It’s 3:00 p.m. the day before their wedding, and Serena Williams and Alexis Ohanian are practising their first dance one last time with a choreographer in the depths of their venue, the Contemporary Arts Center in New Orleans.
Outside, paparazzi are ensconced across the street hoping to catch a glimpse of the tennis superstar, and vendors are quickly working to build the French ball–themed, Beauty and the Beast–style decor, complete with a gold arch of flowers at the end of the aisle, long tables covered in lamé fabric, and lots of surprises.
Inside, Serena is a calm, cool, and confident bride, dressed in leggings and a black baseball cap, just trying to nail her steps for when she and her husband take their first spin on the dance floor to “Tale as Old as Time” tomorrow.
Some might say that just like the protagonists in Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve’s fairy tale, Serena and Alexis are an unlikely match from two very different worlds.
She’s the greatest female athlete ever, arguably the greatest athlete of all time. (No man has ever taken home a title pregnant! Enough said.) Meanwhile, he’s the founder of Reddit (the birthplace of many a meme), a guy who grew up playing Game Boy, and has been referred to as the “mayor of the Internet.” When they met, she’d never heard of Reddit, and he had never watched a single one of her matches. But, as we all know, opposites attract.
It all started in Rome with a meet-cute worthy of a romantic comedy. Despite being notoriously disciplined, Serena is not a morning person. But she’d heard good things about the epic breakfast at the Cavalieri Hotel, where she was staying for the Italian Open, so she got out of bed early and went with a few members from her team to check it out.
They arrived at the buffet only to find that it had closed just five minutes earlier, so instead, they grabbed a table by the pool and ordered à la carte. Alexis was speaking at a conference and staying at the same hotel.
That morning, he had also made his way down early to indulge in the buffet he’d heard so much about. When he, too, discovered that it was no longer open, he took a seat at a table next to Serena’s with the intention of ordering food and doing work on his laptop.
Frustrated that an interloper was encroaching upon their space, Serena’s friend Zane started teasing Alexis, saying there was a rat at his table and that he should move.
“I was so annoyed that he’d sat down next to me,” remembers Serena. “There were so many empty tables!” Undeterred by the frosty reception he seemed to be receiving, Alexis jokingly responded saying that he was from Brooklyn—he’d seen lots of rats, and they didn’t bother him.
Serena started cracking up and asked him to join her group. He obliged but was still a little unsure whether the person with whom he suddenly found himself having breakfast was actually the Serena Williams.
You see, Alexis didn’t follow tennis at all. The first time he went to watch Serena play he infamously Instagrammed a photo of her foot faulting. But no matter. The two hit it off.
That first time she asked him to come see her in the Paris Open, he knew it was a bit far-flung but he thought, What’s the worst that could happen? I know people in Paris, so if it doesn’t work out, I’ll have a great story to tell my friends about that time I almost hung out with Serena Williams.
Serena appreciated his happy-go-lucky approach to life, and their first date involved simply meandering around the City of Light with no destination to speak of, something the always-scheduled, always-surrounded athlete almost never gets to do.
Fast-forward 18 months later and the Internet entrepreneur was proposing to the superstar.
“I came home one day to find my bags already packed for me, and I had absolutely no idea where I was going until I got on the flight,” Serena admits. “Alexis flew me out to Rome, back to the exact table where we’d met. We were both really nervous but also excited to take this huge step. It was such a beautiful moment.”
Ever the jokester, in addition to having the hotel cleared and flowers everywhere, Alexis had placed a small plastic rat on the table. Serena announced her happy news by posting a sweet poem on Reddit.
In September, Serena gave birth to the couple’s first child, Alexis “Olympia” Ohanian, Jr., and the two parents are absolutely besotted with their now 2-month-old daughter.
The baby, who already has more than 105,000 Instagram followers, was present for the ceremony last night and looked on as her mom and dad tied the knot among 200 family and friends in the Big Easy.
“Alexis really wanted to do New Orleans,” explains Serena. “It’s his favorite city besides Brooklyn. It’s got a heavy European influence; it’s fun and has amazing food.
He just loves the vibe. The venue—the Contemporary Arts Center of New Orleans—was a decision we both made. Painting and art is something I’m really passionate about, so it just felt natural and different to do it at a contemporary art museum.”
The two chose November 16 as their wedding date in memory of Alexis’s mother, who passed away nine years ago.
“It is her birthday, and we wanted her to be represented at the wedding,” says Serena. “Obviously, we wish that she could be here for this, but choosing her birthday as our wedding date was a nice way of making sure she’s still involved and made us feel more connected to her on our day.”
Once they’d settled on a date and a place, they hired their wedding planner. “I knew early on that I wanted to work with someone on the East Coast, and Jennifer [Zabinski] felt fresh and new, but also has a lot of experience in planning and is organized and thorough,” explains Serena.
When Jennifer first met with the bride, the tennis champ wasn’t quite ready to get into specifics, so the two discussed their mutual love of dogs instead. “I think she had to feel comfortable with getting to know me and me getting to know her,” Jennifer says. “There’s so much there in terms of her vision. She’s actually an amazing planner herself, and the running joke now is that she’s going to be my intern.”
“The whole process was so smooth!” Serena adds. “Communication is really important to me, and Jennifer and her team were always great at giving updates and keeping things moving consistently.”
Similarly, Serena’s dress search was the stuff wedding dreams are made of—she worked with Sarah Burton for Alexander McQueen.
“I flew to London to meet with Sarah and ended up falling in love with the ball gown silhouette, which is completely the opposite of what I ever thought I would choose for myself,” Serena says. “I loved the idea of doing a really spectacular ball gown, and it has turned out to be such an incredibly special piece.”
