Just after a 14-year-old Venus Williams had turned pro in 1995 — at the very beginning of a legendary tennis career that would lead to the No. 1 ranking and seven Grand Slam titles — an ABC News reporter pressed the young phenom on why she was “very confident” about beating her next opponent.
“Let me tell you why,” interjected her father Richard Williams, abruptly interrupting the interview and proceeding to get in the reporter’s face. “When she say something, we done told you what’s happening. You’re dealing with a little black kid, and let her be a kid. She done answered with a lot of confidence. Leave that alone!”
It’s a fierce fatherly shutdown depicted in “King Richard,” the new film starring Will Smith as Richard Williams, which opens Friday in theaters and on HBO Max. The movie traces how Williams challenged — and changed — tennis with his vision and mission for his daughters Venus and Serena to take over the sport. With both daughters rising up from the streets of Compton to reach No. 1 — and Serena, winning 23 Grand Slam titles, becoming who many consider to be the greatest player of all time — their father was both a genius and a polarizing figure in breaking racist barriers and the norms of the tennis establishment.
“I think Richard was ahead of his time,” “King Richard” director Reinaldo Marcus Green told The Post. “The kinds of things that he was thinking about in protecting his daughters from certain things … He did things that were unorthodox, and I think it rubbed a lot of people the wrong way.”
“No question it took the establishment some time to get used to Richard Williams,” said Tennis Channel commentator and Sports Illustrated writer Jon Wertheim, who also wrote the 2001 book “Venus Envy” that covered an early season in the Williams sisters’ careers. “He was a colorful, extreme figure. There were not tennis parents before him that danced on the commentary booth or that held up provocative signs, and it was jarring.”
But Kamau Murray — who coached another black tennis star, Sloane Stephens, to the 2017 US Open and is the founder of XS Tennis, a black-owned academy in Chicago — said that behind “the Richard Williams show” was a man with a brilliant plan for Venus and Serena. “They would have not made it if he was not pushing and then protecting, and then pushing and then protecting,” he said. “They would not have made it. ”
Inspired by watching Romanian player Virginia Ruzici pocket $20,000 for winning the 1978 French Open, Williams came up with a 78-page plan for Venus and Serena to make it out of Compton — where they grew up sharing bunkbeds with three half-sisters in one room — and conquer the tennis world. Although he had no formal training — aside from the tennis magazines that he read — he and his then-wife Oracene taught their daughters themselves. Eventually, Williams quit his job as a security guard to coach Venus and Serena full time while Oracene supported the family.
Williams had an innate belief in his own coaching ability and methods. “He’s a very smart person, and very smart people can look at somebody do something and they’re like, ‘Oh, I can do it better,’ ” said Murray. But, he added, “he was great at realizing when he needed some help, when he needed some of the nuances and some of the expertise of somebody [else].”
Williams made the controversial decision for Venus and her younger sister Serena to not play junior tennis, bypassing the usual breeding grounds for the pro tour. “It was very unusual, so [it was] met with skepticism because nobody had really chosen that path before,” said longtime ESPN tennis commentator Pam Shriver, who, as the former No. 3 player in the world, was Venus’ first tour mentor. “Because they weren’t hung up on results or rankings, they could just develop their game.”
Playing by his own rules, Williams emphasized the importance of education and having fun as kids, even as he made bold — and, to many, wild — predictions about his daughters’ future dominance without them even playing juniors. Said Wertheim: “It’s literally like, ‘I’m gonna raise my kid and teach him to be the heavyweight champion of the world. And he’s not going to do Golden Gloves — I’ve got my own methods.’ And damn if he didn’t do it.”
With his brash talk and what some perceived to be a self-promoting bravado, Williams had his doubters and detractors as he gave a culture shock to the predominantly white tennis establishment.
“This sport can be very cruel to black people in country clubs,” said Murray, who is also now a commentator on the Tennis Channel. “And the thing about tennis — it’s subtle cruelty. It’s not obvious, and it’s not overt. And a lot of times those things can be the most damaging.”
In fact, Green said, Williams took on a lot of the underlying racial tension to protect his daughters from it. “I think part of the genius of Richard Williams was embracing that and taking the pressure in a lot of ways off the girls,” he said
After Venus won her first of five Wimbledons in 2000, Williams celebrated in a way that the stodgy, strawberries-and-cream All England Club had never seen before, jumping up and down with a handwritten sign that read, “It’s Venus’ party and no one was invited.”
“Wimbledon 2000 was a wild time,” said Wertheim of Williams bucking tennis etiquette at its oldest and most traditional tournament. “Everyone was talking about Richard Williams jumping up and down, but it took some of the pressure off of Venus and Serena. I think his attitude was, ‘Look, if I’m the lightning rod but it takes some of the burden off of my daughters, bring it on!’ So I think it was really effective in a way.”
And, although Williams probably had some in the Royal Box clutching their pearls on that memorable day at Wimbledon, Shriver said that it was progress. “At the time, it was shocking to some people,” she said. “But at the same time it started to usher in an amazing era of diversity and more inclusion and tolerance for differences in the end.”
While there had been some black tennis players on tour before the Williams sisters — including pioneering Grand Slam champions Althea Gibson and Arthur Ashe — what Richard Williams started on the streets of Compton changed the game.
“Tennis looks a lot different today, and I would say in some ways is in a much better place,” said Wertheim. “And I give the Williams family a lot of credit for that.”
Venus, 41, and Serena, 40, are still playing 22 years after the younger sister won the first Williams family slam title at the 1999 US Open. Wertheim believes that their longevity comes from the foundation that their father gave them: “I mean, what does it say about the technique he imparted, what does it say about the mental skills he gave them, that they’re still out there?”
But Green said that Williams clearly raised his daughters to be winners off the tennis court as well. “When you think about Venus and Serena, their legacy will be far greater than being tennis players,” he said. “They have so much more to give, and I think [that’s] because of that training, because of how they were raised.”
While Williams — who, at 79, is reportedly in poor health after suffering a series of strokes — hasn’t appeared at a major tournament to watch Venus and Serena in years, his job was done a long time ago. “The love, the commitment that he gave to those girls was paramount,” said Green. “And how much admiration that they still have for their father to this day is incredible.”
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