Hours after Serena Williams shut down John McEnroe for his highly insulting and misogynistic remarks, the winningest tennis player in the Open Era– male or female — literally shut down the Internet with a beautiful nude maternity cover shoot, featuring fiance Alexis Ohanian, for Vanity Fair.
The shoot, and accompanying story, was a welcomed and timely surprise. It invited fans into the engaged couple’s love affair, providing details about the moment they met, their proposal, wedding plans; and so much more. The entire article is a beautiful narrative that you absolutely must read in its entirety. I was most struck by the the couple’s candor, especially given Ohanian is a relatively unknown figure despite his role in the tech space as the co-founder of Reddit.com. And let’s face it, the second Williams announced her engagement, fans of the global sports icon clamored for information about her mystery man. Well, “Vanity Fair” came through with the details.
Here are a few things we learned about 6’5 Ohanian — born in Brooklyn, NY and raised in Columbia, MD — and his relationship with Williams.
Ohanian is a Reddit co-founder. He and his business partner sold the company in 2006 before returning as executive chairman a few years ago.
The number of users went up rapidly, and, in 2006, 16 months after launching it, he and Huffman, still in their early 20s, sold the company to Condé Nast (which also publishes this magazine) for a reported $10 to $15 million. The price was a fraction of what Reddit has been estimated to be worth today: $4 billion. Alexis sheepishly admitted that they may have sold the company a little early.
Several years ago, he and Huffman returned to Reddit as executive chairman and chief executive officer, respectively, the company once again independent.
He’s a major basketball and football fan, but not much of an athlete despite his height. Also, he’d never watched a tennis match until Serena herself invited him.
But Alexis, an avid pro-football-and-basketball fan, had “never watched a match on television or in real life. It was literally the sport—even if ESPN was announcing tennis updates, I would just zone out. . . . I really had no respect for tennis.”
Alexis, on the other hand, had never seen a tennis match until he met Serena, in May of 2015 in Rome. He knew so little about the game that the photo he excitedly posted on Instagram of her playing her first match in the Italian Open showed her foot faulting.
In May 2015, the two met by happenstance at a hotel in Italy. Williams was visiting for a tournament and Ohanian was a speaker at a conference. Williams’s first impression of her husband-to-be? Annoyed.
Alexis and Serena met the way two people do in the best love stories: by chance. Actually, it runs a little deeper than that because, let’s face it, Alexis was initially considered by Serena and the others she was with to be an irritant they were hoping would just get the hint and go away.
The location was the Cavalieri hotel, in Rome, on May 12, 2015. That night Serena was about to play her first match in the Italian Open. She is not a morning person and usually doesn’t eat breakfast, but the buffet offering at the Cavalieri was beyond extravagant and Jessica was champing at the bit, so they went to try it along with longtime agent Jill Smoller, of William Morris Endeavor Entertainment, and Zane Haupt, who handles some business-development opportunities for Serena.
The buffet had closed down five minutes before the group got there, so their only recourse was to go to the pool area and sit at a table for four and order breakfast. Other people on Serena’s team were expected at an adjoining table.
The night before, Alexis had stayed up until one or two in the morning drinking at a café with Kristen Wiig and friends—Wiig was in Rome shooting Zoolander 2, and he knew her cousin, so he introduced himself. He passed out when he got back to the hotel, where he was staying for the Festival of Media Global conference, and was slightly hungover when he came down to breakfast. He too headed out to the pool area. Which is when he decided without thinking about it to sit at the table next to Serena, his only interest to get coffee and food and put on his headphones and work on his laptop. Which struck Serena and the others as a pain in the neck, since Alexis had a choice of other empty tables.
“This big guy comes and he just plops down at the table next to us, and I’m like, ‘Huh! All these tables and he’s sitting here?,’ ” Serena remembered. Alexis recalled that the pool area was “not quite so empty.”
Then came the quintessential Australian accent of Zane Haupt. “Aye, mate! There’s a rat. There’s a rat by your table. You don’t want to sit there.”
Serena started laughing.
