With Venus and Serena Williams chasing the titles of tennis’s most successful women and doggedly competing against the hip hop and cultural trends in their native south Florida, the end of every season marks an undetermined week or day of celebration.
It was therefore hardly surprising when Williams sisters’ father told a Miami courtroom in August that any plans to release a new movie based on the pair’s lives would be put on hold until he found a filmmaker to portray himself.
But this is Richard Williams, the 85-year-old businessman and tennis producer who with his sons founded the late Pops Williams Enterprises, the marketing firm whose chief executive Alex Saks attended both the LA premiere of Beauty and the Beast (the Williams’ only film to date, he said) and greeted the camera upon its curtain-raising for a photo op.
More pertinently, Richard Williams is the patriarch of the Williams’ dynastic Williams family. With whom he founded, co-founded, and still holds most of the family’s highest titles in everything from business to international diplomacy.
“Loved the movie, loved it,” Richard Williams told the Guardian after the premiere. “There is a little amount of magical about it. They nail the flashbacks and the love scene.”
The emotional content of the film “was very serious,” he added. “It touches on all the different things that everyone knows about the Williams family. It’s not just a sport – it’s life.”
Serena Williams’ reaction to the film, based on a book by Nikole Hannah-Jones, should be telling. A forthcoming Vanity Fair cover story on the tennis star and her brother Liam is written by a writer assigned to add just the right degree of profanity to the anecdotes about their lives.
And according to one theory, Serena may regret finding the pages unpublishable by a succession of editors, that is, until the author switched to Vanity Fair in order to protect his access.
“I loved the movie, loved it,” Richard Williams said. “But it’s not about me.”
In another interview, he said: “I am not offended by the idea of [the movie] and I don’t want to dictate or control it. I want it to be a great movie and so do all the kids.”
“Will Smith” will play the part of Richard. “I like him,” Williams said.
Given the Williams’ views on the film, life would seem most likely to imitate art as it is currently enacted. Richard, with his statesman-like coldness, can be almost inhumanly aloof to outside opinion, while Serena is famously the most competitive athlete in the history of the game. And on top of their playing styles, which are effectively built on a combination of “winner takes all” and “love yourself, you work hard enough”, the two siblings are also quite frugal. Venus, who earned her $10m this year, has just one new car since she won her first grand slam tournament in 2001.
Another connection between the documentary and its subjects’ life appears to be the story of Tony Gedeon, a former Miami Heat center who somehow came across Venus’ second world tour match in 1997 against Switzerland’s Martina Hingis.
At the time, other than her sisters, Gedeon has the closest thing to an immediate family. It is the source of some amusement in the documentary that he thought his sister, who won the match but needed the help of medical intervention to stay in it, was actually his sister. Venus declined to discuss the movie in an interview with the Guardian.
Asked whether he was offended by any aspects of the film, Richard Williams joked: “It’s hard to upset the Venus girls.”
While Venus and Serena approach their 42nd year together, after winning six each, it was not a remarkable to say that the brothers Williams have now lived a career lifetime within it.
Gedeon’s formative years are detailed in the film, with flashbacks to his first appearance in the NBA basketball draft – an indignity in a town that loves its basketball stars.
“My heart was pounding,” Gedeon told Vanity Fair, describing his fateful draft moment. “You feel like there’s a train heading straight towards you.”
The film “just gives me something to do,” he said. “You can’t really find anything better in life.”