I do not care much for celebrities. Well, at least not the ones who do not have to work for it. I hate those “15 minutes of fame” shows that feature bogus celebrities like the Kardashians, real House Wives, and those god awful kids from New Jersey. I only care about celebrities who I can admire and aspire to emulate; those who actually have a God-given talent.
When the rare chance should arise that I get to meet a celebrity like this, I do admit to being slightly star-struck, especially when I admire them. On the top of that list is Serena Williams. Growing up in the 90’s I remember her name being indiscernibly tied to pop culture and sport. Having been not only ranked as the world’s number one women’s single tennis player twice, but also being the oldest woman to hold the title; I can only say; “Damn girl.” Not to mention, she is also the only female tennis star in history to have accumulated more than $40 MILLION in prize money.
Serena is also involved in the fashion Industry. She and her sister Venus have sat front row with Anna Wintour at Zac Posen, and Serena is also notorious for some of her on and off-court ensembles (most notable among them are her Cat-suit at the US Open). She has also launched her own line of apparel, handbags, and jewelry for HSN.
Working on Daniel Island in Charleston, South Carolina, tennis, money, and fashion are part of the culture. I only have one out of three in my life, but when the opportunity to volunteer (AKA: be a poser) arose this year I jumped at the chance. After all, I love large-scale event planning and in some way I enjoy making that a part of my life even if I do not get paid for it. Quite the opposite in fact: I had to pay ($60) to volunteer, but in the end this would more than pay for itself. So I applied and my James Bond/German Autobahn driving skills awarded me the position of players and officials transportation. A prestigious division, in my opinion, as their lives were literally in my hands. When I filled out my schedule I jokingly included a footnote which read, “…and I want to drive Serena at least once!”
The ten days of the event were amazing. Granted, I did have to rush to the Family Circle Cup Stadium every evening after work to continue working for another four to eight hours, but it was worth. For my services (which awarded me unheard of one-on-one time with some of the most notable in the Tennis world), I received a uniform, free and almost unconditional entrance to the grounds during the matches and otherwise, an extra ticket to each match and a set of four tickets to the night matches. Not to mention that I was allowed catered lunch and dinner every shift that I work (regrettably I ate far too much). I started to feel like a bona-fide Daniel Island yuppie (in a good way).
This all culminated with the Family Circle Cup Dove Final on Sunday. I did not have to report for my last volunteer shift until 4PM, so I was able to watch Serena Williams win her third Family Circle Cup title (not to mention another check for $125K!), this time in a three set match against Jelena Janković. It was an incredibly fun match to watch. Afterwards, I joined the cheering throng to catch a glimpse of Serena leaving the stadium and hopefully snag an autograph. After two attempts, I gave up and went to change and then report to the transportation office. Upon walking in, the coordinator looked at me and said: “Do you know how to get to the private airport? Behind the Charleston airport?” I immediately gasped and said, “YES. Am I taking Serena?” She nodded and I immediately proceeded to jump up and down and say “YEEES!”
It was a two person job: I would drove the black 2013 Cadillac Escalade with Serena and her coach/boyfriend Patrick Mouratoglou, my colleague would drive a white van with the posse (including hitting partner Sasha Bajin and trainer Ester Lee) and the bags. This would all go down in a mere 30 minutes…just enough time to potty, wash my hands, cool down the car, and prepare myself mentally. I was informed that while the van would be going directly to Charleston Place Hotel, I would be driving Serena and her coach to Adgers Wharf for a quick photo shoot with the new trophy on a typical Charleston cobblestone street.
After Serena, Patrick, and a communications contractor who works with the USTA (who was kind of a pompous ass) got in the car, we were off. Of course the ride downtown was scattered with some small talk about good Charleston restaurants and the week’s events, but Serena did not say much. When the topic of Mexican food came up, Santi’s on Meeting Street was mentioned. Serena mentioned that she would definitely have to try it next time, especially since (according to her) there is no good, authentic Mexican in Florida.
She was clearly tired. I didn’t even get a chance to speak with her. I only spoke to the USTA contractor whose name was not important enough for me to remember. We parked at the dog park off of Adgers Wharf where some FCC official photographers were waiting. They took some photos for five minutes tops, but that was long enough for the pedestrians to realize who she was. Thankfully, though, no one disturbed her. The contractor left us here (THANK GOD), so I took Serena and Patrick to Charleston Place to freshen up for the plane ride home. They only took about 30 minutes, which is what we expected.
