December 20, 2013 -- Venus and Serena Williams have been among the world's best tennis players for years. I have always enjoyed watching them play, but I never realized how hard they worked to get where they are until I saw this documentary film.
This documentary, mostly filmed in 2011, following them through painful rehabilitation sessions, injuries and illness, also reminded me of my favorite tennis player of all time, Jimmy Connors. These women play, not with Jimmy's style, but with his toughness and determination. Like Jimmy, they have also had very long careers in tennis, a sport which wears out athletes quickly.
The film has numerous flashbacks to the early days of Venus and Serena's training with their father, Richard Williams on run-down public tennis courts in Compton, California. Richard reportedly got used tennis balls from local tennis clubs and would hit a shopping cart full of tennis balls to Venus, and later to her younger sister, Serena, as well. Venus was expected to be a star. Serena, not so much.
Later, the family moved to West Palm Beach, where Venus and Serena attended the tennis academy of Rick Macci, who provided additonal coaching, but in 1995, Richard Williams abruptly pulled his girls out of the academy and coached them himself from then on. The documentary indicates Richard Williams had unorthodox, but apparently effective training schemes for the girls that involved a lot of strength and stamina conditioning, as well as hitting about a million tennis balls.
The documentary indicates Richard Williams is a very strong-willed, determined, intelligent man who is very protective of his girls. He is shown interrupting a TV interviewer because he feels he is badgering his daughter. One of the things that impressed me most about the Williams sisters is how well they handled the press. There are certain sports reporters who attempt to provoke emotional responses by posing insulting questions to athletes. Both sisters seem adept at giving answers which are either disarming or generous, with the occasional devastating zinger.
The film documents the well-known difference between the two Williams sisters, Serena being the more determined and aggressive player, while Venus is more willing to share the spotlight with her sister. Tennis great John McEnroe, one of those interviewed for this film, speculates that had his bother, Patrick, been the better player, he would have a hard time being as gracious as Venus is. Others interviewed for the film include entertainer Chris Rock, tennis great Billie Jean King and Author Gay Talese, along with trainers and other family members.
One of the most upsetting things in the film is the depiction of the Indian Wells Tennis Tournament in Palm Springs, California in 2001. In that tournament, the fans booed Serena Williams and her father. Fans called them both “nigger” and cheered for her opponent, Kim Clijsters of Belgium. They booed Serena, who was born in California, from the warm ups all the way past to the end of the match. Accepting the tournament championship trophy, Serena graciously said, “I would like to thank everyone who supported me, and if you didn't, I love you anyway.” She boycotted the Indian Wells tournament, a tournament she had previously loved, after that.
An article by Joel Drucker of ESPN in 2009 casts doubt on the film's depiction of events at Indian Wells. The article indicates that there may not have been any racial slurs at Indian Wells. The booing may have instead been about Venus Williams withdrawing from a match with her sister under questionable circumstances the day before the finals.
The documentary shows that the Williams sisters have always been judged by a different standard than everyone else, except in terms of their wins and losses. Things they do that white players, especially, men, get away with, were judged harshly. It appears that it is the Williams family against the world, and they like it that way. Another sad incident mentioned in the film is the murder of Yetunde Price, the older sister of Venus and Serena. She was shot dead in Compton, California, near the courts where the sisters used to practice tennis.
There is no doubt that the Williams family is unusual in many ways. According to the documentary, Richard Williams had five children from a previous marriage. Venus and Serena were unaware of these siblings until years later. Their mother, Oracene Price, who divorced Richard Williams, doesn't have much good to say about him. Oracene also had three daughters by a previous marriage before meeting Richard, who, after their divorce, has married a younger woman, Lakeisha Graham and he has a young son by her. Even some family members have a hard time keeping track of all these people.
This documentary is about two charismatic, hard-working, determined athletes from a very unsual family. Richard Williams is an enigmatic, fascinating character in his own right. The film is a bit fragmented, with a lot of different time lines. It can be a bit confusing, but if you are a tennis fan at all, it is an interesting, detail-rich account. It rates a B.
Click here for links to places to buy or rent this movie in digital formats, or to buy the soundtrack, posters, books, even used videos, games, electronics and lots of other stuff. I suggest you shop at least two of these places before buying anything. Prices seem to vary continuously. For more information on this film, click on this link to The Internet Movie Database. Type in the name of the movie in the search box and press enter. You will be able to find background information on the film, the actors, and links to much more information.