When Venus and Serena Williams first rocketed into the tennis stratosphere, no one could have imagined the indelible impact that the sister duo would have on the game — no one except their parents, that is. The origin story of the tennis giants, as explored in the recently released biographical drama King Richard, traces Venus and Serena’s steps from the very beginning of their journey to becoming sports icons. It’s a tale of perseverance and triumph, but also a crucial reminder of the intention Black athletes need to have when pursuing a sport. With their father’s support, the Williams sisters were able to become champions while simultaneously dictating every step of their careers on their own terms.
King Richard takes audiences back to Compton, California in the early 1990s, a time and place where social injustice and class tensions ran high. Tucked in a lower income neighbourhood were Richard Williams (Will Smith, sporting a convincing Shreveport accent and world-weary countenance), Oracene Price (Lovecraft Country’s Aunjanue Ellis), and their five girls, living on top of each other in a loving but tiny home. There, Richard executed a detailed plan to make his youngest daughters Venus (Saniyya Sidney) and Serena (Demi Singleton) into the greatest tennis players the world has ever seen. The goal was lofty but not impossible — the girls were overflowing with undeniable talent — but there were clear barriers to entering tennis, a sport dominated by rich white athletes who had dedicated their lives to the game. Though they had been on the court since birth, the Williams sisters didn’t have the same infinite financial resources to pour into their training as their peers, putting them at a disadvantage. But Richard had something that others in the game didn’t have: audacity. Armed with the evidence of his children's ability as well as the belief that they could succeed in everything they tried (under his guidance), the Williams’ patriarch pitched the best coaches in the industry with an offer to coach “the next two Michael Jordans.” All he needed was one “yes” to get the girls started.
With Venus and Serena onboard as executive producers (along with their sisters Lyndrea and Isha Price), Smith’s portrayal of Richard isn’t thoroughly fleshed out. Media coverage of Richard’s approach to coaching his daughters was overwhelmingly negative, with many taking offence to his tactics as well as his behaviour with the press. Meanwhile, Venus and Serena idolized him as the person helping them reach their full potential. While working on King Richard, writer Zac Baylin and director Reinaldo Marcus Green had to toe the line between those extremes carefully, ensuring that the biopic was accurate while also combating the ongoing narrative about the world famous tennis dad. In reality, Richard was probably somewhere in the middle: an imperfect but well-meaning man so focused on his end goal of raising winners that he may have pushed his daughters to their limits to make that happen.
“My dad was an amazing guy, and I think he was way ahead of his time,” Serena Williams told Refinery29 of her father’s impact in an interview earlier this year, silencing critics who questioned why the film is centred on Richard, and not just his daughters. “He's always thinking on a different level...there would be no Venus and Serena if it wasn't for Richard.”
The film only covers the first few years of Venus and Serena’s journey into professional tennis, but we all know how this story ends; the sisters went on to be two of the greatest, most famous players in the sport. Their journeys birthed a new class of tennis hopefuls, specifically the young Black girls around the world who finally had representation in Venus and Serena’s swinging beaded braids on the tennis court. However, it isn’t just the Williams’ sisters skills on the court that had the world taking notes. Their dedication to playing the game their way, no doubt a result of their father’s influence, also inspired a generation of Black athletes to take their careers into their own hands.
In King Richard, we see Richard as his daughters’ coach but also as their fierce (sometimes too fierce) protector, encouraging them to set their own boundaries and rules of engagement as Black athletes in the public eye. From the very beginning, Richard placed an emphasis on fun as the main fuel for their pursuit of tennis; he might have raised Venus and Serena to be champions, but they were kids before anything else, and his philosophy was that they had to love the game in order to keep winning. And whenever things weren’t fun for his kids because of the clear bias much of the tennis industry had against them as Black girls dominating the sport, he stepped in to defend his girls. In Venus’ infamous 1995 interview with ABC News journalist John McKenzie, Richard famously interjected to push back against the reporter’s line of questioning about his child’s confidence about her ability.
“You’ve got to understand that you’re dealing with the image of a 14-year-old child,” interrupted Richard. “When she say something, we done told you what’s happening. You’re dealing with a little Black kid. Let her be a kid. She done answered it with a lot of confidence — leave that alone.”
With that kind of energy at their back, it’s no wonder that Venus and Serena were able to navigate the tennis scene with assertiveness even in the face of what many of us recognize(d) to be blatant discrimination. They turned down deals that didn’t suit them, boycotted tournaments after they endured racist abuse, and spoke up for what they believed in regardless of the consequences that could follow. Whether the Williams sisters knew it or not, each of those choices would serve as the framework for those coming up behind them, a reminder that every athlete has the ability to be in charge of their lives.
Earlier this year, 24-year-old Naomi Osaka sparked controversy within the sports world when she withdrew from the French Open. The decision came after the tennis player shared that she would be opting out of post-game press during the tournament, a reasonable move given the amount of stress that speaking to the media put on her mental health each time. When much of the tennis circle and the sports community at large lashed out against Osaka’s decision to protect herself, calling her a “spoiled brat” and fining her $25,000, the athlete stepped away from the tournament completely in order to prioritize her mental health.
“Honestly, tennis is not necessary for everything," Osaka said of the decision in her Netflix docu-series. "I'm doing it — like I love doing it — but there's more important things in the world. I think about what would happen if the world stopped...what would happen if tennis stopped?"
Outside of tennis, there are even more examples of young Black women in sports unapologetically declaring their agency. Caster Semenya openly criticized the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) for its discriminatory "femininity testing" requirements. Track and field athlete Gwen Berry protested at the finals of the women's hammer throw at the 2021 U.S. Olympic trials. All-star gymnast Simone Biles withdrew from the individual all-around gymnastics competition at the Tokyo Olympics to focus on her own mental health. And power forward Nneka Ogwumike of the Los Angeles Sparks is on the frontlines of the WNBA’s push to close the pay gap in the league. These Black women and countless others are rejecting the status quo and making their own way in their respective sports — just like Venus and Serena before them.
As seen in King Richard, Richard’s method of raising champions may have been unconventional, but ultimately, it worked: Venus and Serena are some of the greatest athletes of all time. Even more importantly, it set a precedent for the many Black girls in sports to follow for years to come, stressing the significance of being in control of one’s destiny as an athlete. As a Black woman in any field, especially in sports, the journey to the top isn’t easy, but what’s even more important than being the best is playing the game on your own terms — win or lose.
King Richard premieres in Australian cinemas on January 13, 2022.