The whole posse started to trickle down one at a time: bag by bag. Again, everyone loaded into the van except for Serena and Patrick who I escorted to the Escalade. An older couple was checking their car with valet when Serena came out. I walked her to the car and was escorting her in. The older woman was cheering for Serena and telling her what a great job she did. Serena responded politely but then the woman went a step too far and grabbed Serena by the arm. We all ignored it, but in grasping on, she got in the way of me and closing the door. I made it a point to stand my ground just to let the woman know that I was there and not going anywhere until the door was closed.
This time, the mood had lightened and the pressure was clearly off. Serena became much more talkative and was clearly refreshed. After I sat in the driver’s seat, Serena started discussing being hungry. She decided on Moe’s. We were going separately while the others proceeded to the private airport. Before the others departed, Serena’s personal assistant Val Vogt came up to the window and provided me with the tail number of the plane. I noted it, and we parted ways. As we drove down Meeting Street, I asked Serena if she would like for me to go in to Moe’s for her and obtain her food. She said, “Thank you! That is so sweet, but the problem is I never know what I want until I get there.” I said ok, and then asked if she wanted me to park the car in the lot off of Burn’s Lane and walk her in to implement a sort of crowd control. She mentioned that she had her hair blown out and probably no one would recognize her. I told her that she was recognizable no matter what, but we decided to park in the emergency lane directly in front of Moe’s.
I walked her and Patrick in. As soon as we exited the car, a man recognized Serena. We walked right past him and into Moe’s. I walked beside her, placing her between the counter and me as she ordered. When we got to the cash register, she elbow nudged me and said “Thank you! You are a strong presence and an intimidating face! I would not want to mess with you.” I said, “Well I am happy to do it.” And I truly was. We went back to the car and I shut the door for her. As we were about to pull away, a girl came jogging by on the street. Serena said, “Wow she is really fit.” We all agreed. I mentioned that I had run in the Cooper River Bridge Run 10K the day before and saw loads of fit people that made me jealous. She immediately started in asking about the bridge run, saying “Wow I want to do the Bridge Run.” I told her that next year she should do it when she returns to the Family Circle Cup. She mentioned having run a 10K several years ago as downtime between tennis.
We were listening to and XM Radio throwback station while driving up Interstate 26 on low volume and Pharrell Williams and Jay Z’s “Frontin’” came on. Serena looked up from her Blackberry and said “Can we turn this up?” I said “We most certainly can” and I cranked the volume. “A little more” she said. So I blasted it out. She started singing along without missing a beat and intermittently talking to Patrick about how she loved the song. She said “I karaoke this song! I LOVE this song! Do you know this song?” As the song was ending, I faded it out, and Serena said “I HAVE to karaoke that song!” This took us onto the airport boulevard. I told Serena all of the great things I had heard about her previous visits to Charleston from my colleague John, who was the schedule coordinator for transportation this year. She told me she remembered him and to give him a hug for her. I confessed that this might be a bit awkward, but I told her I would preface it with, “This is from Serena.” She told me to relay to him that she insisted. I also told her that my best friend Kyla, who is also a fan, said hello. Serena reciprocated the sentiment.
When we arrived at the private airport, it took me a moment to find the proper hangar, but then I saw the tail number that we were searching for. We had actually beaten the van with the others, although I have no idea how. The plane looked small but nice. After entering the gate, I was able to literally drive the car up beside the door of the plane. I was instantly reminded of how my own personal life goal is to own a private jet so that I will never have to deal with the wretched TSA again. I started to help them unload a few of the bags, and Serena let one of the runway assistants know that she wanted her small red bag on the plane with her. I took the bag from him, and followed her onto the plane. I placed it down beside where she was sitting and she said “Thank you!” I said, “No, thank you” and then I extended my hand and said “It was an absolute pleasure. I look forward to seeing you next year.” She shook my hand and looked directly back at me and said, “No, the pleasure was all mine.” My heart melted.
I departed watching the sun set behind the plane. I wished that I was going with them on the flight. Even though I wasn’t, I was sitting on Cloud Nine.