Serena Comes Back Strong

When Serena Williams stepped out on the tennis court for the U.S. Open women’s final in September, she was seeking to complete one of sport’s most improbable returns to championship form.

She would ultimately lose to Naomi Osaka of Japan — and stir up controversy and headlines with a tirade against several controversial calls by chair umpire Carlos Ramos — but her defeat was arguably a win in itself for the 37-year-old-star. Less than a year before her Open appearance, Williams nearly died after giving birth to her first child.

Williams’s remarkable 2018 run both on the court and in her personal life played out on TV in an arguably unprecedented fashion. Her U.S. Open finals match against Osaka drew 3.1 million viewers on ESPN, up more than 30% from the 2017 women’s final telecast. It was the network’s third-most-watched U.S. Open telecast since ESPN began broadcasting the tournament in 2009 (it had shared rights with CBS through 2014).

“There’s no question about Serena’s ability to consistently drive tennis ratings like few other professional tennis players,” said Steve Badeau, senior vice president of research, Tennis Channel. “She competed in the most-watched match on Tennis Channel both this year and in 2017, and her participation routinely leads our best ratings at major events like Wimbledon and the U.S. Open.”

Up Close and Personal

In May, her HBO documentary series Being Serena provided an intimate and unabashed look at the tennis star’s formerly private personal life, chronicling her pregnancy, her marriage to Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian and the birth of her daughter, Olympia.

“As one of the greatest athletes, male or female, in sports history, Serena’s successful run leading up to the U.S. Open, and certainly during the tournament, is all due to her drive, passion and willingness to succeed,” United States Tennis Association chair and president Katrina Adams said. “She certainly embodies what it means to be a champion both on and off the court.”

It would be hard for even a casual tennis fan not to know of Serena Williams’ groundbreaking tennis credentials over the past two decades. Since winning her first grand slam tennis title in 1999, Williams has arguably been the most dominant player in the history of the sport, winning a record 23 Grand Slam titles in tennis’s Open Era. Her on-court dominance has served up big ratings for her matches.

“Serena Williams has been in the national spotlight for more than 20 years as a trailblazer on and off the tennis court, and when she takes the court, she is must-see, and she moves the needle like few others ever have … not just in tennis but in all of sports,” ESPN vice president of programming and acquisitions John Papa said.

Williams’ impressive U.S. Open ratings performance wasn’t even her first of the year. This past July, her appearance in the finals at Wimbledon — only her fourth tournament after giving birth — drew 2.6 million viewers, up 32% from 2017. It was the largest TV audience for the event since 2012, the year ESPN began televising the Wimbledon finals. “Serena has been part of many of ESPN’s most-watched tennis telecasts and remains a can’t-miss draw who everyone wants to see,” Papa said.

In May, Williams extended her appeal and brand beyond the tennis court by allowing cameras into her personal life and into the hospital room for the birth of her daughter as part of HBO’s documentary series Being Serena. The intimate look into Williams’ personal life was like was unlike any other sports documentary the network has done, executive vice president Peter Nelson said, but it was a no-brainer given Williams’s appeal and popularity.

“This was one of the only sports docuseries that’s ever been done that has a C-section on camera,” Nelson said. “When you see someone at the level of Serena Williams go through those challenges and fight through them, it’s very inspirational, and I don’t think people necessarily had seen her like that before. ”

Indeed, the documentary also highlighted complications that arose for Williams during her delivery, including life-threatening blood clots in her lungs.

“I almost died giving birth to my daughter, Olympia.” Williams wrote in a February CNN op-ed piece about her pregnancy. “Yet I consider myself fortunate.”

While HBO would not disclose audience numbers for Being Serena, the documentary introduced her to a new audience and showed a softer side of the ultracompetitive tennis star.

“This summer, fans were given an opportunity to get an inside glimpse from her documentary on her personal journey of becoming a mom,” USTA’s Adams said. “She represents a whole new side of inspiration amongst women from all walks of life and I think this is certainly appealing to all forms of media and will continue to be.”

Chasing Court’s Record

Williams is expected to take the court in 2019 in search of her elusive 24th Grand Slam title, which would match Margaret Court’s all-time record. Even as she gets older and with the challenges of being a new mother, HBO’s Nelson said it’s a good bet that Williams will ultimately achieve her goal — and big audiences will continue to tune in to see history made.

“To underestimate Serena Williams at any time is something that you do at your own peril,” he said.

R. Thomas Umstead

R. Thomas Umstead serves as senior content producer, programming for Multichannel News, Broadcasting + Cable and Next TV. During his more than 30-year career as a print and online journalist, Umstead has written articles on a variety of subjects ranging from TV technology, marketing and sports production to content distribution and development. He has provided expert commentary on television issues and trends for such TV, print, radio and streaming outlets as Fox News, CNBC, the Today show, USA Today, The New York Times and National Public Radio. Umstead has also filmed, produced and edited more than 100 original video interviews, profiles and news reports featuring key cable television executives as well as entertainers and celebrity personalities.