There’s video that exists of Venus and Serena Williams playing tennis when they were kids — 8 and 7, respectively — in the late ’80s, on unshaded but otherwise decent-looking public courts in California. This is not one of the clips you’ve maybe seen, taken from various news segments, but an earlier, stranger video, made by their father and longtime coach, Richard Williams, as a kind of audition tape for the tennis-instructional guru Vic Braden, ostensibly requesting an invitation to Braden’s camp, although the real reason for it, you can’t help feel in watching, simply was to let Braden know that greatness had arrived in the world. Richard’s face in the film as he presents the girls to Braden seems, as it does so often, on the brink of laughter. This was in Compton, the low-income, gang-afflicted hub city outside Los Angeles, an area made infamous by many a rap song. Although they enjoyed about as stable an upbringing as you could have in Compton back then, its problems were no mere abstraction: they supposedly knew to lie down on the court when gunshots rang out in the park. And there’s a story that Richard, when asked what he would do if his daughters ever won a Grand Slam, said he would go back and try to help the Crips who sometimes looked out for the girls during their practice sessions. “Venus Williams Is Straight Outta Compton!” read an early promotional poster their father made, to post on telephone poles. He billed the two as celebrities before they were even famous. That was how you did it. Not fake it till you make it. You decided what you were. First you had the belief, and then you had the training. “Belief and training,” Venus told me a couple of weeks ago when I met with her in Cincinnati, where she and Serena were playing in a tournament just days after returning from the Olympics. “That was unconquerable.”
She sat at a round, empty table in the meeting room at the Hyatt, first messing with her dog, a little terrierlike creature, and then placing it inside a duffel bag, where it apparently liked to hang out, because it stayed completely silent there for the better part of two hours, not even receiving any treats or anything. “He’s unemployed,” she said, forcing him with her fingers to make a face at me.
Because she’s usually frowning and scowling on court, or squinting and chewing the inside of her mouth, or looking bummed in the changeover chair — or finally at the end sometimes grinning and laughing maniacally — it’s easy to find yourself unprepared for her sheer prettiness, as witnessed when she’s more or less at ease, 6-foot-1 in pale designer jeans, quietly flashing the smile that made her at one time the richest woman in sports (before Maria Sharapova came along).
I was trying to bring the person across the table into some kind of stereoscopic harmony with the girl on the tape, the one whose short, beaded braids hang like a fringe of tassels on the side of her head. It showed her hitting big, swinging volleys from midcourt at about the skill level of a decent college player, except that she was catching them up above her head, scything the fed balls out of the air with enough topspin to send them arcing down toward the lines. After an especially good shot, Richard would say, “Good shot, Venus,” and Venus would say, in dulcet tones that retained a trace of his Louisiana syrup, “Thank you, Daddy.”
Richard addresses the camera directly. Venus and Serena stand on either side of him, taking shelter in the shadow of his legs as if the camera might not find them there. Richard reveals to Braden that they have been watching his popular tape, “Tennis Our Way,” quoting his fantastically optimistic slogan, “You’ll be famous by Friday.” Richard can’t remember the exact wording. “You kept saying we’d be good by Friday,” he tells Braden. “We was good by Tuesday. We should be great by Friday.”
The remarkable thing about the tape, from the point of view of someone interested in tennis, isn’t the almost voyeuristically candid preflight glimpse it gives of some soon-to-be superstars but simply the footage of Venus hitting. She doesn’t bounce on her feet yet between every shot, she hasn’t fully learned that readiness; she just stands there, in her jeans, waiting to be fed the next ball. Nor is it even the excellence of her technique, although her technique, it goes without saying, is ridiculous for an 8-year-old. It’s more something that she doesn’t even know she’s doing, something having to do with the transfer of force, of mass, from the back of her body to the front, and the way that this transference is passed along into the shot, the way it enters her racket head at precisely the millisecond she hits the ball, resulting in a kind of popping sound, the distinctive pop in ball-striking that signals someone who can really play, the thing you simply cannot and will never learn to do if you are a hack or even a pretty good player who has hit that cruel ceiling, the limits of your own physical ability, beyond which you cannot progress, even after decades of lessons and work, but beyond which some 8-year-old girls can go and indeed beyond which they were born. It’s the tyranny of talent. Watching this little girl do it, watching her have it, that lays it bare, undeniably evident, extracted from the game like the Higgs boson from those protons.
