. They had a tight family. They created a cocoon to protect themselves from this world. The tennis world, but also the larger world.

When you go back to some of the early commentary around her, from analysts, etc., you’re like, “Wow.” The way people talked about her, it’s a lot of coded language about the way she looked, the way she played. It’s like, “Who can we bring into this to help give us perspective?” The whole point of this series is to be subjective, not objective. I don’t need people talking about Serena. I need people who interacted with her in an intimate way. And there’s not a lot of people. All the people that she played against — she beat them.

Serena Williams will host the star-studded 2024 ESPYS on July 11 at 8 p.m. ET / PT on ABC from The Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles.

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