Richard Williams: Venus and Serena's Father Whips the Pros and Makes His Family No.1 in Tennis

By Chappell, Kevin | Ebony, June 2000 | Go to article overview

Richard Williams: Venus and Serena's Father Whips the Pros and Makes His Family No.1 in Tennis


Chappell, Kevin, Ebony


NEARLY 15 years ago, an unknown father stood on a crumbling tennis court in Compton, Calif., and told his little daughter Venus that she was going to be one of the best tennis players in the world.

This was a bold prediction, for the father was a neighborhood tennis coach and he knew that the odds of this happening were astronomical. After all, no Black person had dominated the game of tennis since Arthur Ashe won Wimbledon in 1975, and no Black woman had won a major tournament since Althea Gibson won the U.S. championships and Wimbledon in 1957 and 1958.

But as it turned out, the father (aka Richard Williams) knew best. To the consternation of the tennis establishment and the delight of tennis fans, young Venus and her younger sister, Serena, climbed to the top of professional tennis. The journey was capped off last year by Serena's U.S. Open win, in which she beat No. 1-seeded Martina Hingis in straight sets.

Now Venus and Serena are the darlings of tennis, ranked in the top 5 in the world, and the Williams family--Richard, his wife Oracene, and his youngest daughters, 19-year-old Venus and Serena, 18--is the No. 1 family in tennis, according to Tennis magazine.

During their meteoric rise, Venus and Serena have quieted detractors who panned their father's style and language. They said Richard Williams was arrogant, that he served from the mouth and that he hurt his daughters' chances, not only by criticizing the racism and the stuffiness of the people who run tennis, but criticizing the game itself. "Education is power, not chasing around some tennis ball," he always told them.

In an exclusive interview from his home in Palm Beach, Fla., Richard Williams says from day one others attempted to tell him a "better" way to raise Venus, and later Serena, to be tennis champions. And while he has maintained a public persona of a man who couldn't care less what others thought, he does admit now that the negativity did get to him. "When people criticize you, I don't care how much you say it doesn't bother you, it does," he says. "It bothers you when people criticize you, especially when you're doing the best that you can do. Because once you are doing the best you can do, you realize there is nothing else you can do. They are criticizing you, and you can't fight back, you can't make a noise. It's almost like someone has beaten you dead. It's somewhat disturbing."

To his credit, Richard Williams stuck to what he believed in, and managed to raise daughters who were not only great tennis players, but intelligent, mentally strong young women.

Williams says his family and the African-American community helped him cope during the toughest times. "If I didn't have my wife and my kids by my side, I would have never been able to do anything," he says. "Then, I had Black people--my people--who were so high on what we were doing. Every time I was criticized by those people who thought I was doing things the wrong way, there were Blacks who told me I was doing it the right way."

But it wasn't easy. He recalls a time when Venus competed in a tennis tournament in the Southern California area. She wasn't a household name, and all the other players knew was that she was Black and poor. "I overheard some people say we shouldn't even be there," he says. `They are from Compton,' [they said]. `What are they doing here. They can't play.' People would pick at us all the time. They should be glad that I am a good man because if I wasn't a good man, I would have picked up a stick and knocked the hell out of somebody. …

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