In 1997, at the age of 17, she played Venus Williams for the first time at the United States Open, meeting Romanian tennis player Irina Spirala in the semifinals. Venus won the first set, and in the middle of the second, on their way to the break between games, Spirala collided with it deliberately. “She thinks she’s something special because she’s fucking Venus Williams,” Spirala said after she lost, “I ran into her to see if she would turn around.” Venus did not turn around.
The American media knew it had in hand another juicy lemon dripping ratings around the big new attraction of tennis. Even then Venus knew not to provide the hottest quotes, so the cameras chased after its neighbor – Richard Williams, the father of Venus and her one-year-old sister, Serena. Richard did give the goods. “I’ve seen a lot of racist things happen to my babies and it’s just another one,” he said, “Spirala should be glad she didn’t run into Serena.”
Within seconds, the coverage of the incident changed 180 degrees. The fact that Spirala admitted to colliding with Venus on purpose became marginal. Father Williams’ response was the headline, wrapped in dog whispers around the usual narrative of the angry black man who knows his place. The Los Angeles Times then published a column by a police probation officer, no less, who reprimanded Richard for not teaching his daughter how to interact with people of all colors.
Four years later, when the two Williams sisters were already at the top, they reached the big tournament in Indian Wells, California. After losing to Venus in the quarterfinals, Russia’s Elena Dementieva said that Richard Williams will decide which sister will win the games between them. She had no proof, and when asked how she knew, she replied that she had “such a feeling.” This feeling of dementia immediately became headlines. No one said he knew for sure that this was indeed what was happening, “we are just asking questions,” the commentators explained.
The next day, a few minutes before the scheduled semi-final against Serena, Venus retired due to a tendon injury. The automatic response was that Richard forced Venus to invent an injury because he did not want her to play against Serena. There was no proof of that either, but if that’s not true, the gypsies wondered, why does the family not react angrily to the accusations? The blacks who are too angry, it turned out, were not angry enough now. “They deny she invented an injury,” the Times wrote, “so where’s their usual anger? Why are they not knocking on the table?” When Serena advanced to the final the next day against Kim Clijsters, he was hailed from the stands full of a flood of contemptuous whistles and racist curses.
Venus and Serena boycotted the Indian Wells tournament for the next 14 years, and when they returned to it it was already in a completely different class – two popular tennis players who were proof, at least for those who want to believe it, that the American dream myth has legs. And there was one more difference: this time Dad Richard was not in the stands. The man who decided to make his daughters the best tennis players in the world, even before they knew how to walk, slowly faded from the picture, taking with him the beloved goal of communication. Only Venus and Serena Neto remain, who for more than 25 years as professional tennis players have together won 30 Grand Slam titles, and one of them, Serena, is without a doubt the greatest player in history.
Now, just before the end of their careers, rich and happy, the nurses are free to take ownership of their story, and that of their father. The new film, ‘King Richard’, starring Will Smith’s brilliant and Oscar-winning star, and produced by Venus and Serena, attempts to change the historical narrative surrounding Father Williams. In real time he was portrayed through all the stereotypes of a big, angry black man, bombastic and rude, abusing his daughters and running them like in a puppet theater. From the sisters’ eyes, he was a loving and devoted father, who both built and protected them with devotion from a world he knew well.
He trained them with balls he collected outside of tennis clubs they were not allowed to enter, he cleaned the musty pitches from crack syringes before training, he made sure they played selectively in youth tournaments and focused on studies, and maintained their mental health in a way that today seems like a prophecy. Venus and Serena survived what is happening today in Osaka’s speeches, because already in the 90s their father understood in the depths of his stomach what professional sports are only now beginning to absorb.
In 1995, 14-year-old Venus was interviewed by ABC. She said she would be the best tennis player in the world, and the interviewer repeatedly asked her why she was so confident in herself. Richard interrupted the interview and told the interviewer, while the camera was still working, “You’re talking to a 14-year-old girl and this girl will play tennis with your old ass and mine in the grave. She answered the question and we’re done. You’re dealing with a little black girl, let her be a girl.” . America was shocked by the impudence, but from a distance of 26 years this situation looks completely different.
World tennis should be separated for the period before and after the arrival of the Williams sisters. In the United States, tennis has always been – and to a large extent still is – a sport for the rich, especially whites. It is not an industry that can be played alone with a rag ball and two pillars, and safe tennis courts are far from slums. Today she has something to say about how actresses dress.
Into this world, of which status and racism are part of the foundation on which was established, came a large and noisy black family from Compton – a hard-day suburb in Los Angeles that brought out some of the generation’s most prominent cultural figures – with a father who grew up in the deep south before the civil rights movement. Although he was an excellent athlete, Richard Williams knew nothing about tennis. And as far as he knows, he has only seen tennis on TV and that too with difficulty, but when he came to California he took a few lessons. He realized that tennis was the way to get his family out of Compton and ensure his daughters had a better future than his past.
“My plan was simple: to get two girls out of the ghetto to the top of a game dominated by whites,” Williams wrote in his autobiography, Black and White: The Way I See It, “More than two years before they were born.” To tennis coaches, Williams said he had “not one Michael Jordan, but two” at home, and received a sweeping smirk. After all, an uneducated black person can not be so smart and raise disciplined, hardworking and unbreakable girls.
When Venus and Serena started to win, Richard came to the games with signs that read ‘Welcome to the Williams Show’ and ‘I Told You’. The tennis bubble was stunned – stunned! – Out of respect. Richard was indeed no small chatterbox who loved the show and the spotlight, and was happy to tell stories about how he and his family were going to buy the Rockefeller Center, but he did not really hurt anyone. Despite this, the attitude towards him was a combination of contempt and disgust that aggressive fathers of young white athletes, and certainly tennis players, had never experienced.
Jennifer Capriati’s father put her in a circle at age 13, pressured her unbearably and she degenerated into shoplifting; Yelena Dukic’s father was so violent that he was removed from all Grand Slam tournaments; Marie Pierce was so afraid of her father that she hired a bodyguard; Even the truly wonderful Steffi Graf father, who went to jail for nearly four years after stealing millions of dollars from his daughter’s profits, did not get the abominable looks that Richard Williams received.
In the end, the real reason for the attitude towards Richard was that he was right in everything he said. His daughters defeated them all, just as he had promised. They did so with unprecedented tennis and athletic superiority that led to uneasy snoring. For years Serena has been accused of drug use, tested more than any other player in the round and suffered cruel insults on her body – but every black tennis player who ignites tennis today stands on the shoulders of Venus and Serena Williams who raised them loving, protective, demanding, flawless dads and probably a little genius.
Richard Williams, 79, is in very poor health today, divorced for the third time and being cared for by a son born to him from one of his many romances outside of his three marriages. It is not clear how much time he has left in this world, and ‘King Richard’ is the sisters’ way of doing with him what he thought was right, before it was too late. “My dad was ahead and still ahead of his time,” Serena Williams said last week, “he knew they were going to try to break us and he didn’t let that happen.”