What King Richard‘s Story of an Uncommon Dad Means for the Rest of Us

King Richard, the new biopic chronicling the rise of the superstar tennis sisters each now known by one name—Venus and Serena—the protagonist Richard Williams, played with standout moxie by Will Smith, acts on a familiar parental impulse. Who among us hasn’t spouted off about the talents of our dear children to anyone within earshot? Richard had a special confidence in the abilities of his youngest daughter’s athletic skills. The best parenting books will tell you that it is important to have reasonable expectations of your children. Richard wrote his own plan. It was a 78-page guideline for making Venus and Serena legendary. “I’m in the champion-raising business,” Richard says at one point in the film.
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Early on, in the movie as in real life, the lily-white tennis establishment resisted Richard’s conviction that these young Black girls, who learned the game on the cracked, weedy courts of Compton, Calif., would redefine the game. One racist onscreen coach asks Richard if he’s considered basketball for his daughters. Richard sends tennis footage of the girls, shot on an ’80s-era camcorder, to noted instructor Vic Braden (Kevin Dunn). In a meeting with Richard, Braden, though impressed, explains why he can’t take on Venus and Serena as pupils. “It’s like asking somebody to believe that you have the next two Mozarts living in your house,” he tells their unrelenting dad.

Once it’s apparent that the sisters are the real deal, another coach tells Richard he might have the next Michael Jordan on his hands. He doubles down, naturally. Richard tells him he has “the next two.”

Richard Williams, with his daughters Venus and Serena.
Paul Harris—Getty ImagesRichard Williams (center), with his daughters Venus and Serena, in Compton CA, 1991.

Smith’s performance has earned him early Oscar buzz. When King Richard,Reinaldo MarcusGreen directed. The film was premiered at Telluride Film Festival, September. And although audiences know the ultimate ending—Richard’s plan worked just fine; the Williams sisters own 30 Grand Slam singles titles between them—the movie manages to hook viewers as though the outcome were a mystery, especially during the climactic tennis sequence. Williams enthusiasts may be unaware that Venus at 14 was the youngest player to upset No. 1 in the world. 2 Arantxa Sánchez Vicario in 1994 (and I won’t spoil it here).

Families will be sure to eat Thanksgiving dinner together King RichardOver popcorn, leftovers or other food they can all enjoy the evening together. Saniyya sidney and Demi singleton played Venus and Serena charmingly. For dads and moms—of athletes, piano players, premed students and more—both the movie and the improbable real-life saga provide a chance to forget those guidebooks and “rules” for a few hours and take stock. Which kind of parents do we want to be? Which kind of parents would you like to have?

No, not for anyone could really duplicate the Williams’ story. Though the film is a flattering portrait of the irascible Richard—to be expected for a movie in which Venus, Serena and their older sister Isha Price served as executive producers—it’s not without criticism of his unorthodox approach, nor does it completely sugarcoat his more maddening qualities. The movie’s most searing scene involves Richard’s then wife Oracene Price, who in a fine piece of acting by Aunjanue Ellis gets her oft-overlooked due for helping keep Richard’s plan for their daughters on course, calling out her husband’s past failures and inflated ego.

Courtesy Warner Bros.Will Smith and Aunjanue Eli in King Richard

This story is faithful to Williams family tradition. Yes, according to Richard’s 2014 memoir Black and white, The Way I See itHe was suspected of abusing his girls by a neighbor who called police. Yes, Sánchez Vicario took an unsporting bathroom break in her ’94 duel with Venus that threw the green teen off. The film does take some liberties. While Richard writes about the time he grabbed a gun to hunt down the Compton gang members who beat him up on the tennis courts, one of them wasn’t killed in a drive-by shooting just as Richard nearly pulled the trigger on him, as the movie depicts. The book shows Richard running away from the gang members who see him approaching. He later finds one of them dead.

