DAVID JONES: The Feelgood tale of the Williams sisters’ rise is full of top spins

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An empty highway that cuts through the lush green space of the Florida Everglades. Summer, 2001.

Parked in a hall, as instructed, I wait for Richard Williams, father and self-proclaimed creator of teenage tennis sensations, Venus and Serena.

Half an hour after our agreed meeting time, an adapted black sports car slides inches from my rear bumper.

‘Jump in!’ he barks and roars off before I can close the passenger door.

As the needle touches 100 km / h, Williams swings insanely from track to track, clearly enjoying my alarm and bombarding me with aggressive questions.

Richard Williams was behind the Williams sisters’ progress to the pinnacle of women’s tennis

What is my agenda? Is it positive? Why should he trust me? And bizarrely enough, I went to college?

“Oh, you saw an educated man!” he mocks, in his deep southern baritone. ‘Me, I’m not educated. I’m stupid . . . at least that’s what people like to think. ‘

He then declares himself a self-taught polymath, brilliant at science and art and a ‘genius’ at mathematics.

He compares his ability to work without sleep to that of Napoleon and Martin Luther Kings.

Then began my disturbing and at times surreal day with ‘King Richard’, as he (no doubt for his pleasure) is styled in a biographical film that opened in British cinemas this weekend.

After shaping Serena into the greatest female tennis player ever, with Venus close behind her, Williams was the architect behind perhaps the most daring human experiment in sports history.

The film, in which he is brilliantly portrayed by Will Smith, pretends to tell the true story behind his mission to program his daughters into tennis.

I say ‘claim’ because, having had internal access to this phenomenal sister act from the moment they punctured the white, privileged bubble of ‘women’s tennis, I know this sentimentalized, feel-good movie – produced by Venus and Serena herself and based on their father’s autobiography – reveals only the sugary version of their story.

The more sinister aspects are either ignored, distorted or quickly erased.

Williams 'strict methods are attributed as a reason to his daughters' enduring tennis career

Williams ‘strict methods are attributed as a reason to his daughters’ enduring tennis career

The script succeeds by ending the plot in 1994, when 14-year-old Venus made his professional debut.

Events then are picked cherries and presented as captions and news movie flashbacks.

We are reminded of the sister’s major sponsorship deals; Serena’s world record with 23 Grand Slam victories; Venus’ seven Wimbledon titles; their immense contribution to black and female empowerment.

We also get the impression of a family which, although it has had its differences, remains united.

But had the story been allowed to continue for a few more years, the audience would not have left their seats with such a warm glow.

For although Williams has undoubtedly realized his dream (Venus and Serena are worth a total of 225 million pounds, and the latter is widely regarded as the best female player of all time), his success has received a considerable price.

Yes, when I met him 20 years ago, the myth he created was already starting to show cracks. He invited me into his inner sanctuary in an attempt to write over them.

First, he took me to a ghetto where gang members high-fived him ‘out of respect’.

Then on to a project for vulnerable children, which he claimed to have funded with the millions his daughters had amassed.

Williams is portrayed by Will Smith in the movie 'King Richard', which is currently being shown in British cinemas

Williams is portrayed by Will Smith in the movie ‘King Richard’, which is currently being shown in British cinemas

He showed me streets ‘named in his honor’. All while juggling business deals on his four cell phones.

So, as the evening wore on, I became the first journalist to be allowed into ‘Leisure Acres’, the property behind whose electrified 10-foot walls he made his daughters practice until their hands blistered, subjecting them to the rules of his 78-page ‘master plan’ for tennis immortality.

Williams took me into his tennis lab – lined with wall mirrors so this ultimate egoist could see himself at work – and logged on to the 4-square-foot computer screen, analyzing not only Venus and Serena’s tennis stats, but their rivals as well.

We climbed aboard the campervan as he drove them in between the tournaments (so they would not mix with other girls on the trip).

Its clothing was spray-painted with images of his protégés flanking their mentor, ‘the greatest father on earth’.

The King Richard who admired me was far away from the benign despot in the film. Although he was fascinating, he seemed to me calculating and even threatening.

