On a balmy April afternoon in Palm Beach, Florida, a red carpet was rolled out in front of an abandoned strip-mall Cineplex. Inside, in one of several defunct movie theaters, Serena Williams, by many estimations the greatest tennis player of all time, was dangling from an aerial hoop that was suspended from the ceiling, performing a Cirque du Soleil-style acrobatic routine to The Little Mermaid’s “Kiss the Girl.”
This was not an elaborate new training program for the Italian Open, where, a few weeks later, Williams would earn her 70th career singles title, or for the French Open, where she is currently battling for her 71st. This was small-town, major-league sibling rivalry in the form of the seventh annual Williams Invitational: a private tennis, Ping-Pong, dodgeball, and dance competition between Serena and her sister Venus.
Serena, in the first of many dress rehearsals, had just run through her entire dance program—45 minutes, close to 10 different sequences, almost as many costume changes. There was a “Bad Blood” number, a Cinderella-Rihanna “Work” mash-up, and twerking to Beyoncé’s “Formation.” (A preview of viral sensations to come, it turned out: Beyoncé had not yet released Lemonade, in which Serena stars.) At one point, there were many LED light suits. The hoop sequence would be Serena’s encore, the pièce de résistance sure to clinch a third consecutive victory over Venus. “It started really fun,” Serena later explained. “And then it got serious, and then it got overboard serious, and then it got Broadway.”
When it first began, the Williams Invitational was casual, relaxed, no big deal—a family reunion with a little tennis thrown in. (Bestowing mercy on their friends and relatives, Serena and Venus play lefty.) Then, three years ago, the dance component was added, and according to Grant Firestone, Serena’s executive assistant, that’s when something happened—something that will surprise exactly no one who knows the Williams sisters or has followed their tennis careers from afar: “It got competitive.”
Firestone was watching Serena rehearse the hoop from an otherwise empty row in the audience, wearing a ruffled shirt he likened to a Hamilton costume but which was in fact his look for a Beauty and the Beast number set to “Be Our Guest.” Many close friends, employees, and relatives of the Williams sisters had been drafted, including their mother, Oracene Price, who, as a soloist on Venus’s team, was slated to perform a rousing lip-synch of Whitney Houston’s “Queen of the Night” dressed as Catwoman. (This year’s theme was animation.) Venus’s crew, the A Team, had grown from a handful of dancers to 20 deep; Serena’s team, the Kryptonians, to 19. “We got stage managers and team managers, and we’ve got team uniforms for when we’re not performing,” explained Firestone, himself a Kryptonian. “We hire impartial judges, who will be judging based on a rubric that we’ve created. They do it by points. Last year we won by, like, half a point.”
But who’s counting! Well, everyone was, of course. “I think it’s more stressful than the tennis, actually,” said Robbye Poole, known to the tennis world as Serena’s hitting partner, today deployed on food and beverage duties. “This is what the whole year’s built up for: the Invitational.” Poole reported that things were running pretty smoothly. “I think the uniform changes are getting better,” he said, patting a radio clipped to his Kryptonians onesie. “I just make sure this walkie-talkie’s always on.”
Both the A Team and the Kryptonians had been practicing for months, some of the dancers for nearly a year. (Members of the Kryptonians may or may not have been flown to Melbourne to rehearse during the Australian Open.) All of which was presenting a daunting challenge to Bryant McKinnie, former offensive tackle for the Miami Dolphins and Invitational veteran, who this year was bravely leading a third team, B Major, to the dance-off.
“In tennis, believe it or not, the past two years, my team has won,” explained McKinnie, 6-foot-8 and 355 pounds, in the parking lot. “I’m looking for a three-peat this year in tennis. Dance—this is my first year doing the dance, and it’s a lot, but we’re up for a challenge, and we’re going to win.” How did the choreography compare with football? “It’s a big transition,” McKinnie said. “I just don’t do some of these movements. But I’ll be mastering them.” He added, “We intend to be like ‘Sister Act 2.’ You know, they were the underdogs when they came in.”
The following evening, doors opened at 7:00 p.m. A tightly curated list of VIP guests walked the tongue-in-cheek red carpet, and, after signing a stringent nondisclosure agreement at the door, nibbled on sliders and red-velvet cake balls in the lobby. Serena’s agent, Jill Smoller, having eyed the height of the hoop, seemed a touch nervous. “I mean, the hoop—really, the hoop?” she said, popping a cake ball into her mouth. “My anxiety is not sustainable.” After a while, the lights flickered, and the guests filed into the theater and took their seats.
First up was the A Team, which, in addition to Venus, had Lisa Leslie, former center for the L.A. Sparks and four-time Olympic gold medalist. Each team would interpret the animation theme differently, and Venus took a comprehensive approach: a Muppet chorus line to Outkast’s “Hey Ya!,” a Raggedy Ann number to Aerosmith’s “Rag Doll,” a Sia–Care Bear mash-up, a manga number, a G.I. Joe number, a Transformers number, and, toward the end, a Pink Panther solo by Venus. McKinnie’s team, B Major, went second, bringing an imaginative dream sequence that incorporated elements of The Lion King, The Flintstones, and The Jetsons, among other Saturday morning cartoons. The Kryptonians closed out the night, concluding, as planned, with the Cirque du Serena hoop spectacular.
When, inevitably, the Kryptonians were awarded gold, a dance party followed in the lobby. (In an astonishing upset, McKinnie’s team got second place.) Price, having changed out of her Catwoman suit, chatted with friends, and appeared more relaxed. How did watching her daughters compete in dance compare with watching them compete in tennis? “It’s easier,” Price said.
The tennis portion of the weekend kicked off the following morning at a nearby private club where both the sisters live. Serena was wearing her gold medal and, ever the champion, parsing all errors made the night before. “I feel like I made a lot of mistakes in the dance,” Serena said. “I was devastated because I totally ruined the girls’ dance, because I left my white bloomers on. I was like, ‘Oh, my God.’ I didn’t do it once in rehearsals. I always had my outfit perfect.” She added, “I was like, ‘I have to kill this encore.’ ”
In the end, Serena allowed, the Kryptonians did the best they could. “We come as a team, we win as a team, we lose as a team,” she said. “And then we just so happened to win.”