How Richard Williams made two of the greatest tennis champions

Dave Kellaway reviews 'King Richard' based on the early career of the Williams Sisters.


Review of King Richard (2021, Warner Bros, directed by Reinaldo Marcus Green

A 14-year-old Venus Williams exits the stadium in Oakland, California, after losing in three sets to the world number one, Arantza Sanchez Vicario. Venus had taken the first set 6-1. She had been crying alone in the locker room. It was her second professional match. As she steps into the night she is acclaimed by a largely black, young crowd of fans. This is the closing scene of King Richard, the film about the father of the Williams’ tennis sisters. It captures a legacy of Richard Williams work: Naomi Osaka, Coco Gauff, Sloane Stephens and Madison Keys are all top black women tennis players today who looked up to the Williams’ sisters. While there are still barriers in tennis due to class inequality and structural racism there are fewer than before. Black people’s success in sports does not overthrow the structural racism in the USA.  Nevertheless, it does help by giving opportunities, a platform to Black leaders and challenges stereotypes.

Althea Gibson was the first top black woman tennis player back in the 50s and won 5 grand slams but apart from people like Zina Garrison, who never won a slam, there were no black women champions until the Williams sisters started winning at the end of the 1990s.

The Williams story is unique. In no other sport has one family produced two number one champions who had been so dominant for so long. Not only that but the father – a non-professional coach – played a key role in their technical training and overall management.  The closest I could think of was the footballing Charlton brothers, who did play in the 1966 World Cup-winning English team but I would suggest that was of a much lower significance and was in a team sport.

The film is easy to view and is on one level very much the American dream of a rise to success against the odds.  Richard Williams drew up a 78-page detailed plan very early on where both his daughters would become world number one players. At times he sounds a lot like all those thousands of self-help books that are so popular particularly in the USA. They tell you how to succeed as an individual in a country where supposedly anyone can become president. So while training on the rundown public park courts in Compton, a Los Angeles black neighbourhood, he would stick up big posters with slogans like – ‘Fail to plan, plan to fail’.  He repeatedly tells them that they will become number one, that they will win Wimbledon one day.

Of course, what makes it quite different is that this is a black father working at night and training the kids during the day. Someone who suffered racist beatings as a kid and has to take more from the local gangs when he confronts them ogling his daughter. He is determined for them to get A grades and complete high school education. Williams continually puts forward the stark alternative for his children: either get an education, become tennis stars or end up being dragged down by the disorder and criminal gangs of the ghetto. It could almost be a reactionary discourse. Except given the context of racist oppression, it is much more complex. He knew that given the racism and poverty for Black kids in Compton you could work hard to get to college, make it as a singer or entertainer, be a sports star or make money as a drug baron.  Since as he says in the film, his kids were terrible singers, tennis was what he chose for them. He had apparently overheard someone say that tennis players could earn $30,000 for a few days work.

Devouring tennis coaching books and watching coaches, Williams gets Venus and Serena to a seriously good level. To some degree, the myth of professional coaching is debunked. However, he is smart enough to know he needs more professional coaches and decent playing facilities so he hustles and gets a coach for free. He deals to get a move to a tennis academy in Florida. What is striking throughout the pre-professional period for the sisters is the way he has total control. When Venus breaks through at the end Williams holds out against the advice of the coaches for a bigger deal from the sponsors. She was offered $3 million on a take or leave it basis but he says no – she ended up with a contract for $12 million. His tough upbringing and experience of racism probably meant he was not going to play softball in any negotiations.

Against the advice of two coaches, he takes them out of competitive tournaments for 3 years so they can get educated and do the normal things that young people do. Increasingly this approach is gaining more credibility. Federer – one of the greatest of all time – played lots of different sports when younger and the current US Open champion, Emma Raducanu, was kept out of tennis tournaments as a teenager. Tennis is littered with young players who got burnt out, had shortened careers or even got into serious trouble as we see in the film with Jennifer Capriati’s drug issues. History shows he was right and the coaches were wrong.

Films are never the objective truth. Mainstream movies work within narratives defined by the dominant movie industry. Biopics are always a story and rarely give a balanced or comprehensive view, particularly when the main characters are all alive. Although the film had the blessing of the Williams family and so is the ‘official’ version, it does show how Richard’s acute sense of black pride and anti-racism was combined with a rather sexist attitude and behaviour. We see how his then-wife, Oracene, confronts him in one of the best scenes in the film about the way he makes all the decisions and does not acknowledge her role and contribution, including on coaching tips.

There are press reports that in 1999 he allegedly broke her ribs in an assault. It is claimed Oracene did not identify this in order to safeguard her daughters’ burgeoning careers. He walked out on his first wife leaving her to bring up six children. In the film, this is obliquely brought up when his other sons are mentioned by Oracene. Shabina, a daughter from his first marriage is very critical about the film for not bringing up the fact that his first family whom he abandoned ‘lived in poverty’. She feels that Will Smith who stars but also produced the film should have presented more of this back story.

As filmic art, it is mediocre Hollywood fare. It is a conventional sports success story with no real pace or tension in the plot. We all know the daughters are going to make it.  It is overlong and could benefit from further editing. The tennis scenes are authentic enough but I was wanting more adventurous cinematography to grasp the action more imaginatively that you get in TV coverage. Nevertheless, Will Smith does do a good job getting across the contradictions of the obsessive, driven Richard  Williams.  Aunjanue Ellis is also very good as Oracene, his wife. The unrelenting positive vibes from the children become a bit grating. Surely things were a lot messier? Tennis nuts and fans, like the New Age games party from Hackney I saw it with, will find it entertaining enough and laced with detail on Richard’s strengths and weaknesses as well as his coaching skills. Whether it will draw a mass audience less interested in tennis is another matter.

Two better tennis films to catch would be the Battle of the Sexes (2017) about Billie Jean King and the 2021 CNN documentary, Citizen Ashe about Arthur Ashe who became a black rights and HIV activist. Since this film only goes up to Venus playing her first professional tournament there is plenty of scope for Hollywood to come back to the story of the rest of their lives.

Today Williams is in very bad health and embroiled in divorce proceedings with his much younger third wife, Lakeisha Graham, who has been accused of forging his signature for property dealings. He is unable to comment about the film although it has been endorsed by Venus and Serena. Whatever our judgment on him one prediction he got right was when he said to their first pro coach, Rick Macci:

“Some day they are going to make a movie about me and you are going to be in that movie.”

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Dave Kellaway is on the Editorial Board of Anti*Capitalist Resistance, a member of Socialist Resistance, and Hackney and Stoke Newington Labour Party, a contributor to International Viewpoint and Europe Solidaire Sans Frontieres.

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