November 28, 2022

The Untold Truth Of Richard Williams

On September 2, 2022, Serena Williams played her last U.S. Open, having announced earlier her intentions to retire after the tournament, per ESPN. During the post-match interview, Serena thanked her mom, her team, and someone the tennis world will likely never forget: her father, Richard Williams. It wouldn’t be far-fetched to say that Richard masterminded Serena’s success — nor that of her sister, Venus Williams — or at least the early part of it, giving them a head start as talented junior players and allowing them to dominate the sport as adults, per Time. In fact, that head start began before the sisters were born, when Richard had a dream to put his daughters up in a lucrative sport that could set them up for other ventures. Serena and Venus are now multimillionaires who have started their own fashion lines and have continued to play tennis into their early 40s, per the New York Times.

Richard has since put his success story to paper in his 2014 memoir, “Black and White: The Way I See It,” and was the subject of the 2021 Oscars darling, “King Richard,” with megastar Will Smith playing him, as Time notes. He’s become the model tennis parent, having discovered the elusive and mythical child prodigy blueprint that most parents only dream of finding. Read on for more untold truths about legendary father and coach Richard Williams.

He supported his family when he was 12

Richard Williams’ father was always out of the picture, and as the oldest son, the responsibility to contribute to his family’s survival often fell on him. His father was absent before he was even born, and he came back only to get Williams’ mother pregnant, according to Williams’ memoir, “Black and White: The Way I See It.” Williams resented his father, and the longing and sadness from his father’s estrangement was something he had trouble growing out of until he finally decided to forget that his father existed.

He began working from an early age. As he details in his book, when he was 5, he swept the floors of a doctor’s office. When he was 8, he cleaned the bottom of oil tanks. When he was 9, he worked his way up a fencing company by convincing them he was mature enough to do higher-paid work. All the while, he also provided food for the family while hunting what he could in the nearby woods. When he was 12, he began managing his own food stand and quickly made enough money to buy his family a better home. And his schoolwork didn’t stop him; whenever he was away he hired people on the street to sell the produce for him.

Richard Williams was a troublemaker as a kid

Richard Williams grew up in the segregated South during World War II, according to his memoir, “Black and White: The Way I See It.” His family worked in the fields of Shreveport, Louisiana. Racism was tangible everywhere, and men in his community were often imprisoned or lynched. As a kid, he was permanently injured by a member of the Ku Klux Klan who stabbed him with a railroad spike and an icepick. In another incident, a man broke his skull for refusing to call a white man “Mister.” As a result of all of his experiences, Williams said he was filled with anger and was not afraid to talk back to white men who disrespected him.

Williams made sure to take his revenge. When he began providing for his family, he grew fruits and vegetables in his backyard. But there was still fruit that he couldn’t grow, so he compensated for it by stealing. And he made sure to steal it from white people, developing a reputation as a thief. He eventually took his revenge on the nearby white neighborhood by dressing up in Klan robes attacking white people indiscriminately, per “Black and White.” He also took revenge on the town’s sheriff, who once threatened to shoot him. Williams said during a talk in 2014 that he set the sheriff’s house on fire, as per The New Yorker.

He charted out his daughters’ success before they were born

Richard Williams knew what he wanted for daughters, Venus and Serena Williams, before they were even born. It was the year 1978. An idea was planted in his head when he saw Romanian tennis player Virginia Ruzici earn $20,000 after a tournament win, per Time. He knew he wanted to bring up his future daughters to do the same and prepared for their arrival. He wrote a 78-page blueprint for training his non-existent daughters and enlisted the help of a man named Old Whiskey to teach him the sport.

