The first surprise came when he climbed into the battered Volkswagen van. “I get in the passenger side and I sit down in the front seat and I get harpooned in the buttock,” tennis coach Rick Macci recalls in a phone interview.
“There’s a spring sticking up and there’s four months’ worth of garbage, McDonald’s wrappers, dirty clothes, tennis balls in the back. I mean, it was crazy, and there’s little Venus and Serena sitting in there and I’m going, ‘Jesus, this is like I’m in a movie.’”
Now Macci is in a movie: King Richard, based on the true story of maverick Richard Williams guiding his daughters from working-class Compton, California, to the pinnacle of world tennis – with the help of that first encounter with Macci in May 1991.
Once out of the van, they headed for the Williams’s regular tennis courts and were hailed by some basketball players who shouted: “Hey, King Richard!” Macci continues: “They call this guy ‘King Richard’ in 1991. We go across the basketball court and it parts like the Red Sea.”
For the first hour of practice, Macci was quite impressed by Venus, then aged 10, and nine-year-old Serena, but no more than that. Once he asked them to play competitive points, however, there was an epiphany. “What blew me away was their burning desire to get to the ball. I never saw two young female athletes try so hard to get to the ball. They’d run over broken glass to get a ball.
“I could see the speed, the quickness, and I knew how tall they were going to be. I went right up to Richard and I said, ‘Let me tell you something. You’ve got the next female Michael Jordan on your hands.’ He puts his arm around me and he goes, ‘No, brother man, I got the next two.’”
This prophetic exchange is recreated by actors Will Smith as Williams and Jon Bernthal as Macci in King Richard, now out, directed by Reinaldo Marcus Green and executive produced by Venus and Serena along with their sister, Isha Price.
The biopic offers a touching portrayal of a family unit and of Williams as a fiercely determined, infuriatingly headstrong man with a plan, willing to shred conventions and upset the rarefied elites of a sport long synonymous with white privilege. It suggests this impulse flows at least partly from his own traumatic childhood in the deep south.
Now 79, Williams, who is African American, was born in Shreveport, Louisiana, in the Jim Crow era of racial segregation. In his autobiography, Black and White, co-authored by Bart Davis, he writes: “Hatred fueled Shreveport. I often had to run from whites who tried to beat me up. I was chased with a stick, a bat, guns, and chains.
“My body had a lot of reminders of the violence I knew as a child. My nose was broken three times and my teeth were knocked out. I limp to this day because, as a child, I was stabbed in the leg with a railroad spike and an ice pick by members of the Ku Klux Klan.”
Smith convincingly portrays a man who still carries that world on his shoulders. In Compton he works unsociable hours as a security guard and, trying to protect his daughters, falls foul of violent gangs. But he and his wife, Oracene (Aunjanue Ellis), are resolved to give their daughters – Isha, Lyndrea, Tunde, Venus and Serena – the best possible education and opportunities.
In one scene, Williams tells them: “This world never had no respect for Richard Williams, but they are going to respect y’all.”
In his memoir, this can come over as tough love. Williams writes that Venus and Serena “didn’t have any choice but to be strong” and, when they were five years old, had to learn taekwondo to protect themselves.
He laments about society: “We’re too soft on ourselves and on our kids. We don’t demand excellence. We don’t train them to work hard from an early age. We want to give them kindergarten and ring-around-the-rosy and nonsense that does not really give you any security. Security comes from knowledge. Knowledge is power. Power is the ability to win.”
When Venus and Serena – played on screen by 15-year-old Saniyya Sidney and 14-year-old Demi Singleton – emerged as incandescent sporting talents, Williams worked hard to preserve their focus on school, church and fun. Macci witnessed this first-hand after the family moved to Florida so Venus and Serena could join his tennis academy, which had produced stars such as Jennifer Capriati.
Speaking from Boca Raton, Florida, he recalls: “That’s why I love the guy, I tell everyone he’s the best father of all time. The public look at this tyrant but he always kept balance in their lives. He wanted them to be kids.
