Story by Tressie McMillan Cottom and Photograph By Renell Medrano; Styling By Samira Nasr
Venus Williams made her professional tennis debut in 1994. Her sister Serena followed her in 1995. That is more than 20 years of Williams sisters not only dominating the world of tennis but also starring as main characters in the Venn diagram of sports and pop culture. Between them, they have 48 Grand Slam titles (including 14 shared women’s doubles titles), several fashion lines, a venture-capital firm, and an interior-design company. Venus is now 41, Serena is 40, and neither has yet retired—a rare two-decade streak of physical authority for any athlete. This rise to power would be atypical for anyone, but for two Black girls from Compton, California, it’s legendary. It is the stuff of movies, and, indeed, this past year Venus and Serena executive-produced King Richard, a film that tells the story of their early years through the lens of the fierce love of their father, played by Will Smith.
“I don’t think people even thought about what happened before we turned pro,” Venus tells me. “This isn’t a movie about tennis,” Serena adds. “This is a movie about family.” We are speaking on a winter day over Zoom. Venus is in transit, and Serena is at home in Florida. Venus is in loungewear, and Serena is Team Camera Off. (It’s two years into Covid and I empathize.) It’s a measure of control and assurance toward the media that has characterized the sisters since their careers began. If you’d been part of other people’s stories your whole life, wouldn’t you jump at chances, big and small, to exert your own control?
The story I grew up hearing about them could have been called “Those Williams Sisters.” That is how we talked about them in the 1990s, before the world domination and the record books. They were those girls with the beaded braids and big smiles who acted like someone at home loved them.
“From such a young age, all we’ve done is work,” says Venus. “For Serena and I to explore that freedom is surreal.”
Tennis was not an entirely foreign sport to me—a certain strata of Black elites played tennis regularly, and I played in public school for PE credits—but competitive tennis was as otherworldly as golf. People did not do that for a job. Nevertheless, the display of familial Black love from Venus and Serena beaming on the evening news was crystal clear. The Williams sisters were archetypes of the kind of deep kinship ties that are central to the Black American experience. Venus is quick to point out the idiosyncratic in the universal: “I think that our family is just unique to ourselves,” she says. “Obviously we’re an African American family, and it’s important for people to see African American families in that dynamic … to have role modeling.”
Still, she stresses again, “our family was super unique.” It is okay if Venus and Serena would not exactly classify their story as quintessentially Black. Fans knew, and that was enough for most of us. That has always been the dance that we do with the members of the Williams family, who are at once Blackness personified—the batshit, loving father, Richard; the strong mother, Oracene; the hair; the style; the family squabbles; and the fierce protectiveness—and universal symbols for beating the odds. Serena sees it this way: “I am a dreamer, and I love Marvel,” she says. “I think King Richard is like Iron Man and that there still are other stories around it.
The next, obviously, would be the Venus story, and then there’s always the story about our other three sisters, and then there’s like a mom, and then there’s the Serena story. When I look at it, I see it just encompassing this whole superhero kind of thing.”
On Serena: Norma Kamali one-piece; Cartier High Jewelry earrings and necklace. On Venus Williams: Sara Cristina one-piece; Panthère De Cartier earrings.
Still, armchair critics on social media grumbled that the film focuses too much on one man—their father—at the expense of the women themselves. There is a lot to critique, but that Richard’s story is foundational to the legacy of Venus and Serena is not up for debate. Understanding Richard the way the family wants us to understand him corrects the record about not only what Venus and Serena have achieved but also what their achievements mean—placing them in the rhythms and cycles of Black familial love by choosing to focus on the dynamics between Richard, Oracene, and their daughters. The film’s director, Reinaldo Marcus Green, says that is not an accident: “Richard’s story was sort of a window into the lives of two people that we all feel like we know.”
I was struck by how often moments of everyday tenderness—the kisses, the calming refrain of “I love you”—were threaded throughout the film. “It looks like y’all did that every day,” I tell them.