Serena Williams (pictured) is widely regarded as the greatest female tennis player of all time

Serena Williams (pictured) is widely regarded as the greatest female tennis player of all time

On the pitch, his girls may have been confident and cheeky, as we are led to believe. But outside of that, by virtue of their monastic, regimental upbringing, they were well into their 20s before maturing into the admirable role models we see today.

How do I know? When Venus was 18 and Serena only 17, I also flew to Florida for their first non-tennis interview.

As Wimbledon approached, I was hoping to hear about their unconventional upbringing, their taste for music and fashion, outside interests and whether they had boyfriends.

Unfortunately, what I got was an hour of unpublished nonsense and youthful giggles, marked by incessant ping when the girls sitting side by side texted each other with their new toy, Nokia mobile phones.

Their father’s refusal to allow them to mingle with their peers, and his insistence that they spend every spare minute practicing, had left them devoid of even basic social skills.

Richard was not the only one to blame. Their mother, Oracene, a Jehovah’s Witness, was just as strict and forbade the girls to go out with boys until they were 18. ‘When they date, they should plan to get married,’ she told me.

The fear that her inventions might be vulnerable to the amorous advances of more mature female players was another concern.

“They’re in the locker room talking to these older women – undressed – and they’re lesbians,” I remember her saying seriously.

For Venus and Serena, the cold realities of life hit sports icons for the first time in 2001, after a cousin claimed that their father had corrected the result when they played against each other to keep both girls at the top of the rankings.

This damaging allegation may have explained the buh that met Serena the next time she stepped on the field at the French Open. Her mother, however, said it to racism.

Whatever the truth, things got worse with the emergence of an ugly rift between Richard and the Oracene.

The film shows the couple arguing violently, but peacefully, largely over his habit of making big decisions regarding their daughters without consulting her.

Serena Williams is currently chasing a record-breaking 24th Grand Slam title for women

Serena Williams is currently chasing a record-breaking 24th Grand Slam title for women

There is no indication that Williams resorted to violence. Still, shortly before our meeting, I revealed reports filed by the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Department that revealed officers were called to ‘Leisure Acres’ twice, in 1997 and 1999, on suspicion that Williams had assaulted his wife.

The second incident reportedly left the Oracene with three broken ribs.

The couple subsequently separated and divorced in 2002, ending the second of Williams’ three disastrous marriages.

When he left his first wife, Betty Johnson, one of their five children accused him of having left them in poverty.

His third, Lakeisha Graham, 38 years younger, gave birth to a son before their marriage broke down bitterly, in 2017, after just five years.

However, the most tragic chapter in the history of the real Williams sisters came in 2003, when their older half-sister, Yetunde Price, was murdered in a shooting in the infamous Los Angeles suburb of Compton.

The film makes much of Richard’s courage to meet gang members who plagued the then 19-year-old Yetunde while she watched her sisters practice in the hole-in-one local courts.

What it does not tell us is that as the head of a security company that generates $ 1 million a year (so he told me), he had the means to raise his family in a safer area. But raising Venus and Serena in Compton was always part of his master plan.

Venus Williams has an impressive seven Grand Slam titles, but has struggled for success in recent years

Venus Williams has an impressive seven Grand Slam titles, but has struggled for success in recent years

Considering that such sports legends as boxer Mike Tyson and basketball star Larry Bird had risen from the ghetto, he thought it would sharpen them up to the tennis court.

His ruthlessness had catastrophic consequences. When head coach Rick Macci offered Venus and Serena a scholarship to his academy, the family traveled to Florida.

But Yetunde, who had graduated at the top of his class, was considered old enough to stay behind to complete his education.

Tragically, left to fend for herself, she collapsed with a violent gang and was driven through a drug dealing zone by her boyfriend when she was hit by a bullet intended for him.

When I watched the disinfected movie over the weekend, I wondered if her stepfather, Richard, now 79 and weakened by several recent strokes, could at least take responsibility for the secondary damage caused by his vain quest.

Remembering the messianic twinkle in King Richard’s eyes as we drove along the Everglades Highway seems very unlikely.


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