Queens Venus and Serena
For a few years there, I used to collect my favorite Richard Williams quotes. There were so many. “I love me!” was a great one. “I’d do anything to make money as long as it was legal,” was another good one. “I’m 6-foot-2 and a half but, with my confidence, I feel 100 feet tall,” was a classic.
I think in the end, I decided that the best of them all — the one that described him best — was one he offered to the writer Tom Friend:
“I am a great admirer of Dr. King and an unbelievable admirer of Don King.”
That quote was my first thought when I saw there was going to be a biopic called “King Richard,” with Will Smith playing the inimitable, the inscrutable, the inexplicable Richard Williams, father of Venus and Serena. It is, I thought, the perfect title to tell the story of how Williams raised the two greatest women’s tennis players in the world on a public tennis court in Compton. King Richard, yes.
He is, indeed, a blend of those two kings — Martin Luther and Don.
A lot has been said about the movie itself. You can read the reviews written by much smarter people about movies, and I would generally agree with most of it. Will Smith is terrific in it, as is Aunjanue Ellis as Oracene, Venus and Serena’s mother. The movie is well made, moving, a lot of it is true, the action is compelling, the tension is real, the run time is probably too long and the sports stuff is too pat. (It almost always is in sports movies.)
Let me pause to talk about the pat stuff before getting into the main point here because it is probably instructive — the crescendo moment of the movie was 14-year-old Venus Williams’ first big professional match against Arantxa Sánchez Vicario at the 1994 Bank of the West tournament in Oakland.
To give life to the moment, they did the sports movie thing of changing a few facts.
Not to provide spoilers here, but the movie played up Vicario as the best player in the world (she wasn't). They made it sound like Williams was risking enormous sponsorship money from Nike and others if she lost (not a chance). They had a struggling Vicario take a 10-minute bathroom break in the middle to ice Venus (she didn’t). They kind of made Vicario something of a mini-villain (she wasn’t). They did not point out that Venus, after dominating the first set and a half, simply wore down physically and emotionally (I mean, she was just 14 years old).
And they did not have Richard Williams in the stands yell out loud for everyone to hear, “Come on Sanchez, beat this turkey!” during the match, which is something he absolutely did because Richard Williams is complicated and contradictory and not everything he says or does fits into the easy narrative of a movie.
This gets at the challenge of trying to sum up a man as bewildering and fascinating as Richard Williams. To the movie’s great credit, it has many wonderfully revealing little moments, like the time that the Williams sisters’ coach Rick Macci drives up in a sweet blue golf cart, and Richard says that he’s going to have that golf cart. Then, sure enough, he takes it through sheer will and charisma.
That, yes, is Richard Williams.
But the movie also misses a lot — and this does lead to the main point, something I have not seen written much about, something that I think gets to the heart of “King Richard.”
It is, more than anything, a love letter from two daughters to their father.
Sports has so many stories of ambitious fathers trying to push their children to greatness. I suppose the most famous of these is not in sports—it is the story of Leopold Mozart dragging his son Wolfgang around central and western Europe to perform for royalty. There have been plenty of other examples in music and theater and so on.
But it’s also a constant story in sports, from Mutt Mantle to Lavar Ball, Jack Brett to Stefano Capriati, Marv Marinovich to Earl Woods.
And here’s what strikes me: Children of such overbearing fathers will have very different reactions to it. Pat Conroy, for example, wrote like 10 award-winning books about the impact his domineering father had on him — including the classic of the genre, “The Great Santini.” Some find it hard to ever forgive their fathers for pushing them so hard. Some find a middle ground where they blend resentment with appreciation. “I never would have become the player I became without him pushing me,” is the ultimate conclusion of George Brett.
Then there’s the movie “King Richard.” Some critics have wondered how a movie about Venus and Serena Williams’ rise to become two of the greatest tennis players who ever lived could have so little about Venus and Serena themselves. But this is a choice. The Williams sisters, as executive producers of “King Richard,” helped create a movie that is about Richard Williams. It is, so vividly, their gift to him.
And I think that’s what’s important about the film. It is not so much about Richard Williams as it is about Richard Williams AS HIS DAUGHTERS SEE HIM.