Serena explains, “A lot of people get this different story of sports fathers—especially tennis fathers, who are really overbearing. And that wasn’t necessarily my dad. Everyone’s like, ‘Well, how do you play tennis for so long?’ It’s because we weren’t raised in an environment where it was something that we abhorred.” There was the infamous decision to pull Venus and Serena from junior competition so that they wouldn’t “fall to pieces” because of pressure, Richard said in 1991, and could instead focus on schoolwork. Many in tennis considered it an affront to the way things are done. In retrospect, those kinds of choices honored a truth that the rest of the world was slow to accept. Serena tells me about being reluctant to tell her father about injuries because he would insist she rest. “He’s always like, ‘Take your time. You’ll be okay. Don’t play.’ ” Another Richard-ism:
“My dad always told us to plan ahead,” Serena says. “If you fail to plan, you plan to fail.” It’s a dictum that the sisters have applied not just to tennis but to imagining life beyond it.
“We never planned to just only play tennis and just only be tennis players,” she says. “We planned to do more.” And she’s quick to point out that Venus is the real family planner. “I’m an unbelievable planner,” Venus boasts. “I usually plan the health retreats.”
“Okay, wait a minute,” I say. “Y’all do a health retreat as a family?”
“We’ve always been focused on health,” Venus says. “When I started to have issues with my health”—she was diagnosed with an autoimmune disease, Sjögren’s syndrome, in 2011—“my whole family, from my dad down, all joined into living a more plant-based lifestyle. The support is always there.” Serena adds, “We don’t celebrate holidays at all”—they were raised as Jehovah’s Witnesses—“but we definitely like to just always figure out ways to … what does Lyn call it?” she asks Venus, referring to their sister.
“The Fellowship,” Venus says.
“Yeah, the Fellowship. Lyn says, ‘Let’s get the Fellowship together.’ ”
That family dynamic is a large part of why King Richard works, both by typical biopic standards and as a counternarrative to the way media has written the Williams sisters’ story.
The story goes that Richard and Oracene Williams groomed Venus and Serena for tennis greatness from hardscrabble public courts in Compton. This was the 1980s, when the city was working-class, overpoliced, and fighting the scourges brought about by poverty. Compton’s national reputation was unfairly branded by music that emphasized the area’s violence. Even with that caveat, it was not an easy place to raise a family of five Black girls. In addition to Serena and Venus, the family included Yetunde, Lyndrea, and Isha Price, Oracene’s daughters from a previous marriage. The oldest, Yetunde, was murdered in a drive-by shooting in Compton in 2003. Having her portrayed in the film has been bittersweet. When Serena showed the movie to her four-year-old daughter, Olympia, she says, “We made sure to take out the stuff that was not kid friendly,” but she was surprised that “it was really more about her saying to me, ‘Tunde.’ She never met my eldest sister. She says she understands that Tunde isn’t around. That was interesting for me in a sad way, but she at least knows her a little bit better.”
“We never planned to just only play tennis,” says Serena. “We planned to do more.”
Compton was as far removed from the tennis world as one can imagine. The distance was not measured in miles as much as it was measured in status. It costs a lot of money to groom children for elite sports. Coaches, camps, schools, equipment—it all adds up to a very white sport. Richard’s posturing in the media attracted the one resource that could compensate for the family’s lack of wealth: attention. That attention was crucial to buoy the sisters to the heights of international competition, but it came with a price.
You can see their story being written in the press, as the tone shifts from bemused skepticism: Venus “can now be said to be something special, and this time it’s her tennis that’s doing the talking,” a reporter wrote in the Los Angeles Times in 1997. As Venus’s star rose, the media’s version of the sisters threatened to define Serena as a lesser player. Venus says, “Usually in one family there’s one good player and then the other one is not that great. And I think people told Serena she wouldn’t be great. The fearlessness with which she approached the game was something I’ve always really admired. She doesn’t accept second. She explicitly told me herself that she plays for first place.”
Serena says that Venus carried the mantle for their family when she started competing professionally in 1994.
But the mantle was not just for the Williamses. I clearly remember the news reports about two tennis phenoms. More than the stories themselves were the images. They were Black. They were working-class. They were dark complexioned. And they had those beaded cornrows. None of these factors can be overstated for what they communicated to those of us versed in the visual code of Blackness. They are as intricate as quilts and carry as much history in every woven stitch. Those braids said that these were girls who spent hours sitting between some Black woman’s knees, playing hand games and telling stories as beads were woven through cornrows. We may not have heard as much about the girls’ mother as we did their very public father, but those braids said everything we needed to know. They were Black like how I was Black.