Many tennis parents are infamous for their vicarious ambitions and their demanding parenting methods, and Richard raised many eyebrows himself. He would strictly set standards in his home and kept his daughters’ eyes on the prize, eliminating any distractions. This would include toys and boyfriends, per The New Yorker. The Williams’ neighbor once overheard their training and thought Richard was abusing his daughters, and promptly called the police, per Time. Sabrina Williams, Richard’s estranged daughter who he virtually abandoned, said she wouldn’t swap places with Venus or Serena even if she could, per The Sun. In an interview with Harper’s Bazaar (via The Sun), Venus admitted that they had devoted their entire lives to training, and the chance to explore endeavors outside the sport was an odd feeling, going so far as to calling it very liberating.

He hired kids to heckle Venus and Serena

Richard Williams learned some valuable lessons growing up in the racially divided town of Shreveport, Louisiana. If there was anyone in the Williams family who knew about toughness, it was him. He often had to run away from angry white mobs who wanted to take his life and had close friends murdered in lynchings, according to his memoir, “Black and White.” Richard Williams knew that if his daughters were to survive in the world of competitive tennis, they had to acquire what Williams once earned: mental toughness. This is what brought him to move his family to Compton, which he considered to be the harshest place in the world, per CNN.

Richard took various steps to make sure that Venus and Serena Williams continuously felt the pressure. He bussed school children to the Compton tennis court where the sisters practiced to have them surround the court and taunt them. He made sure that the kids yelled things he thought his daughters would hear from the predominately white audience at tennis matches — behavior that Serena later called a “genteel lynch mob” in her autobiography (via CNN). Venus and Serena later left Compton to attend a tennis school in Florida when they were older.

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He deliberately delayed his daughters’ stardom

But despite Richard Williams’ far-reaching ambitions for his daughters, and his elaborate designs to keep them on track, he also believed it was important to remember that his daughters were only kids. In fact, he admitted he could have been a parent that pushed his daughters too far, per CNN. He took his daughters out of junior tournaments for a while, even while they were dominating on the national level, in order to protect them from burnout and give priority to their education, per Time. 

In a 1991 interview with CNN, when Serena Williams was only 9 years old, he predicted that she would be the best junior national player at 13. And he acknowledged that it would put a lot of weight on her shoulders. For these reasons, he turned down million-dollar contracts from sports agencies on his daughter’s behalf, arguing that it would deprive them of a normal childhood.

He also took the sisters out of junior tournaments in order to shield them from the greater tennis culture, which consisted of demanding parents. According to their sister, Isha Price, Richard took them out of the junior tournament circuit because the other parents weren’t acting in a way he agreed with (via Vanity Fair). As depicted in the film “King Richard,” this behavior included verbal abuse and cheating schemes, per Time.

Richard Williams was accused of fixing matches

Richard Williams was a loud, looming figure in the tennis world, unafraid to play his daughters’ hype man. He ruffled some feathers; some in the buttoned-up tennis world didn’t like his outspokenness. After Venus Williams beat Lindsay Davenport at the 2000 U.S. Open, Richard happily danced in her opponent’s presence, according to Reuters (via ESPN). Tennis veteran Martina Navratilova said she “would have hit him” if he did the same to her 

But on other occasions, opponents attributed more nefarious motives to Richard: match-fixing. The 2001 Indian Wells occupies a special place in the Williams family legend. The sisters were slated to compete against each other, but Venus, in a surprise move, withdrew four minutes before the match against her sister, Serena Williams, began, citing tendinitis, per ESPN. The audience didn’t respond well to the action and booed at the family at a later match. They thought that Richard coordinated Venus’ ouster so that the sisters wouldn’t play against each other and were upset when it appeared that Venus wasn’t leaving for legitimate reasons, per The New York Times.

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Even before the incident began, when it was announced that Venus and Serena would compete, eliminated player Elena Dementieva alleged that Richard would have decided which of the sisters would win. And even sharing those sentiments was cited an Navratilova, citing a Wimbeldon match in which she claimed Serena didn’t look like her usual self against Venus, as per ESPN. 