“They would always bring their books to the court. If it rained, they would go up to my office and study. If they didn’t want to play, they didn’t play; they’d go to the mall or the beach or Disney World. The guy was in no hurry and that’s why I respect him so much.”
Williams’s irreverent and mercurial style, and determination to tear up the sporting parents’ playbook, posed challenges for the coach. Macci, who is 66 and still teaches 50 hours a week, says: “At the end of the day, the guy was amazing, even though I had to work around it. I told many people, ‘Listen, doing that for four years, I should be in the hall of fame just for that!’ But that’s part of coaching. I had to coach the parents too.
“You figure out how to do it. It takes a certain personality but I was on a mission. The cost didn’t matter; nothing mattered because the girls were like family. Richard and I were best friends and when you love what you’re doing and you love the people you’re doing it with, you don’t keep score. You find a way to make it happen and the rest is history.”
Williams had no background in the sport and few financial resources but marched to the beat of his own drum, shrugging off media vilification as a brash self-promoter. In Smith’s portrayal he is a visionary unmolested by self-doubt.
Macci comments: “The guy is bulletproof. He’s one of the most confident people I’ve ever met in my life, and I’ve met a lot of people in all walks of life. He early on instilled that into these two little girls.
“If any two people would have felt more pressure – which ruins some people – it could have been Venus and Serena. It made them stronger because Richard and Oracene prepared them for how the world was going to react and respond. Venus said it best: ‘We were almost brainwashed to think we were going to be number one.’”
There is no doubt in Macci’s mind that Serena, who is now 40 years old and has won 23 career grand slam titles, is the greatest female player of all time, with Venus not far behind. He believes that both transcend tennis, and all sport, as role models.
King Richard depicts another coach earlier in the sisters’ career: Paul Cohen (Tony Goldwyn), who first met them when Venus was seven and Serena six. In an interview from his home in San Rafael, California, the 84-year-old disputed several details in the movie, including its portrayal of Williams repeatedly interfering during a lesson to argue over the girls’ on-court stance.
Cohen, who coached star players including John McEnroe, also rejected the film’s telling of how the men parted ways, insisting that he was not fired by Williams but simply relocated with his wife to northern California and so could not continue to coach Venus and Serena.
“Richard and I got along really well,” he says of their three years together. “He was my assistant coach and he got an A-plus. We never had a disagreement; we were good friends. Venus was like a big sister to my daughter, who was like a little baby.
“It couldn’t have been a better relationship and he couldn’t have been a nicer guy. They kind of portrayed him as pushy and manipulative. He never was that with me, ever. The girls were perfect students. Whatever I told them to do, they did. We never had an argument.”
When Venus was nearly eight, Cohen recalls, she suffered a debilitating condition in her feet. “Richard said, ‘My baby can’t walk.’ I said, ‘Richard, that’s the best thing that could ever happen.’ He was shocked. I said, ‘I’m going to stand there and pitch balls to her underhanded. She’ll stand on the baseline and I’ll create a Michelangelo perfect tennis game.’ We did this for nine months. She couldn’t run and she was in pain but we just did it. Those nine months were the key.”
King Richard culminates with Venus’s debut in a professional tournament and a match against one of the best players in the world. It leaves viewers in no doubt about the historic significance of two young African American women rising to the top of the tennis world.
Stacey Allaster, chief executive of professional tennis at the United States Tennis Association, says: “They definitely helped to break barriers for our sport to be more inclusive of people of colour and of other diversity, and we still have a long way to go. We can’t as a sport say we’re there yet.
“We’ve been given so many gifts from Serena and Venus and Richard and Oracene and the entire family, and one of them has been inspiring other little Black girls and other little Black boys that they could play tennis and they could achieve their dreams.”
Allaster, who is the former chief executive of the Women’s Tennis Association, adds: “Richard knew Venus and Serena were going to shake up the world. They have, and it has transcended just tennis. Sport is a microcosm of society and, whether it was intentional or not, they have used their gifts on court to make a difference in the world.
“It is one very strong family of courage and love and the film does a wonderful job sharing everything that family has sacrificed and gone through. It’s such an inspirational story.”