At 5:15 p.m., guests including Beyoncé and her mother, Tina Knowles; Kelly Rowland; Kim Kardashian West; Anna Wintour; Ciara; and La La Anthony arrived for cocktails before taking their seats in the ceremony space.
There, everyone watched a short video that told the story of Serena and Alexis’s relationship on TVs encased in gold frames above the aisle. The seating had a fashion-show feel:
“I wanted the whole thing to be as nontraditional as possible,” explains Serena. “We did sofas instead of chairs, with everything facing the aisle instead of the altar.”
Bridesmaids made their entrances to rounds of applause wearing custom Galia Lahav dresses.
Before the ceremony, Serena’s best friend, Val Vogt, told Vogue: “She talked to all of us and just kind of let us have creative control as to what dress fit our personality. And then she approved it, of course!” Val carried the bride’s beloved Yorkshire terrier, Chip, down the aisle in his very own tiny tuxedo.
Then, with all eyes on her, Serena emerged in a dramatic strapless, belted Sarah Burton for Alexander McQueen princess gown with a cape, carrying a bouquet of white roses and sparkling with jewelry by XIV Karats, worth $3.5 million in total.
Alexis, in an Armani suit, was smiling from ear to ear as Serena slowly walked up the aisle to join him. The couple wrote their own vows. Alexis’s called
Serena his queen and said that they already have their princess. With a bold, confident voice, he talked about how she takes such good care of everyone in her life, and now he wants to spend the rest of his life taking care of her.
His words led to laughter at the start—“I will always have bad jokes that make your eyes roll, make you give me the side eye”—but by the end, everyone was crying happy tears:
“You are the greatest of all time, not just in sport,” he told Serena. “I’m talking about as a mother and as a wife. I am so excited to write so many more chapters of our fairy tale together. And my whole life I didn’t even realize it, but I was waiting for this moment. And everything that I have done, everything that I am so proud of in my career, and in my life, for the last 34 years, pales in comparison to what we’re doing today. And I am so grateful, and I am so in love.”
After the couple was pronounced husband and wife, cheers erupted and guests made their way out onto the street for cocktails while the bride and groom took their formal family portraits in the Arts Center’s Black Box Theatre. During cocktails, Kardashian West told Vogue, “I’ve known Serena for so long and am so happy she’s found her prince.
From the moment she told me she met Alexis in Rome, it was like . . . she’s been so happy and has this light about her that is so special to see. You just know it is so real. He makes her so happy and that just makes her friends happy.”
A second line parade then led everyone back inside where the band was playing “Be Our Guest” and an around-the-world-themed dinner by Creative Edge Parties was served.
As guests found their seats at four long tables named after Serena’s Grand Slam wins, the newlyweds were introduced as Mr. and Mrs. Alexis Ohanian, and Serena debuted her second dress of the evening, a dramatic beaded, feathered Versace moment that made her look like a fashion-forward superwoman.
It took a team of five embroiderers to create the dress, Donatella Versace told Vogue. They “worked nonstop to make sure the tiniest details were perfectly taken care of, for a total of 1,500 hours.”
The newlyweds sat in gold throne-like chairs that looked like they were made for a king and queen.
“The whole fairy-tale idea came to us early on,” says Jennifer. “Serena’s very girly. She was like, ‘I love Disney, how can we incorporate it in?’ Then Serena and Alexis said, ‘What do you think about a royal ball?’ Serena was like, ‘I just want it to be opulent. I want it to be like a fairy tale.’ ” Southern, Armenian (a nod to Alexis’s heritage), and Italian food, as well as a “steak house” station and a salad wall, were all available on offer.
“Serena wanted a ball, but she wanted a modern ball, not anything that was too stuffy,” says Preston Bailey, the man behind all of the decor. “For the flowers and overall aesthetic, she wanted something that was very different and unique.” Chandeliers encased in gold birdcages, trophy-style place cards, and the “black lamé” table linens achieved this goal.
Following dinner, Alexis took the stage and asked the guests, who had been dancing to the Élan Artists’s band, to clear the floor. “This is the only time I’ll ask you to do this all night, but I need for you to get off the dance floor,” he said, laughing.
“This is the first time I get to introduce Serena Williams as my wife. Come out, wifey!” Serena appeared in her third dress of the evening: a stunning fitted Versace look with a short skirt. She joined Alexis on the dance floor and the band started playing “Tale as Old as Time,” which then segued into “If I Can’t Have You.”
There were spins, twists, and lifts, to lots of cheers—the two totally nailed every step.
Guests then joined the couple for more dancing before moving into the next room for a surprise performance by New Edition. The band called the couple up onstage, where Serena and Alexis nailed yet another dance routine with the guys as Beyoncé, Kelly, and Ciara cheered them on.
Curtains then opened, and everyone relocated back to where the ceremony had taken place—Preston’s team had completely transformed the space into a chic lounge for the after-party.
DJ Mike Wise was on the turntables playing lots of old-school ’90s rap. At about 1:30 a.m., Alexis grabbed the mic to reveal the final surprise of the evening for his new bride.
People told him it couldn’t be done, he said. But, when people say no to Alexis in his business or personal life, he always accepts the challenge. Just then, a curtain dropped, revealing an illuminated, all-white carousel. Serena screamed with excitement, and guests jumped up on horses while Ginuwine’s “Pony” played in the background.
The newlyweds cuddled on a bench while everyone partied on the carousel as it spun—a picture-perfect scene to end a fantastical night.