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King Richard and reclaiming Richard Williams’s legacy

In King Richard, Venus and Serena’s dad is the hero. The media didn’t always treat him that way.

Richard, Serena, and Venus Williams in 1999.
Mike Nelson/AFP via Getty Images
Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.

If you’ve been watching Serena and Venus Williams since the beginning, you’ve watched them play for almost 30 years. Their tennis careers are old enough to be millennials, with over 1,600 singles wins, 122 singles titles, and 30 Grand Slam singles wins combined. They will go down in history as two of the greatest female tennis players of all time, with Serena arguably being the greatest player in history.

But their dazzling on-court accomplishments only tell one piece of the story, often leaving out how much their parents — Richard and Oracene — sacrificed, studied, and worked to make their daughters the best tennis players in the world. The glow from those wins can also obscure how the family endured racist attacks, hostile treatment from other players, unfounded allegations of match-fixing, and skewed media coverage.

The new movie King Richard, directed by Reinaldo Marcus Green and starring Will Smith, aims to tell a previously unheard story of the Williams family triumph, through the lens of their father, the eponymous Richard. It’s less about the sisters’ accomplishments than how Richard planned to give them a better life through tennis. It’s also an often clear-eyed look at how poorly Richard and his family were treated.

As the US undergoes a larger cultural reckoning on race, King Richard coincides with a cultural reexamination of Richard’s life and his legacy. In the early days of the Williams sisters’ pro careers, Richard was largely portrayed by journalists, players, coaches, and the tennis establishment as bombastic and rude, and later, a bad influence on his girls. The media was unforgiving, and the sport itself could be incredibly cruel to outsiders. Thanks to their ultra-successful careers, slowly and surely, a growing chorus of fans, experts, and insiders now acknowledges what a difficult role he was forced into — sometimes by the very people who were guilty of portraying him as a nuisance. It’s now clear to many that Richard was protecting his girls from a sport that was eager to see them disappear, but it’s all too easy to forget how much the narrative has changed.

Richard Williams didn’t look like the tennis establishment

To understand the animosity and media pressure the Williams family experienced, you have to understand how insular tennis is and how that environment magnified the classist and racist attacks thrown their way.

Traditionally, tennis is a sport that wealthy, predominantly white people play — professional lessons are expensive, court time isn’t necessarily easy to come by, and you can’t play by yourself, which may mean joining group lessons or academies. Kids who are good enough enter high-profile tournaments that are affiliated with the United States Tennis Association (USTA), and really good ones go on to elite junior international tournaments before turning pro. All the while, there’s a system of tennis clubs, coaches, sponsors, former players, tennis organizations, and everyone in between.

The Williams family absolutely did not fit in this mold. Richard grew up poor in Shreveport, Louisiana, and didn’t know a lick about tennis. He saw to it that his daughters played selectively in junior tournaments and focused on their schoolwork first. Aside from a brief stint with legendary coach Rick Macci, Richard took over and was their primary coach when they made their professional debuts.

Tennis players Venus and Serena Williams pose in 1991 in Compton
Richard Williams with daughters Venus and Serena, in 1991.
Paul Harris/Online USA

“The media never gave him the time of day because Richard didn’t come from a ‘tennis background,’” Katrina Adams, a former top 10 doubles player and top 100 singles player, told me. Adams is the first Black woman to serve as the president, chair, and CEO of the USTA. As a Black player on the tour, she saw the media coverage focus on the Williams sisters. She knows intimately what “the sport was offering or not offering to them.”

“It was very difficult for the media to think anything different than existing stigmas and stereotypes,” Adams told me. “As Black people, we couldn’t possibly be that smart to have the plan that Mr. Williams had in place. Our girls couldn’t possibly be that disciplined. That’s what the media assumed, and that they wanted to portray, and that’s what they did portray.”

Despite not following tradition, Richard promised, quite vocally, that his daughters would be the best players in the world, a plan that he hatched, he says, before they were born.

“My plan was simple: to bring two children out of the ghetto to the forefront of a white-dominated game. Could it be done? I hoped so. In fact, I was beyond hope. I was certain,” Richard Williams wrote in his 2014 memoir, Black and White. “Eliminating the last doubts from my mind, I wrote a final seventy-five-page tennis-training plan for myself, Oracene, and my daughters-to-be, detailing every step of the road we would travel, more than two and a half years before they were both born.”

When Venus and Serena started winning, Williams never stopped reminding anyone watching. He famously held up a whiteboard sign during the 1999 Lipton Championships, Serena and Venus’s first big tournament final, with messages like “Welcome to the Williams Show” and “I Told You So”.

Richard Williams holds up a sign reading “Welcome to the Williams Show” at the 1999 Lipton Championships.
Robert Sullivan/AFP via Getty Images

Venus and Serena Williams were never afraid to say they wanted to win

Serena and Venus carried the same confidence Richard Williams instilled in them.

