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Gotham Chopra is the director of “In the Arena: Serena Williams,” an eight-part docuseries that explores Williams’ most formative moments on and off the court, offering a personal perspective from the 23-time Grand Slam (single) champion. “In the Arena” is a co-production between ESPN, Religion of Sports, Tom Brady’s 199 Productions and Williams and Caroline Currier’s Nine Two Six Productions and is an extension of the Emmy-winning “Man in the Arena: Tom Brady” series, also directed by Chopra. The docuseries premieres Wednesdays on ESPN+, with new episodes available Wednesdays at midnight ET.

The director discussed Williams’ legacy and her development from tennis.

ESPN: “In the Arena: Serena Williams” — how did this project get started?

GOTHAM CHOPRA: I’m in the GOAT business. I’ve always enjoyed working with the greats and trying to deconstruct the components of greatness. I had breakfast with Serena a few months before we started filming and the first thing she said to me was, “Boy, you’re persistent.” I think Serena, even though she still refuses to use the word “retired,” is in a place where she’s reflective. It’s been a slow evolution over the years. But it was the right thing at the right time.

When we started filming, she was six months pregnant. Then she gave birth and there was a new person. There was definitely a physical transformation. She had gone from one phase of her life to another.

ESPN: How do you build trust while filming?

Main class: It happens before the cameras start rolling. It’s a relationship. But I also think there’s something therapeutic about that process, especially when you ask someone to reflect. (Serena) and I communicate regularly now. She’s part of the process. I’m not a reporter; I’m a filmmaker and a storyteller, and I work with you to figure out what story you want to tell. What parts of yourself do you want to share in this moment? And I’ll push. The function of a relationship is to earn that trust. But the secret is time. You need that time.

ESPN: How did the series come about based on the idea you presented?

Main class: The 23 Grand Slams are recorded. You can watch them and hear all the commentary. You form a position. Then you start talking to the subject or some of the people around her — Venus, or her coaches, her mentors — and you start hearing these anecdotes about what you thought you knew.

Serena — she was processing some of it in real time. She hadn’t really thought about her legacy. Maybe it was because in her mind, she hadn’t really retired. She got emotional. Sometimes she was speechless. But you go for it. You have to be willing to go with the flow and where it takes you.

ESPN: What specifically drew you to share Serena Williams’ story?

Main class: I admired her from a distance, but if you go back to that first breakfast I had with her, I asked her, “What was the one thing that was the superpower above all that success?” She thought about it and said, “I showed up and I did the work. I can’t tell you how many times I woke up and didn’t want to go to practice and hit balls. I can’t tell you how many times I didn’t, in those 20 years.”

I’ve heard this consistently from Tom (Brady), Steph Curry, Kobe Bryant, Simone Biles. People have this perception that greatness is a gift that you’re given. And it’s like, no, the secret is that willingness to work. Working hard, dealing with failure. That’s another thing — Serena remembers the losses more than the wins. That willingness to get up and keep going, to me, is greatness. She embodies that.

ESPN: What was the biggest challenge you faced?

Main class: Serena is singular. Tennis is singular. It’s quite insular. What’s unique about Serena and, in a way, Venus is that they’re African-American women. They were so young. They were from Compton. Their mother and father were their coaches and they were very “different” from the tennis world. They had a close-knit family. They created a cocoon to protect themselves from this world. The tennis world, but also the larger world.

If you go back and look at some of the early comments about her, from analysts, etc., you’re like, “Wow.” The way people talked about her, there’s a lot of coded language about how she looked, how she played. It’s like, “Who can we bring in to give us perspective?” The whole point of this show is to be subjective, not objective. I don’t need people talking about Serena. I need people who were intimate with her. And there aren’t a lot of people. All the people she played against — she beat them.

Serena Williams will host the all-star ESPYS 2024 from The Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles on July 11 at 8 p.m. ET/PT on ABC.

Source: ESPN