Venus Williams made her professional tennis debut in 1994. Her sister Serena followed her in 1995. That is more than 20 years of Williams sisters not only dominating the world of tennis but also starring as main characters in the Venn diagram of sports and pop culture. Between them, they have 48 Grand Slam titles (including 14 shared women’s doubles titles), several fashion lines, a venture-capital firm, and an interior-design company. Venus is now 41, Serena is 40, and neither has yet retired—a rare two-decade streak of physical authority for any athlete.
This rise to power would be atypical for anyone, but for two Black girls from Compton, California, it’s legendary. It is the stuff of movies, and, indeed, this past year Venus and Serena executive-produced King Richard, a film that tells the story of their early years through the lens of the fierce love of their father, played by Will Smith. “I don’t think people even thought about what happened before we turned pro,” Venus tells me. “This isn’t a movie about tennis,” Serena adds.
“This is a movie about family.” We are speaking on a winter day over Zoom. Venus is in transit, and Serena is at home in Florida. Venus is in loungewear, and Serena is Team Camera Off. (It’s two years into Covid and I empathize.) It’s a measure of control and assurance toward the media that has characterized the sisters since their careers began. If you’d been part of other people’s stories your whole life, wouldn’t you jump at chances, big and small, to exert your own control? Tennis was not an entirely foreign sport to me—a certain strata of Black elites played tennis regularly, and I played in public school for PE credits—but competitive tennis was as otherworldly as golf. People did not do that for a job. Nevertheless, the display of familial Black love from Venus and Serena beaming on the evening news was crystal clear. The Williams sisters were archetypes of the kind of deep kinship ties that are central to the Black American experience. Venus is quick to point out the idiosyncratic in the universal: “I think that our family is just unique to ourselves,” she says. “Obviously we’re an African American family, and it’s important for people to see African American families in that dynamic … to have role modeling.” Still, she stresses again, “our family was super unique.” It is okay if Venus and Serena would not exactly classify their story as quintessentially Black.
Fans knew, and that was enough for most of us. That has always been the dance that we do with the members of the Williams family, who are at once Blackness personified—the batshit, loving father, Richard; the strong mother, Oracene; the hair; the style; the family squabbles; and the fierce protectiveness—and universal symbols for beating the odds. Serena sees it this way: “I am a dreamer, and I love Marvel,” she says. “I think King Richard is like Iron Man and that there still are other stories around it.
The next, obviously, would be the Venus story, and then there’s always the story about our other three sisters, and then there’s like a mom, and then there’s the Serena story. When I was looking it, I see it just encompassing this whole superhero kind of thing.”
Still, armchair critics on social media grumbled that the film focuses too much on one man—their father—at the expense of the women themselves.
There is a lot to critique, but that Richard’s story is foundational to the legacy of Venus and Serena is not up for debate. Understanding Richard the way the family wants us to understand him corrects the record about not only what Venus and Serena have achieved but also what their achievements mean—placing them in the rhythms and cycles of Black familial love by choosing to focus on the dynamics between Richard, Oracene, and their daughters. The film’s director, Reinaldo Marcus Green, says that is not an accident: “Richard’s story was sort of a window into the lives of two people that we all feel like we know.”