“Right now I’m Number 5. Soon I’ll be Number 4, and that’s great. One day I’ll win the French Open, and that’ll be great. Then I’ll have to move on and win Wimbledon,” Venus told Sports Illustrated in 1999.

In that same interview, Serena vowed to win a Grand Slam too. “I can see myself lifting that [Wimbledon] plate for sure. I just can’t see it not happening,” Serena said.

Caitlin Thompson, publisher of Racquet Magazine, explained to me that tennis has an inherent level of racism and classism due to the sport’s history and barriers to entry. To her, it wasn’t a surprise that the Williams family had to battle through this. The coverage of the family and Richard being portrayed as angry, bombastic, abrasive, overly confident, was the product of a predominantly white media covering a predominantly white sport with one Black family audacious enough to say they were going to be the best.

Thompson also points out that Richard would say outrageous things like how he and his family were going to buy Rockefeller Center or that he was going to outsell Michael Jackson. That didn’t win him fans among journalists and tennis pundits who already saw his antics as outrageous.

The real trigger though, she theorizes, is that the Williams sisters were so good. It wasn’t just that the sisters said that they would beat everyone, it’s that they made good on that promise. And Richard was seen as the mastermind behind it, the person who taught his daughters to behave like this.

“So much of the early coverage was focused on how the Williams family is too loud, how they’re fixing matches against each other, how it’s brute athleticism — and you know a lot of that is racially coded. They [the tour and the media] basically treated them like they were invasive species on the tennis court,” Thompson added.

This animus was clear during the semifinals of the 1997 US Open. Irina Spirlea, a Romanian player with a monster forehand, had defeated American Monica Seles in the quarterfinal. Venus, making her US Open debut, looked like a threat to win against Spirlea. During a changeover (where players switch sides and take a break between games) in the second set, Spirlea bumped into Williams.

Later, after losing their match, Spirlea hinted that she bumped Venus on purpose. “She thinks she’s the fucking Venus Williams. I was like, ‘I want to see if she’s turning,” Spirlea said, describing her approach to Williams. “She didn’t.”

Richard responded, calling Spirlea a “big, tall, white turkey” (Spirlea is 5’9” and not a bird). He also said that the bump was perhaps racially motivated. “I’ve seen a lot of racial things happen to my baby,” Richard Williams told the AP at the time. “I think what happened to Venus yesterday was a racial thing.”

He added, “She ought to be glad it wasn’t Serena she bumped into. She would have been decked.”

Even though Spirlea told reporters she deliberately bumped Venus, and even though Spirlea has the distinction of being the first female player disqualified after verbally abusing officials, some outlets portrayed Richard as the aggressor for his comments. The Los Angeles Times inexplicably ran a column from a probation officer that scolded Richard for being a bad father, writing that Venus “needs to learn how to interact with all people and to differentiate between healthy competition and true racism.”

Adams points out that instead of questioning Spirlea, tennis commentators and journalists wondered if Richard would stand by his comments, and speculated that it was Venus’s fault.

“‘Oh, she did something. Venus must have said something to her. She must have this. She must have that,’Adams said. “You know what Venus was doing? She was kicking her ass.”

A year after the bump, in 1998, Williams apologized for calling Spirlea a large festive poultry and his allegation that she was racist.

At the 2001 Indian Wells Masters, themes of Williams being the problem in the face of racism popped up again.

Richard Williams with Serena Williams.
Hector Mata/AFP via Getty Images

After losing to Venus in the quarterfinals, a player named Elena Dementieva threw out the baseless accusation that Richard Williams would decide which sister won matches against each other. She said she had this “feeling.” The Women’s Tennis Association did not comment about Dementieva and did not defend the sisters.

The next day, four minutes prior to a scheduled match against Serena, Venus pulled out of the tournament citing tendinitis. The crowd, upset that they weren’t going to see a match, lashed out. The family said in interviews that some audience members called them slurs. Serena and Venus would go on to boycott the tournament for over a decade because of these racist displays.

Instead of giving Venus the benefit of the doubt about her injury and instead of questioning Dementieva’s motives, critics of the Williams family called their integrity into doubt. Both Thompson and Adams cite that incident as troubling, saying that journalists at the time did not believe the Williams’s family account of the attacks against them. This time, the problem was that they weren’t angry enough, with LA Times columnist Bill Dwyre writing, “They deny, but with less than the normal conviction, even anger, one would expect in the face of such serious issues. How about pounding on the table and saying it ain’t so? How about some tears, some anger?”

Critics said Richard Williams was a bad influence on Venus and Serena

That same year, Hall of Famer Martina Navratilova told reporters that there wasn’t any racism in tennis. In fact, she claimed that Venus and Serena enjoyed privilege because they were Black. “There’s no racism as far as I know,” said Navratilova. “I think that people have been treating them with kid gloves because they are African-Americans, and if they were white they would have been told off before and more.”

She also implied that Richard was a bad influence and that they would be better off without him. “The girls are great. They’re great athletes, nice women. I like them a lot and their father seems to be getting in the way. That’s what I have to say about that, and he’s probably going to yell at me next time he sees me.” she said.