I asked Venus about this tape, if she remembered it at all. She did, she said (vaguely, I sensed), but in general she tries not to look back, preferring to remain “at a continuum of moving forward.”
If Braden ever watched the tape, there survives no mention of it. He must have had parents trying to sell him on their little prodigies every day, and even if he had noticed — as he could not have failed to — that the girls, especially the older one, possessed the proverbial “thing that can’t be taught,” there was plenty else in the tape to put him off. The father’s boasting (relatively subdued, for this performance) has about it the whiff of slight insanity. The way he keeps mentioning the “famous by Friday” business, the way he talks about the girls not as promising youngsters but as celebrities, as princesses, as if he worships his own creation. His Southern accent verges at times on the unintelligible. “Stay in touch with us,” spoken pathetically, hopefully, toward the end of the tape, sounds like, “Stain touch widders.”
Although he has been the subject of excellent profile writing (notably in Sports Illustrated, by S. L. Price and L. Jon Wertheim), Richard Williams remains an eternally elusive and evasive figure. I find him powerfully and movingly American somehow. His whole personality seems to have evolved as a complex reaction-structure to an insecurity so profound that it must remain secret, especially from him. Throughout his daughters’ careers, he has gone about fanning a splendor of boxing-promoter language, of lies, half-truths, boasts, misstatements, non sequiturs, buffoonery, needless exaggerations, megalomania, paranoia — as well as here and there genuinely wise, amusing lines — all of which, you begin to feel, are designed (subconsciously, yes, but no less shrewdly) to deflect attention away from a still, small center, the place where he dwells and operates. It’s there that he is who he is, whoever he is.
He came from a part of Shreveport, Lurr-zeeana, as he pronounces it, in a neighborhood whose school was called, amazingly, Little Hope. At various times he has told reporters or anyone who listened that he was a sports star there in his youth — and certainly it seems plausible, given his height (6-4-ish) and what we realize to have been present at least in a nascent way in the genes — but there are no records of these exploits, if they occurred. Perhaps he dreamed them. Perhaps he assigned them to himself the way a great novelist might give them to a character, as a necessary past for the Father of the Williams Sisters. Perhaps (most likely) he needed them in order to be the girls’ father, to carry the necessary authority in their eyes. Listen to me, now. I was like you. I was a great athlete, too. That may have been useful.
The source that brings us closest to him, precisely because of its complete lack of objectivity, is an extraordinary documentary made just over a decade ago, “Raising Tennis Aces: The Williams Story,” by a black Englishman named Terry Jervis, who himself possesses, from what can be gauged, self-promotional instincts downright Richard Williams-like in aspect. The film is about Richard Williams, mainly, but also done in collusion with him.
Most of it takes place on the grounds of a Florida compound, near where the Williams family relocated in the mid-’90s to hide from the junior playing circuit (Richard’s great stroke of genius — when the other girls were burning themselves out playing the Young Ladies Lipton Cup or what have, his girls were hiding, practicing). In the film, Venus and Serena sit for interviews, under a patio awning, saying their half-meant teenage-athlete phrases, as Richard sits beside them, grim-faced, gripping his thighs, controlling the narrative.
Mainly he is the narrative. We watch him riding around the place on a clay-court-cleaning machine. We meet others — the family lawyer, the family adviser — who speak of Richard and his integrity and foresight. We meet, curiously, another man named Richard Williams, a tennis teacher back in Compton, who gave the sisters some of their first extrafamilial lessons. Williams generously acknowledges his influence. A civil rights activist appears, testifying to how hard Richard had it growing up.
We follow him back to Shreveport, where he pays a visit to his childhood home, the place he shared with his sisters and their mother, Julia Mae Williams. His shock at its dilapidation is such that he sits down and cries. He tells the story of his closest childhood friend, killed by a car that was driven by a white woman who barely stopped to see what she’d done. “She went on her way, gracefully,” Richard says.
