She was born in Saginaw, Michigan and when she and her four sisters were young, their parents, Richard and Oracene, took them to the poor and sometimes violent Los Angeles suburb of Compton. There, her father dreamed of making at least one of his daughters a tennis superstar, hoping that involvement in sports would bring them a way out of that neighborhood.
Both Venus and Serena Williams would be taken to Compton area public tennis courts to practice when they were young, and they had to dodge bullets many times during the early practice days. When Serena was four and a half, she won her first tournament, and she entered 49 tournaments before the age of 10, winning 46 of them. At one point, she replaced sister Venus as the number one ranked tennis player aged 12 or under in California.
In 1991, Richard Williams, saying that he hoped to prevent his daughters from facing racism, stopped sending them to national junior Tennis tournaments, and Serena attended a Tennis school run by professional player Ric Micci instead. Micci had already helped the careers of Jennifer Capriati and Mary Pierce, among others. Soon Richard, who had struck a deal on behalf of his daughters with a major clothing company, was able to move the rest of the Williams family to West Palm Beach, to be near Serena and Venus.
Serena became a professional in 1995, at the age of 14. Because of her age, she was banned from WTA sponsored tournaments, and had to participate in non-WTA events at first. Her first professional event was the Bell Challenge in Quebec, and she was ousted in less than an hour of play.
She did not give up, and she started winning matches: By 1997, she was ranked number 304 in the world and she beat Monica Seles to win the Ameritech Tournament in Chicago, for her first career win over a top professional.
In 1999, Serena was ranked number 21 worldwide, and she and sister Venus had become mainstream celebrities. Serena felt she had become a top professional after beating Lindsay Davenport in the semi-finals of a minor Australian tournament. Serena was then expected to do well in her first Grand Slam tournament, but she lost in the second round of the Australian Open to sister Venus.
Serena has been the focus of many ad campaigns, including one with shoe and clothes maker Puma, which signed her to a 12 million dollar agreement.
On September 11 of 1999, Serena won her first Grand Slam tournament when she became US Open champion, becoming the first African American woman to win a Grand Slam tournament since Althea Gibson did it in 1958. The next day, she and sister Venus won the doubles championship at the same tournament.
By this stage, Serena had developed the most powerful groundstrokes of any women's tennis player ever (aided, like all players of the modern era, by the advances in racquet technology). Against most opponents, her sheer power is enough to win easily, forcing them back behind the baseline to hit their shots, at which point she is able to hit equally powerful winners. Her serve is also extremely powerful - in sheer speed, comparable to some of the male players on the tour. Serena is also very mobile for her size and power, unlike some of the earlier big hitters in the women's game (for example, Lindsay Davenport). The main weaknesses in her game, similar to her sister Venus, include relatively weak volleying and, because she attempts so many winners, she can occasionally commit large numbers of unforced errors. Martina Navratilova, in an article in June 2003, stated that, given equal equipment, at her peak she would have been able to beat Serena. She stated that she believes that Serena's powerful groundstrokes could be negated by extending the rallies and also hitting "junk" - keeping the ball low to make it harder to hit powerful shots.
For the first time since January 2002, the Grand Slam final did not read Williams-Williams at French Open in June 2003. Among boos and catcalls, frustrated Serena lost to Justine Henin-Hardenne of Belgium (Venus lost to Vera Zvonareva in the fourth round). Henin-Hardenne commented: "Everybody's happy today but the Williams sisters". Henin-Hardenne is responsible for two of Serena's three losses in 2003 (all on clay).
At Wimbledon in the 2003 tournament, Serena Williams became back to back champion, by defeating her sister Venus on July 5 with a score of 4-6, 6-4, 6-2. The last seven U.S. Opens and Wimbledons have been won by a Williams.