The idea that Richard is some kind of puppet master or a bad influence that his daughters needed to be separated from became an underlying theme. As Venus and Serena kept winning, pundits, players, and legends like Navratilova seemed to pin their grievances on Richard while simultaneously lauding his daughters’ achievements. Essentially, the narrative was that they were winning in spite of him.

In a sport that’s seen fathers punished for violent behavior, banned for abusing their daughters, and jailed for tax evasion on their daughter’s income, somehow Richard became the biggest villain.

That wasn’t lost on him.

“Would another family have been treated as mine was?” Richard wrote in his book. “The harsh reality is that [America] has not eradicated prejudice. Racial barriers have fallen in record numbers throughout the years. Blacks not only ride in the front of the bus, some of us own the bus company. The events at Indian Wells were a reminder of how much farther we had to go.”

King Richard might be for the people who never believed in him

There’s an exquisite example of Richard Williams’s behavior caught on tape, a clip that has gone viral a few times since. It’s an interview for ABC News from 1995, with correspondent John McKenzie. McKenzie is interviewing a 14-year-old Venus about her tennis dreams and he asks her why she’s so confident.

“Did you think you could beat her?” McKenzie questions Venus. “You say it so easily. Why?”

Each time, Venus responds with a smile, telling him she’s “very confident.” But after prodding her confidence one more time, Richard interrupts. He tells McKenzie not to undermine her. He says:

You’ve got to understand that you’re dealing with the image of a 14-year-old child. And this child gonna be out there playing when your old ass and me gonna be in the grave. 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 it with a lot of confidence, leave that alone.

Richard’s interruption, at the time, could be seen as bombastic or out of line. Through today’s lens, though — and for some at the time — it’s evident that Richard was trying to protect his daughter. He understood then that Venus and Serena needed to be confident in themselves because they were going to be constantly surrounded by people who told them otherwise.

“We in the Black community, we knew that, we understood it. We knew exactly where he was coming from. We knew exactly what he was doing,” Adams told me. “I already know how much he protected them.”

It’s only fairly recently, as Serena is in the twilight of her career, chasing history, that the sport at large has truly begun to appreciate what she and her sister have accomplished.

“I remember, there was a point, and it was later than you’d think — it was somewhere around her having 16 or 17 Grand Slams — when tennis commentators kind of decided to start talking about Serena specifically as a legend and not so much the open criticism they had of her,” Thompson recalls. Prior to that, she says, pundits would talk about Serena being lazy, out of shape, or distracted.

2021 AFI Fest: Closing Night Premiere Of Warner Bros. “King Richard” - Arrivals
Serena and Venus Williams at the premiere of King Richard.
Albert L. Ortega/Getty Images

“There’s now this sort of retroactive narrative,” she said, explaining how tennis insiders are effectively ret-conning how they treated the Williams family. “Like they’ll say, ‘I’ve always thought of Venus and Serena as being elegant, transcendent champions.’ And it’s like, really? Did you? It didn’t sound like that at the time.”

Adams echoed this idea, telling me that watching commentators negatively portray the sisters is what spurred her to become a commentator herself. “I wanted to help tell their story better. I understood the pressures that they were under. I understood the targets that were on their backs.” Adams points out that white players who have gone through very public struggles have rarely been subject to the same kind of scrutiny.

In a sense, Serena and Venus’s Hall of Fame careers and their stewardship of the sport have made it impossible to dismiss Richard Williams. Squaring away their success means at the very least some admission that he was right. He protected them and guided them through turmoil like what happened at Indian Wells, a racist incident that no player should have to endure. And when you reexamine what Williams senior said, that his kids were going to be the very best, it isn’t all that different from what coaches at prestigious tennis academies have said about their brightest proteges.

“The reconsideration of Mr. Williams’s career is for the people that never believed in him in the first place,” Adams told me. “I always knew he was a legend. And I’ve always considered him and the girls to be legends. There’s no one else like them.”

A reexamination of Richard Williams’s legacy also comes as the US culturally has had a reckoning on race and gender in the realms of theater, movies, music, and of course sports. Conversations about the hurdles and systemic bias that Black athletes experience, including Black female tennis players, are being had on a national stage. Richard, Venus, and Serena, by way of their success and their openness about their experiences, are part of that reckoning.

In a way, it feels as though Richard himself wouldn’t really care about King Richard or how history will remember his legacy. He’s always been steps ahead, as he was when he decided that his girls would be the most dominant female tennis players that history has ever seen. And he’s always been devoted to his daughters, even if there were people — and there were plenty — who weren’t able to see it at the time.

“Choosing between having a child whom you love and who loves you, and money, was easy. I found it even made it easier for me to accept my kids on the court,” Richard wrote in his memoir, asserting that his daughters’ welfare was always more important than their success. “I never was a super coach, but I sure have been, I hope, a super parent.”

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