It’s not that the story is at all implausible for the South in the ’50s. No reason to doubt it. But there’s something about Richard’s manner. We see him weaving the physical objects of his immediate surroundings into the tale. He puts his hand on a tree in the front yard and says that he planted it after his friend died, because in the wake of that loss, he needed something “solid.” But wouldn’t the tree have been only a sapling at that time? He says the mere idea of its future growth gave him that solid feeling. But those don’t sound like a boy’s thoughts. Richard’s drive to self-mythologize is total. All must be included, even the trees; all must contribute inevitably to what came later. The trauma of the black Southern past is recast by force of will and audacity, becoming prelude to the glory of the Williams present. “Venus was born in ’80,” he says, with cryptic syntax, “but she was . . . taught like a child who was being brought up in the ’40s and the ’50s, and that’s why today if you see Venus and Serena, and we’re at a tennis tournament, and you boo us, it doesn’t hurt us, because we was taught for things like that many, many years ago, we came up in the ’40s and the ’50s.”
The mention of “you boo us” isn’t random. Richard was referring, without mentioning it explicitly, to the notorious incident at Indian Wells, Calif., in 2001, still a recent memory when “Raising Tennis Aces” was shot. People argue about exactly what went down that day, but the flash point was that Venus withdrew from a semifinal match against Serena. She didn’t feel well enough to play. Tendinitis. It’s often reported that she did this with only minutes to go before the match, but in her book (“On the Line,” a better-than-average entry in the genre of the co-written sports memoir), Serena wrote that Venus had been telling the trainer for hours she didn’t think she could do it. That was the protocol: you were supposed to tell the trainer first. But the trainer kept stalling, no doubt hoping she would recover and change her mind. At one point during the day, Venus approached Serena in the locker room and said: “I really don’t know why they’re not making some kind of announcement. I told them I couldn’t play two hours ago.” This game of chicken went on until, in the end, the stadium was full. A tournament official came on the loudspeakers and informed the crowd that the match had been canceled. Rumors of match-fixing began to swirl. A day before, the Russian player Elena Dementieva had joked-not-joked that Richard would decide which of his girls went on to the final.
(Just as an aside, I’ve never bought any of the match-fixing accusations regarding the sisters: yes, their matchups could be weird to watch, sort of hesitating, but is there any mystery to that? They’ve been playing together, more as practice partners than as opponents, practically since they were babies. Their style of play was about feeding each other, testing each other’s strokes, not winning. That dynamic couldn’t be changed overnight. Their matches grew in intensity and passion as their careers advanced, just as you would expect. Also, and perhaps most compellingly, the whole idea of Richard asking one of his daughters to lose to the other goes entirely against his style. It would have been more like him to set them against each other to strengthen them.)
Two days later, when the family returned to the court for Serena’s match against the big-hitting Belgian Kim Clijsters, the crowd began to boo. Both Richard and Serena assert that they heard the word “nigger.” The booing continued throughout the match, which Serena won in a display of all but inexplicable poise — or really something more like fearsomeness, when you witness it. But the most astonishing and little-remarked moment occurred before the match even started, when Richard and Venus walked down to their seats in the players’ box. The booing intensified — it was Venus, after all, who committed the sin, and Richard whom many despised for his frequently asinine Svengali persona (and darker tendencies too — reportedly, a couple of years before the Indian Wells fiasco, he hurt his wife, Oracene, the girls’ mother and co-trainer, badly enough to break a few of her ribs; Oracene later confirmed the reports; he denied them; either way, the marriage was crumbling just as the girls were making it). He turned and faced the crowd, as if to show them his lack of fear. He said a few things back, you can’t hear what. And then he raised his left fist in the air, like John Carlos at the ’68 Olympics. He held it there for a few seconds. The look in his face suggests that he did it almost with a kind of irony. Still, the boldness of the gesture stuns. Tennis had never seen anything like that.
In her postmatch remarks, Serena thanked her father for giving her strength, after first thanking, as she almost invariably does, Jehovah God. “I want to thank those who supported me,” she added. “And if you didn’t, I love you guys anyway.” But not so much, as it turned out. It has been more than a decade since that day, and the Williams sisters have never returned to Indian Wells, one of the tour’s bigger tournaments.
