Serena Williams hit the headlines again after her appearance at the recently held Met Gala in New York in the company of her husband Alexis Ohanian. The highlight of it all was neither her apparel nor who designed it but a bump which confirmed her second pregnancy.
This has been received with great elation across the globe. While this great news settles in, I am drawn into throwback mode about meeting one of the greatest female athletes in history, who amongst other silverware won 23 tennis singles titles – the most in the Open era and the second-best of all time.
It was November 2006, and I was on my usual Sunday evening production routines for the Monday edition of the nation’s biggest-selling newspaper, the Graphic Sports.
But something pushed me to work faster. I had confirmed a long sought-after interview with the legendary Serena Williams who was on a historic first visit to Ghana. I worked on this some months earlier on the quiet. The senior photographer whom I had booked earlier refused to go because it was late (I had not informed him about the personality I was meeting).
I did not own a car at the time and no driver on the evening shift was prepared to drive me to the La Palm Royal Beach Hotel. So I packed my pouch with my Sony Zoom recorder and picked my Olympus digital camera and found my way to the Presidential suites of the La Palm Royal Beach hotel. It was a quiet evening and my good friend Chris Hodges, the Information Officer of the US Embassy at the time, was my first port of call upon arriving at the hotel. After pleasantries and a final briefing on how my interview was going to go, we walked across to her suite.
Was I nervous? No, I wasn’t but the initial greetings almost unsettled me. Chris said to her – “Serena this is Nathaniel Attoh, one of the best sports journalists here in Ghana who works with the National newspaper the Daily Graphic.”
“Well ok,” she said.
Rewind: How did I land the interview?
I had written a story about the US Embassy’s refusal of visas to a bodybuilding team from Ghana billed to participate in the Arnold Classic Tournament in the US, earlier in 2006. Subsequently, I reached out to the US Embassy to give their side of the story and this was published separately. I met Chris Hodges, who was very professional in relating to and cooperating with me. We established a very cordial working relationship afterwards and I also noticed that his office closely followed my reportage after that episode. At the time my focus was on boxing, cricket, tennis and volleyball. I picked up information that Serena was about to visit Ghana and immediately reached out to Chris to give me an interview with her since the Embassy was very much involved in the charity trip.
So I said to Chris I’d want a full comprehensive interview of a minimum of 30 minutes. They wanted to give me only 13 to 15 minutes initially considering the tightness of her schedule and the other media houses including CNN who were on the schedule. The eventual conversation with Serena lasted almost 50 minutes! It was simply because she got more relaxed and was visibly enjoying what was more of a conversation.
Also, I noticed the fascination with my very informed questions. In fact, at one point her personal photographer who was seated on the floor opposite our table said “Wow you really know your stuff.” This was obviously a very good thing to hear from the camp of the legend.
That Sunday Evening
I was thoroughly thrilled having to finally execute this big interview, after the exchange of pleasantries we sat at a round table with some close family on the other side of the living suite, this included her personal photographer and her sister, Isha. I sat across and set my recorder and we hit it running.
She spoke about her relationship with Venus, her injury setback and her interest.
One of the things that fascinated me was her revelations about not following the chronicling of events in the media. She did that to help her keep her focus. She spoke about her poetry, her love for fashion and the things she fell in love with about Ghana.
“I love the meal of jollof rice with fried fish. The fish is so fresh,” she said with a grin. She also spoke about the Indomitable Lions of Cameroun. I guessed she noticed the Cameroonian national team because of their exploits at the FIFA World Cup and their kit sponsorship with Puma, which she was also signed to at the time.
I found out during my preparations, that Serena was an art-oriented person with an interest in fashion and poetry. Even though I still haven’t read any of her pieces of poetry to date, I still identified very much with it because I am one. I am still yet to publish these poems, most of which are in a notebook. I have this favourite pastime of writing them with blue or black ink in that notebook. I requested an autograph when all was done and showed her my poetry notebook.
Initially, I wanted to have the autograph under one of the poems. I handed it over and she flipped through the pages and then stopped on one of them. “Did you write this for your girlfriend?” she asked. I responded in the affirmative. Then she says “I’ll sign on a blank page.” She flipped forward and she signed a big one for me. And after a set of pictures, I left the La Palm Royal Beach Resort, a very happy journalist.
The following week, I had stories published in the Daily Graphic, the Graphic Sports and the response was amazing. On the whole, it was an experience worth all the sacrifices. Serena went ahead to win the Australian Open two months later upon her injury return.