The Richard Williams it shares is idealized because of course it is. I don’t just mean that it gently brushes by some of Williams’ more obvious flaws, most obviously that he walked out on his first family and disappeared from their lives.
No, I mean that the entire story is told from the viewpoint of daughters who see their father as a larger-than-life figure.
Now, make no mistake, Richard Williams IS a larger-than-life figure … but it’s never quite as simple as the movie tries to make it. For instance, the movie starts exactly where you would expect it to start — in Compton, 1980s, a loving father using dead tennis balls to teach his daughters to play tennis on a glass-strewn public court while gang members surround them. This is absolutely an accurate portrayal of what happened and a striking movie scene.
But it does leave something out: Richard Williams purposely moved his family to Compton so that his daughters would grow up in what he called “the ghetto.” When Venus was born, the Williams family was living in a quiet and tranquil neighborhood in Long Beach — they were a block away from the beach — and that is when Richard (against the wishes of his wife) moved the whole family to Compton.
That was part of the plan to raise a tennis champion.
“What led me to Compton,” Williams would write, “was my belief that the greatest champions came out of the ghetto. I had studied sports successes like Muhammad Ali, and great thinkers like Malcolm X. I saw where they came from. As part of my plan, I decided it was where the girls were going to grow up, too. It would make them tough, give them a fighter’s mentality. They’d be used to combat. And how much easier would it be to play in front of thousands of white people if they had already learned how to play in front of scores of armed gang members.”
This complicates the story just a little, doesn’t it?
There’s no question that Richard Williams was every bit as loving as the movie makes him out to be. But he also used to bus in children to surround the court and verbally abuse Venus and Serena in the vilest ways imaginable. That’s not in the movie.
He would make sure his daughters made straight A’s and wrote in their journals nightly. But he also used to break beer bottles behind the baseline so that Venus and Serena would never back up on a ball. That’s not in the movie.
There’s another story that did not make it into the movie, even though it’s pretty famous and fits directly into the story. The movie spent a lot of time focused on the Bank of West Tournament, Venus’ first professional tournament. Well, at that tournament, before her first professional match, Richard asked Venus if she had packed everything. She said that she did. He knew that she had not; he had seen her tennis dress still hanging up in the closet.
After asking her again if she had everything, and her once again saying she did, they headed off for the tournament. It was only when they got there that Venus realized she had left the dress behind. She was mortified. She begged her father to take her back to the hotel. He refused, said there wasn’t enough time.
And when the officials came in, to Venus’ horror, Richard told them to default her.
“You have to teach her a lesson,” he told the tournament officials.
Remember: She was 14 years old and this was her first tournament.
Eventually, she did get her clothes and she did play — the tournament was desperate not to default her and disappoint the crowd — but I think this story gets at the complexity of Richard Williams. He isn’t easy to figure. On the one hand, what father would tell a tournament to default his daughter for forgetting her tennis outfit?
On the other hand, what father could raise Venus and Serena Williams into the extraordinary players and people they have become?
In any case, none of these stories — or countless other more demanding and taxing Richard Williams’ stories — made it into the movie, perhaps because they’re too challenging or would have muddled the narrative or perhaps because there was no room for them in a story that loving daughters tell about their fathers.
I suppose if my daughters ever made a movie about me, I’d want them to leave out some of the more difficult stuff too.
Speaking of daughters, I watched “King Richard” with our younger one, Katie, who plays high school tennis and has improved immensely (she was cut two years ago; this year she was second-team all-conference). And as she watched the movie, you could sense a part of her wishing that I had been more like Richard Williams, that I had pushed her into tennis when she was five and made her practice several hours a day and tried to make her into a tennis champion.
And it struck me that “King Richard” would have been a very different kind of movie … except for Venus and Serena Williams. I don’t just mean because they were executive producers. I mean that while Richard Williams is indeed a fascinating man who followed his heart, he is hardly alone. There have been plenty of King Richards out there with outsized dreams for their children.
But there has only been one Venus Williams, only one Serena Williams.
They are the happy ending.
From the best sports movie I’ve ever seen: Searching for Bobby Fisher
(Joan Allen) "He's not afraid of losing. He's afraid of losing your love. How many ball players grow up afraid of losing their fathers' love every time they come up to the plate?"
(Joe Mantegna) "All of them."
So, I wonder, does Katie beat you at Tennis?