Moments after her win at Wimbledon Saturday, Serena Williams said, “First, I want to thank Jehovah God.” The #1 player in the world had just tied Steffi Graf’s record by winning her 22nd Major Championship. At age 34, Williams is known for her relentless will, bullying strokes, and withering speed. She is also a woman of strong faith, which is surprising to many of her critics. But her faith background is not what you would expect.
Serena Williams is a practicing Jehovah’s Witness, a faith that encourages members to separate from the broader world and discourages them from competitive sports on the grounds that it promotes nationalism, violence and celebrity – all things Witnesses are supposed to avoid.
And yet for Williams, her faith is like a secret weapon, a stealthy supply of strength and perseverance that some observers say is as vital to her game as her 120 mph serve.
How has Williams balanced her faith and the winner’s circle? It is a subject she and her sister Venus, also a tennis star and former #1 player, have discussed only rarely. But Serena Williams has left a trail of comments that show her belief in God, and especially her identity as a Witness, has bolstered her already formidable tennis talents.
“I have to thank Jehovah God for this,” Serena Williams told the crowd after receiving the trophy at the Australian Open in January of last year. “I was down and out and he helped me today and I just said prayers, not to win but to be strong and to be healthy and in the end I was able to come through so I have to give the glory to him first and foremost.”
Williams’ family converted to the faith in the 1980s, and has gone all in. Serena has said she attends church regularly and has gone door-to-door, as Witnesses are required to do, to hand out tracts and evangelize.
In 2012, her older half-sister Isha Price told writer John Jeremiah Sullivan, who had a rare sit-down interview with Serena that explored her faith, that the tennis stars’ fame sometimes gives them access that other Witnesses might not get.
“And they saw that as a blessing – getting to talk to people who would not ordinarily let them in,” Sullivan told the New York Times after the interview. “But there were other houses, she said, where people didn’t know who they were and were just as hostile or unreceptive as to anyone else.”
If Serena’s celebrity has been a blessing it has also been a curse – at least in the eyes of the Jehovah’s Witnesses. At the 2009 U.S. Open, she allegedly threatened a line judge after a ruling went against her and she was disqualified. What she actually said has been disputed, but the judge held that her life had been threatened. That brought local church elders to Serena Williams for what Sullivan described as a “dressing down.”
“What bothered me most was that I was representing my religion,” she said about the incident. “I just felt like anyone who knew I was a Witness was stumbled. And I really don’t want to stumble anybody. They had to have a talk with me.”
A national church representative declined to comment for this story. Other famous Jehovah’s Witnesses have included Prince, Michael Jackson, and Selena.
But there have been other times Serena Williams’ faith has bolstered her off the court. In 2003, Yetunde Price, her oldest half-sister, was killed in a shooting. Serena Williams was the first one to get the news. Her tennis suffered. She took time off, reportedly attending Witness meetings and Bible studies three times a week.
“I tried to develop a better relationship with God,” she told the New York Times in 2007, describing this period in her life. “You have a strong solid foundation, the Bible says, you won’t crack, but the man who built his house in the sand, his house went down spiritually. I have a really strong foundation. That’s how I was raised.”
That foundation has seemingly served her well through many more ups and downs – career threatening injuries, a hematoma and embolism surgery, scandals involving her skin-showing tennis attire and nude magazine portraits. (Witnesses are expected to dress modestly.) She has lost the #1 ranking several times – once dropping to 175 – and many sports commentators wrote her off by early 2012.
Then she started winning again: Wimbledon, then the Olympics in singles and doubles (with sister Venus) in 2012, then the French and U.S. Open in 2013, and the U.S. Open in 2014. It has continued through another Wimbledon title this year.
Writing of her comeback in mid-2012, Sullivan credited her faith as a factor. “It’s impossible not to feel this fierce closeness of the Williams women,” he said of Venus, Serena, and their mother, Oracene. “Strengthened by their shared faith, with its emphasis on separation from the world – has had not a little to do with the tremendous psychological stability Venus and Serena have demonstrated over the 18 years of their careers,” he wrote.
Serena watchers today agree. Joseph Price, a professor of religious studies at Whittier College who has written about religion and sports, said Williams’ displays of faith are in line with Jehovah’s Witnesses guidelines – she does not give personal testimony the way evangelical Christian athletes like Tim Tebow does – but speaks about the power of God and the Bible.
“Because she rarely reveals anything personal in post-game interviews, she deflects attention away from anything other than the game,” Price said. “My hunch is she tries to minimize the possibility of becoming an object of idolatrous fascination.”
Lee DelleMonache, director of the Neumann University Institute for Sport, Spirituality and Character Development, said Serena Williams’ balance of the spiritual and the human separates her from other athletes.
“I know that when she stumbles or gets criticized on the court, she has called herself on that,” DelleMonache said. “I love that she takes responsibility for that and stays true to her faith.”
In a 2002 interview with ASAP Sports, she put it like this: “I am Jehovah’s Witness. If you don’t believe in God – I think if you don’t believe in God, it’s going to be tough to live life because pretty much that’s the basis of life, it comes from God. And so being a Jehovah’s Witness, obviously we believe in God and the Bible. And without him, I wouldn’t be here right now. I really thank him for everything.”
About the Author
Kimberly Winston is a freelance religion writer in the San Francisco Bay Area. She writes on atheism and the claims of Christ. Kimberly also writes for Religion News Service.