Photographed by Derek Kettela.
"You're meeting Serena Williams, and she's going to do your nails?" asked my husband, incredulous about this assignment.
"Well, it wouldn't work to rally."
A posh seaside hotel in Palm Beach. Serena Williams, tennis star and soon-to-be-certified nail technician, has been on her home court all morning, training for the summer tournaments. This afternoon, she's come to see me at the Omphoy with her assistant, hair and makeup, and her Hello Kitty nail caddy, filled with the tools of her new trade.
Or not so new. "When I was fifteen, sixteen, I made half my room into a nail salon. I had the table, the chair, the rack against the wall with 50 nail polishes," she says. As a young girl, she'd become interested in nails watching Florence Griffith Joyner win gold at the 1988 Seoul Olympics. "Flo Jo had those long, awesome nails. I can't have her titles, I thought, but I can have her nails."
Griffith Joyner was a runner. Isn't tennis tougher on nails?
"Forehands are. That's why you'll see me doing a lot of backhands."
Today, Williams's own nails are sheer, pavéed with tiny red, white, and gold flowers, the intricate work of which she did herself. Soon she'll complete certification as a nail technician in the state of Florida. "You need to do 240 hours—25 manicures, 40 acrylics, 20 pedicures." There is an upside: Students work on fellow students. "I'll be, like, 'I need a pedicure,' and I'll go to class."
A lot of women enjoy manicures, but they're not the number-one tennis player in the world. Why get certified?
"I'm coming out with a nail line eventually. I like to know how things work. As an athlete, I want to invent something that maximizes wear."
The possibilities for shade names are too good. "Love All"?
Serena's ahead of me on this: "Strings.…Match Point.…"
Might she get certified for skin care as well, maybe branch into that? "I have skin care already; it's part of my fashion line."
Williams has a fashion degree, too, and designs looks (with Nike) for her tournaments. Nails are part of the look.
Friends joke about her backup plans; to me it seems more like empire building. "I'd love to have a salon in Palm Beach," she says. "Then someday, who knows?"
For her own nails, she'll wear any color except blue (not good on her skin, she says, though she sees it as a future challenge: "I can do it!"). She loves reds best ("so sexy, so classic"). Her favorite reds: Russian Roulette, from Essie; OPI's Vodka & Caviar.
Selecting an emery board, Williams inspects my nails. "You like them square?"
"Roundish square, squarish round," I reply automatically, just as I do at Angel Nails down my block, which feels weird.
"I changed my shape recently. I wanted to go more rock star," she tells me.
"Rock star is more oval; round makes my fingers look longer; square is definitely more professional."
As a child, Williams used to bite her nails. She started doing manicures every four days to get herself to stop biting. Then, as now, she could never go around with a chipped nail. "It would drive me nuts. One time, I was at Wimbledon, and I was going for this shot, and I fell and broke a nail. I was so mad I stopped the game. I had to focus that anger on the other player, the one that made me break that nail." Serena won the match.
We look at Essie's pale pinks—she knows my comfort zone. I like Starter Wife, I say, but I can't wear it; I think it's bad luck. Williams nods. "If I don't like the name, I won't wear the color. You know what you'd like? Mini How High. It goes on really sheer."
The photographer suggests she put down the file.
"Let me just finish this hand," she says. She brushes on CND's SolarOil and explains how cuticle oil is the most important part of the manicure. "It makes your polish look refreshed, vibrant, and it smells yummy." She gives a great hand massage, asks if I have kids. We chat about my daughters' names. "I love my name, but it has nothing to do with me," says Williams. "I am the most un-serene person in the world. I'm not peaceful, I'm not calm."
Nor is she dull. This afternoon has been a lot of fun. More than once, Serena and entourage break into song and practice choreography from the Spice Girls and Pussycat Dolls for their karaoke act. (Yes, she excels at everything, even that.)
As my nails dry, I ask if she has any tips to make a manicure last, aside from running to my backhand.
"Don't use nails as tools," she says. "My nails last forever. I'm really femme; I don't open a door."
We're done; my hands are perfect. Williams's assistant packs up the caddy and provides the card she gives friends with the E-mail address for "Kandse," her alias as manicurist. "Friends E-mail, asking, 'Is Kandse in town?'"
I thank her and keep the card, for posterity. Or—fingers crossed—an appointment.
How excitiing for Serena to eventually have her own nail polish line. I hope she includes some blues. She may not be a blue lover but I sure am. Lol!