Richard had his plans long before the movies began. After watching Virginia Ruzici from Romania win a 1978 tournament, he decided to get two more girls and become a tennis pro. The only thing missing were the children themselves and any understanding of tennis. Venus and Serena would be arriving soon. Richard learnt the game from Old Whiskey (who he claimed he learned in lessons). Williams and his family moved from Long Beach (a few blocks away from the coast) to Compton before Venus turned 3. “It would make them tough,” he wrote. “Give them a fighter’s mentality.”

Corey Gauff is the father of Coco Gauff who swept onto the tennis scene with her win over Venus at Wimbledon 2019. He’s one of few parents who has been able to replicate at least some of Richard Williams’ blueprint. While Corey never needed Old Whiskey’s services—he grew up playing the game—he’s also found great success coaching his daughter. Coco, 17, is 17th worldwide. “The biggest thing he and his daughters did was let me know that it is possible,” Corey tells TIME. “And it’s O.K. to do it your way.”

Richard’s braggadocio is not for everyone. However, King Richard turns the lens disapprovingly on the country-club parents who resented Venus’ 63 consecutive wins at junior matches. Their children yell at them. The father demands that his daughter cheat. When the cops arrive at Richard’s Compton house, he suggests they arrest the other tennis parents. The viewer can’t help but laugh in agreement.

Courtesy Warner Bros.Demi Singleton (with Will Smith) and Saniyya Sydney (with Saniyya Zidney). King Richard

And if you look past Richard’s carnival barking, you’ll find him homing in on two key tenets of success: patience and practice. Amid Venus’ stunning youth winning streak, Richard pulled her from the circuit, on the advice of only himself. Richard knew of other sensations in their youth, Tracy Austin, and Jennifer Capriati who had suffered from burnout and injuries. He wanted to take things slower and put more emphasis on education. The sisters, who moved to Florida in order to attend tennis academy training programs, attended school. They got excellent grades. “Education is a good foundation, but it also makes you a better athlete,” says Corey Gauff, whose wife Candi, a professional educator, homeschools Coco. “The brain is a muscle too, right?”

Richard prevented Venus from participating in tournaments and gave her the opportunity to train. America’s youth-sports culture emphasizes constant competition, especially in today’s era, where athletes are incentivized to specialize and secure ridiculous rankings to be broadcast on social media earlier and earlier in life. The constant travel and the showcasing leaves little room for real improvement. It’s almost as if Richard spotted the “10,000-hour rule”—research disseminated through Malcolm Gladwell’s 2008 book, Outliers, touting the benefits of deliberate practice—more than a decade ahead of its time.

They have since made millions and launched several fashion labels. While the sisters were passionate about other things, some pundits wondered if they really dedicated themselves to the game. Venus is 41, Serena 40. They’re still playing on tour.

Courtesy Warner Bros.Demi Singleton (with Will Smith) and Saniyya Sydney (with Saniyya Zidney). King Richard

This is not an easy task.Practice is a great way to improve your skills. But when you’re all too aware that your neighbors’ kids are playing in this travel tournament this weekend, and that travel tournament the week after that, the FOMO is real for both parent and child.

As a spectator watching my own son, who’s now 15, play youth sports, on far too many occasions I’ve stomped a foot in frustration, or buried my head in my hands, after a disappointing play. It’s not the greatest display of patience. His confidence is likely to suffer if he sees me do this. I feel terrible afterward, and swear I’ll never do that again. I do it again.

“In all matters, including tennis, I decided I would always be their father first,” Richard wrote. “It was the best decision I have ever made. I have seen so much damage in this world done by parents who take the other road.” Richard pushed his daughters to succeed, but it’s clear he avoided damaging their psyches, unlike more notorious tennis dads like Stefano Capriati, who admitted he put too much pressure on his early-’90s phenom daughter, or Jim Pierce, who was accused by daughter Mary of physical and verbal abuse; at one point she filed a restraining order against him. If Richard crossed a line, it’s highly doubtful his daughters would produce King RichardTo his memory.

First, be a father. It seems to be the winning formula. You likely won’t achieve the same results as Richard Williams. Don’t expect to be portrayed by a world-famous actor down the road. Expect to be loved and respected by your children. That’s worth more than any Oscar.


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