I won my first Grand Slam title—the 1999 U.S. Open—when I was 17, but in one important way, I was still just a typical American teenager: I was living at home with my parents in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida, and I could not wait to move out. It wasn't that they were trying to keep me from growing up; I had been traveling the world as a pro tennis player since I was 15, and they fully expected me to live independently when I was ready. And in my mind, I was ready: ready to go to bed when I wanted, ready to watch what I wanted on television when I wanted to, ready to hang out with friends and not be asked, "Serena, where are you going?"
My sister Venus was ready, too, so when I turned 18 and she was 19, we moved out together into a house about 15 miles away from our parents. Okay, I wasn't completely on my own, but Venus and I have always had different schedules; we even avoid playing in the same tournaments when we can. As far as I was concerned, I was an independent woman, a real, live grown-up.
And then, like proof of being an adult, my first electric bill arrived—$1,500! I couldn't believe it. Suddenly I understood why Daddy was always telling me to turn out the lights. Another time I came home from a tournament and—click! No lights. Our power had been turned off because I hadn't paid the bill on time. There I was, the 1999 U.S. Open champ, sitting alone in my big house in the dark. I was constantly running out of groceries, toiletries, and little things I needed. That's when you realize what it means to be an adult: when you're on your own and you run out of toilet paper.
It took about a year, but eventually my new house started to feel like home. Venus and I did all the decorating, and seven years later, I still love the choices we made, like our window treatments and my classic bedroom furniture. We may have been giddy kids, but it turns out we didn't do anything too crazy. The first night I spent there by myself I was miserable—nothing in the house really seemed like it was mine. Now I don't relax until I put my key in the lock, swing open the front door, and my dogs rush to greet me.
Home, I've discovered, isn't just about being able to stay up late and watch Law & Order: Criminal Intent and Special Victims Unit. It's about creating a refuge from the world where I can truly be myself, surrounded by family and friends. I have no doubt that learning to handle the responsibility of having a home helped me become a woman.
As much as I love my place, now and then—like so many other grown-up ex-teenagers—I go back to my parents' house and let them take care of me. I left some of my things there so I can have "my" room. And yes, sometimes when I run out of food, I go to Mom's so she can cook for me.
Being comfortable with my independence now doesn't mean that I won't face challenges in the future. One day Venus and I will live separately, and that's going to be a truly odd feeling. Maybe it will be another aha! moment! If it is, I'll let you know.
— As told to David Thorpe