Richard Williams often receives an undue share of attention in discussions of the Williams sisters, their game and how they got started. Partly this is appropriate: he’s their coach. Partly it’s because, for many years, he demanded, or at least commanded, that attention with his bizarre pronouncements and antics. But all of this has led to a persistent distortion in the telling of the Williams story, which is, after all, a story of powerful women — not just Venus and Serena, but the household of women who surrounded and nurtured them.
In the beginning, there were three sisters, none of whose names you may have heard: Yetunde, Isha and Lyndrea. They were Oracene Price’s daughters from her first marriage. Oracene became Richard’s second wife when they married in 1980. So Richard lived in the house in Compton with four women — three girls and their mother — just as he had grown up in Shreveport with three sisters and Julia Mae. He had recreated the dynamic of his childhood home.
When he and Oracene first began to talk and dream about founding some kind of tennis dynasty — in the oft-heard tale, it happened after Richard watched a women’s match on TV and heard that the victor, Virginia Ruzici of Romania, would receive $30,000 for her efforts, just for smacking a ball, as they say — Richard first taught Oracene to play. He himself had taken up the game not long before, and he quickly became quite good. But Oracene, too, was an athlete. In her youth she played volleyball and played basketball with her brothers (“Till they got bigger than me”).
“It was like a family recreation early on,” she told me. “I myself learned to play in a year. I always wanted to learn and to learn the right way, like a professional. And Richard would show everyone my backhand.”
She explained that because she was pregnant with Venus when they first started hitting together, the traditional way of hitting a backhand — turning to the side and twisting your torso — didn’t feel comfortable for her. “I would hit the backhand open,” she said. At the time, the shot was rare and barely existed at all in the women’s game. “I made it into a comfortable stroke. I knew I’d feel better if I was low, and then I’d just whack it.”
At first they began with Oracene’s three children. Yetunde, the oldest — who was shot and killed in 2003 in Compton — wasn’t especially athletic. But Isha, many people believe, could have been the third Williams sister, if not for her back problems, and Lyndrea went on to play at the college level. But although the two girls were good, they weren’t great — perhaps they hadn’t been exposed early enough.
With Venus and Serena, Oracene said, “it’s almost like they were raised on the court.” She remembers Serena as a toddler, off to the side while they played. Oracene noticed early that something was different about their game. “They still weren’t as athletic as me,” she said — a thing you learn quickly about Oracene is that she says exactly what she means and never says anything she doesn’t mean, to a degree that can be intimidating and even seem aggressive until you realize that it isn’t negatively charged, she’s just very unto herself — “but I did notice one thing: they had a natural swing. That’s what I looked for first.” She didn’t elaborate on that, but I knew what she meant — the pop. It was the unquantifiable kinesiology of the pop. These two new daughters had it. (Richard would later claim that they were engineered for it, by an express and all but eugenical logic — he saw Oracene’s long, powerful gams and thought they would make great legs for a tennis player. Jehovah God knows if these things are true, but unlike the sturdy-tree story, it feels like something he might have thought.)
Richard and Oracene had become uncannily expert, if unavoidably eccentric, tennis coaches and analysts by the time Venus and Serena started hitting. Indeed, behind the minor miracle of there being two tennis virtuosos in this single family with no previous tennis background, there had been the previous miracle of both parents’ understanding the game well enough to teach and guide the girls. “I don’t honestly know how that happened,” Venus told me in Cincinnati. “It’s interesting. I don’t know how my parents were able to learn the game so well.”
The story has been told so many times, of these early years, when Compton got used to the sight of the little girls who would always be playing tennis at the public park — or riding around in their faded yellow VW bus with the middle seat taken out to accommodate the grocery cart full of balls — but somehow the strangeness and drama of it retain a power to fascinate. The idea of this African-American family organizing itself, as a unit, in order to lay siege to perhaps the whitest sport in the world and pulling it off somehow. “I remember even talking to my sisters and brothers,” Oracene said, recalling a time before anyone had ever heard of the Williams sisters, “and telling them: ‘The girls are going to be professional. We’re going to need a lawyer, and we’re going to need an accountant.’ ”