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Friday, October 10, 2008
Updated: October 23, 4:36 PM ET
Williams looks back on journey to the top

By Jay Corbin

By winning the 2008 U.S. Open Junior Championship, CoCo Vandeweghe showed why she's considered perhaps the most promising young American tennis star on the scene today (as if her 116 mph serve wasn't enough). But getting to the apex of the sport won't be easy.

Serena Williams
Serena Williams mixes sports and fashion.

At least not with Serena Williams in the way. Nine years after winning her first of nine Grand Slams, Williams is still going strong at the age of 27. The 2008 U.S. Open main draw champion is ranked No. 1 in the world, and her reign has no end in sight. Williams still plays with as much intensity and passion today as she did went she went pro at age 14.

Williams, who graduated from Driftwood Academy (Lake Park, Fla.) in 1999, spent much of her teen years trying to escape the shadow of her older sister, seven-time Grand Slam champ Venus. Serena finally stepped out of the shadow in 1999 when she won the U.S. Open as a 17-year-old for her first Grand Slam title. Then between 2002-03, Williams secured her place in tennis history by capturing four consecutive Grand Slam titles in a stretch that's come to be known as the Serena Slam.

Her most recent Grand Slam came in September when she beat Jelena Jankovic in straight sets for her third U.S. Open title. The win lifted Williams to No. 1 in the world for the first time since 2003.

Needless to say, Williams no longer lives in the shadow of anybody. These days, it's young up-and-comers like Vandeweghe who are trying to overtake Williams as the face of American tennis.

Of course, Williams is still proud to serve as a role model for all young female athletes, even those players who are trying to take her throne atop women's tennis. After all, Williams still remembers what it's like to be in their shoes as the hunter, not the hunted.

ESPN RISE: You started playing tennis when you were 4. What sort of advantage did you have by starting at such a young age?
Williams: It was tough. As I watched other kids go to school and play after, I had to constantly practice. Now I know the benefits, but as a kid I just wanted to play like everyone else. As I look back, I feel it was definitely worth it.

ESPN RISE: What was high school like for you?
Williams: High school was fun for me. I was able to do what normal kids did socially during school. It was after school I had to go practice every day while others hung out and went to the mall.

ESPN RISE: Did you feel you missed out on anything in high school?
Williams: Prom. See, the prom was in the middle of the French Open and I couldn't go. I even think I missed graduation due to tennis. But I was able to keep friends, one of which I still talk to today.

ESPN RISE: Do you consider yourself a role model?
Williams: I do, and I still to this day get goose bumps knowing that young girls look up to me and want to be like me when they grow up. I feel so honored.

ESPN RISE: What kind of message do you try to convey to young female athletes? Williams: To teach them it's OK to be a strong woman -- that you can be an athlete and still be [attractive].

ESPN RISE: How was it growing up with a sister who was also into competitive tennis?
Williams: It was great growing up with Venus. I basically did everything she did, and I looked up to her. So to be honest I owe my career to her. I have a lot of sisters and we are all very close, but being that Venus and I traveled together and participated in the same sport helped build a special bond between us.

ESPN RISE: What's it like playing against Venus?
Williams: At first it was hard, but as time went on I was able to work through it. What most people don't understand is that I'm the younger sister and always wanted to win. Venus was the older sister and always wanted the best for me, but she was better. Growing up and constantly having to play and lose to her -- I kind of hated her. But now it's to the point that we can play and no matter what the result is we can step off the court, say "Good game," and laugh together.

ESPN RISE: How do you stay in such great shape?
Williams: I do a lot of Pilates. I'm very feminine, and I'm not the kind of girl that wants to go to the gym and lift weights. I use Thera-Band resistance training and lots of yoga and stretches because the more flexible you are the more strength you can generate. I hate cardio -- I'm too thick to run 5 miles -- so I speed walk in the outdoors. I love nature.

ESPN RISE: Like up-and-comer CoCo Vandeweghe, you're known for your powerful serves. How do you do it?
Williams: People think that strength comes from your shoulder, but in actuality it comes from you core. Building a strong core and legs is the key.

ESPN RISE: Do you ever get nervous?
Williams: No. I'm not the type that will say, "I'm the best." But at the same time I'll never say, "She's better than me," either. You put me against [Rafael] Nadal or [Roger] Federer, and I'm nervous. But as long it's female competitors, I'm good.

ESPN RISE: What do you want to do when you retire from tennis?
Williams: I'd love to be a philanthropist, sort of like Angelina Jolie -- I love what she does. Right now, I'm in the process of opening up a school in Africa for kids that can't afford school. I've started my own foundation to help kids attend college. The way college costs these days, my kids will have to get a scholarship! (Laughs)

ESPN RISE: Off the court, you're known for having great fashion sense. Where did that come from?
Williams: I've always been into fashion. When I was real young I'd make outfits for my dolls. I know how to sew, too -- very talented.

Jay Corbin is ESPN RISE's lifestyle editor.