That is why Venus and Serena smiling from a clay court felt more revolutionary than Tiger Woods would seem on the golf green when he made his professional debut a year after Serena made hers. Golf is a sport dictated by the passive-aggressive displays of gentility of upper-class white male power.
Women’s tennis must contend with the fierce tension between the intense athleticism needed to play the sport at a professional level and its origins as a display for white upper-class femininity.
Woods, in his khakis and with his insistence on not being described as fully Black, conformed to the edicts of his sport in a way that the Williams sisters never could in theirs and weren’t even interested in trying to do.
The visual impact of seeing these two now-women on the court is a big part of their story. It is not a narrative the Williamses have cultivated, but they also have not rejected it. And Venus may have carried the mantle, but Serena’s legacy has carried a particular burden of what being so undeniably Black has meant. There are a few reasons for that. Despite Venus being first and absolutely dominant in her own right, Serena’s dominance is now bigger than the sport she plays.
She is mentioned in the same breath as male tennis greats but also in the same short list of global athlete celebrities when GOAT status is up for debate: LeBron. Jordan. Tiger. She has 23 Grand Slam singles titles. It’s a number Venus mentions first about her sister. “Serena is the one with all the trophies,” she says, even as she herself holds seven Grand Slam singles titles and they each have four Olympic gold medals. And there’s no two ways about it, Serena’s body has reflected more of the culture’s psychotic obsession with race, gender, and class than that of any other female professional athlete, including her sister. Simply by being who they are, their legacies were always going to be about more than tennis. King Richard’s director, Green, explains, “Venus and Serena are still quite young, and to do a biopic on them while they are still living felt like, I think they have a lot more life to live.”
More than the stories themselves were the images. The visual impact of seeing these two now-women on the court is a big part of their story.
When I open our three-way chat by mentioning the word legacy, Venus does not eye-roll exactly, but as a Black woman I can feel the spirit of an eye roll. Serena is off-camera and more game to tackle the question. But she is not ready for the finality of “legacy” talk. Serena basically says “let me live” when I ask her about the importance of legacy in her day-to-day life: “That’s something I don’t think about nor do I want. I don’t want to think about what I’m leaving. I just think about who I am every single day behind closed doors and behind cameras. And that’s what I focus on.”
venus and serena williams Renell Medrano Venus echoes Serena’s reticence. “I’m so inspired by other changemakers too,” she says. “I absolutely love design. I love mentoring. I love passing on what I know.” Venus has also made championing equal pay part of her legacy, advocating for the end of gender pay disparity in tennis prizes and expanding that work to include her #PrivilegeTax—a voluntary donation on sales of clothing through EleVen that supports Girls Inc. of Greater Los Angeles. But even with such serious concerns, they can still joke about what comes next. “Serena and I say we’re going to become body builders after tennis. It might be extreme. It might not happen exactly like that, but you never know.” Then she sobers. “From such a young age, all we’ve done is work. So I think for Serena and I to explore that freedom is surreal. We’ve never been free.”
Freedom is an integral part of the Williams legacy. It is a privilege that their parents fought hard for them to have. Their first acts have been master classes in freedom: to wear catsuits on the court, to grunt during play, to take time off, to pursue other interests, to come back and win when it suits them. Their freedom drives people mad. Many other players consider them aloof and arrogant. Tennis great and now broadcaster Martina Navratilova’s criticism of Serena’s behavior during the 2018 US Open is well-documented (though that has more recently given way to praise), but hers is just one voice among many. People do not like how Venus and Serena win. It is easy to imagine that freedom from the relentless discourse about their attitudes, outfits, and comportment is something they look forward to. The women do not talk much about the critics. They prefer to let the game speak for itself.
The Williams sisters—committed as they are to the singularity of their experiences—have marked off another territory for themselves to grow in. That is its own kind of freedom, and Venus and Serena have it.
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