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'King Richard' tells how a father raised his tennis icon daughters, Venus and Serena


The new movie "King Richard" tells the story of how Richard Williams, a Black man who grew up in the Jim Crow South, forced the white world of tennis to pay attention to his daughters, Venus and Serena. Unlike many overbearing stage parents, he both nurtured his daughters and pushed them. Here's NPR's Elizabeth Blair.

ELIZABETH BLAIR, BYLINE: There's a scene in the movie where a neighbor has called to complain that Richard and his wife are being too rough on their five daughters. Richard, played by Will Smith, gives the police a talking to.


WILL SMITH: (As Richard Williams) We got future doctors and lawyers, plus a couple of tennis stars in this house.

BLAIR: Richard Williams hatched his plan for those two tennis stars even before Venus and Serena were born. He studied the game. He taught them to play on public courts near their home in poverty-stricken Compton, Calif. They practiced constantly. But Williams also wanted to make sure his daughters had balance. In this scene, Coach Rick Macci, played by Jon Bernthal, is angry at Williams for the way he manages their time.


JON BERNTHAL: (As Rick Macci) You showed up here. First thing you did, you pulled them out of juniors. Now you pull them out of practice. You do it constantly for music lessons or homework or church.

SMITH: (As Richard Williams) They got to get straight A's else they can't play tennis. You knew that. I told you that. That's my rule.

RICK MACCI: The guy was the most patient and stubborn guy I probably ever met in my life.

BLAIR: That's the real Rick Macci. In addition to the Williams sisters, he coached Jennifer Capriati, Andy Roddick and Maria Sharapova. Macci says Williams made the unorthodox decision to pull Venus and Serena out of junior tournaments, partly because he was appalled at how other parents would berate their kids if they didn't play well.

MACCI: The parents just get so caught up in it. It's like Little League Baseball. You know, they work all during the week. They go to these tournaments on the weekend. It's like the Super Bowl, you know what I mean? It's like the most important thing. And they lose perspective, and they don't really understand that this is a journey. And it's called junior development, not junior final destination. And Richard didn't want any part of that.

BLAIR: At age 79, Richard Williams was not available for interviews, but in 1992, he told at Trans World Sports he didn't want Venus and Serena exposed to the ugliness of junior tennis.


RICHARD WILLIAMS: It tears the family to pieces, and we are a great family. And bringing the girls out later, it'll be better all around for the family, for the girls, for tennis.

BLAIR: Now, the word later is relative. Venus Williams was 14 when she turned pro. She and Serena inspired generations of young people of color to take up tennis.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Step in. Step in. Step in. Go back.

BLAIR: The Washington Tennis and Education Center is an after-school program in D.C. Staff and players were invited to advance screenings of "King Richard." CEO John Borden says he had thought of Williams as pushy, but the movie gave him perspective.

JOHN BORDEN: As a parent of color, you know, especially with daughters, you've got to train your kids to be better than everyone else all the time. And I think there is an element of protection - I'm going to keep away the things that are unnecessary but make sure that you're prepared for them just the same.

BLAIR: Ninth-grader Morgan Tucker has been playing for five years. She saw the movie with her mom.

MORGAN TUCKER: And now she wants to push me for it like King Richard did so...

BLAIR: But Tucker took something else from the movie. Before their matches, Williams told his daughters, go out there and have fun.

MORGAN: When I play a tennis match, I should just go out and have fun instead of worrying about winning.

BLAIR: In his memoir "Black And White: The Way I See It," Richard Williams writes, from the beginning, I decided that if people came up to me later on and told me my daughters were great tennis players, I had failed. Success would be if they came up to me and said my daughters were great people. Elizabeth Blair, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Elizabeth Blair
Elizabeth Blair is a Peabody Award-winning senior producer/reporter on the Arts Desk of NPR News.