Back in the day, the BBC used to produce an annual Wimbledon preview magazine/brochure, which my teenage self used to read assiduously. The 1992 edition claimed that an 11-year-old kid called Venus Williams was set for stardom, and that her 10-year-old sister, Serena Williams, was shaping up to be even better. Jennifer Capriati had made her professional debut at just 14, and Monica Seles had won her first Grand Slam title at 16 and Steffi Graf and Arantxa Sanchez Vicario had both won theirs at 17 … but predicting stardom for kids of 10 and 11 still seemed a bit mad. The rest, as they say, is history.
Tennis won’t be the same without Serena.
For Jennifer Capriati, it was too much, too young. But the Williams sisters, the girls from a working-class background, who grew up playing tennis in public parks, got it right. It was their dad, Richard Williams, who planned their careers, who’s the King Richard of this film – no crusades, depositions or Princes in the Tower! Venus and Serena were involved in the making of the film and it does rather eulogise Richard, who by some accounts can be very difficult to deal with – but the fact is that, yes, he got it right.
There’s been a lot of unpleasantness over pushy tennis parents, and there’ve also been players who’ve either burnt out and or been unable to cope with the pressure of fame; but Venus and Serena have both handled it very well, and without any family fallings out.
As the film shows, Richard Williams pulled them out of the Rick Macci Academy and stopped them from playing in official junior tournaments, and that worked for them. But it was a gamble. The film does a good job of showing how expensive tennis is, and how, for that reason, a lot of players in the 1990s were desperate to turn pro and get professional sponsorship. It’s not like football, where clubs will sign kids at an early age, and where there’s no pressure to move to a specialised academy. It’s a lot of money. And, for that reason, most players are from relatively well-to-do backgrounds – and the film shows how there can be snobbery and even racism at some of the famous/infamous American country clubs.
It’s not such a problem in the UK, because the LTA has a lot of money with which to help out young players, but it is elsewhere: the Kazakh Tennis Federation persuaded Elena Rybakina and several other players to take Kazakh nationality, using its oil money. Richard gambled – and won.
This film didn’t get very good reviews, but I quite enjoyed it – but then I was bound to enjoy a tennis film. One minor quibble – referring to Arantxa Sanchez Vicario as “Vicario” rather than “Sanchez Vicario”. That wouldn’t have happened. And, whilst most of it was about Venus, because originally most of it was about Venus, as she was the eldest, I thought they could have shown a bit more about what it was like for your sister to be your main rival, but I can understand that they didn’t want to go down that route.
All in all, it really wasn’t bad. It’s an amazing story. It’s really quite creepy that a parent should decide that their children are going to be professional tennis players (or professional footballers, singers, dancers or anything else) when those children are barely out of nappies, and yet it’s all worked out for them. That in itself is amazing, and that makes the film worth seeing.