“We were trying to get him to move and get out of there,” said Serena. “He kind of refuses and he looks at us. And he’s like, ‘Is there really a rat here?’ ” At which point Serena remembers the first words she ever said to him.
“No, we just don’t want you sitting there. We’re going to use that table.”
“I’m from Brooklyn. I see rats all the time.”
“Oh, you’re not afraid of rats?”
Which is when Serena suggested a compromise and invited Alexis to join them.
Their first date lasted six hours in Paris, the City of Love. Serena invited Ohanian to Paris to watch her play. He accepted and the rest is history.
The tournament, which Serena would ultimately win, had not started yet. So Alexis and Serena got into an Uber near Serena’s apartment and drove toward the Eiffel Tower. They stopped at a zoo Serena knew about called La Ménagerie in the Jardin des Plantes, then at a stall selling candies. Serena became excited, like a small child, and Alexis bought her some.
They just walked and roamed, Serena placing her faith in Alexis because he was a tried-and-true traveler, where all you needed was a backpack and the only rules were none. Alexis also sensed that this was not something Serena ever got to do as a worldwide celebrity, so much of her life being about regimen and glamorous scenes where acolytes circled like fireflies. For six hours they walked all over, the magic of the day multiplied by the city’s heartbreak of beauty, which only made it more beautiful.
In December 2016, Ohanian planned an elaborate proposal in Rome, the location of their initial meeting. But the plan almost fell apart.
Alexis decided he would surprise Serena by proposing to her on December 10 in virtually the same spot he had first met her: the Cavalieri. It was an intricate and tactical plan, several months in the making. Serena was scheduled to play in an exhibition in India, so Jill Smoller talked her into making a stopover on the way back and spending the night at the Cavalieri. Then the exhibition was canceled. There was no reason for Serena to go to Italy. Plus, she was beginning training for the Australian Open, and when Serena gets close to a grand-slam event, practice becomes a personal Hacksaw Ridge—fury, broken rackets, sometimes tears. Now going to Rome?
Alexis scrambled to enlist the help of others. Serena’s executive assistant, Dakota Baynham, secretly packed her bags. Tommy Hilfiger did a major solid by scheduling a meeting at her house in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida, to discuss some fashion-related items so she would be there to get picked up for the airport. Jill came to the house and told her that she had to go to Italy because Alexis wanted her there under the guise of a spontaneous trip, much like the one they had taken to Disney World a few weeks earlier.
Serena wasn’t happy. Actually, she was livid. But after she got on the plane, she realized that he was flying her out for only one reason. “I knew it was coming. I was like, ‘Serena, you’re 35, you’re ready. This is what you want.’ ”
Alexis picked the same room they had shared a year earlier, the hotel at his instruction filling it with flowers. He took her downstairs to the same table by the pool area where they had first met. No one else was there, since the hotel, also at his instruction, had cleared everyone else out. He retold the story of how he had met her for the first time at this exact spot two years earlier. On the table was a little plastic rat.
Alexis got on one knee and proposed.
Williams learned of her pregnancy in January 2017. Not too shocking to learn that Williams’s pregnancy was unplanned. How did she break the big news to her fiance of a month? By handing Ohanian a paper bag with six positive pregnancy tests.
Once Serena knew she was pregnant, she called Alexis and told him he needed to come to Melbourne earlier than planned. She did not give him the reason, but Alexis thought it was likely health-related and immediately got a United flight out of San Francisco. When she saw him, not a word was said.
She handed him a paper bag with the six positive pregnancy tests.
He was as shocked as Serena.
Ohanian has a great sense of humor. He shared a funny story about a San Francisco movie date.
Once, when she and Alexis went to a movie in San Francisco, he got up from his seat to get popcorn, earning the admiration of the kid at the counter.
“Yo, dude, that wasn’t Serena Williams, was it?”
“Come on. Me? Really?”
Don’t you just love love?
Serena is due in the Fall and the wedding will take place soon after. Retirement is, of course, out of the question for the mom-to-be. She expects to make a triumphant return to tennis in January 2018.
For more pictures and to read more about Serena’s journey to wifedom and motherhood, “Vanity Fair” has it all.
photos via Vanity Fair/Annie Leibovitz