He was subject to racism at his daughters’ tennis matches

Richard Williams had experienced plenty of racism for a lifetime in the presence of a white working class community in Shreveport, Louisiana. But even in the presence of a more upper-class society, he heard the same racial slurs, according to allegations he made after the 2001 Indian Wells match (per ESPN). Richard and Venus Williams were the subject of boos after Venus decided to withdraw from the match, leading people to believe that it was deliberately done so as to not compete against her sister, Serena Williams. Among the commotion, Richard said they heard a derogatory word, saying in an interview with USA Today, “Indian Wells disgraced America.”

The incident led Serena and Venus to boycott the Indian Wells tournament for years, and Serena didn’t return until 2015, per ESPN. But even then, she said she couldn’t forget about the booing, saying the experience was one that will stay with her during an appearance on the “Red Table Talk.” She said she didn’t celebrate her win at the tournament in 2001 and instead spent the aftermath crying. And when she returned to competing in the tournament, she took the time to write a column in Time, announcing her decision saying she was coming back in an effort to forgive and move on. Among the things that hurt her emotionally at the 2001 game was the accusations of fixing thrown at her father. 

He hated seeing Venus and Serena compete against each other

As of 2022, Venus and Serena Williams have gone head-to-head 31 times in their careers, and Serena leads in wins 19-12, per ESPN. Their most recent match was the 2020 Top Seed Open, as per CBS Sports, and no one has more trouble watching than their father-coach, Richard Williams. In 2009, when the sisters competed against each other in the Wimbledon finals, The Guardian noted that Richard wasn’t on site to watch the match and was soon on a flight home to America before the match was even over. Venus chalked it up to a coaching principle; by the time the tournament arrived, Richard liked to dust off his hands and considered his work as coach done. But he also made sure to know nothing of the match and its results, going so far as to warn the captain of the plane to remain mum on the results — the actions of a father who couldn’t bear to see his children aggressively attempt to eliminate one another.

You would think he would be used to it by now; the sisters’ rivalry began as early as 1998 at the Australian Open when Serena was only 16-years-old and Venus was 17, per CBS Sports. For that match, their mother had a different philosophy. She made sure to sit through it all to make sure their sportsmanship survived the outcome, since their sisterly relationship was more important than the win, per The New York Times.

He was the first inductee into the ATA’s Hall of Fame

Although Richard Williams wasn’t always welcomed by the tennis establishment, he received his due among the African-American tennis community when he was inducted into the American Tennis Association’s Hall of Fame in 2017 (via WTA Tennis). The organization made him its first inductee while acknowledging his brilliant accomplishment of coaching his daughters without having been a phenom — or having any real experience — himself. It also saluted the inspiration he helped create for African-American children. The ATA was founded to recognize tennis talent among the African-American community and is the oldest sports organization of its kind, per The Philadelphia Tribune.

Venus Williams told WTA Tennis that she was glad that her dad was being honored, but Richard hesitated at the attention. He initially turned down the honor since he didn’t want to be recognized above others, but he finally gave in when he was convinced that the induction would focus on the impact the Williams sisters’ legacy had on children, per the Los Angeles Sentinel. In addition, the organization named August 2 “Richard Williams Day.”

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He’s estranged from his other children

Everyone knows Venus and Serena Williams, but have you heard of Sabrina Williams? That’s Richard Williams’ estranged daughter from an earlier marriage, and she doesn’t feel the same way about Richard as Venus and Serena do. In fact, she’s reduced his role in her life to being simply her biological father. In an interview with The Sun, Sabrina Williams said that he abandoned her, her mother, and her five other siblings when she was only 8. Whereas Richard was a devoted father and coach to Venus and Serena, he walked out of Sabrina’s life, saying he was going to the store to buy her a bike, only to never return.

One can imagine how hard it was for Sabrina to watch her once-loving father shower his attention to children from another mother — especially as her own family were left destitute — but Sabrina doesn’t envy Venus’ and Serena’s childhoods. She believed Richard was too demanding, according to an interview with The Sun. Besides, she has long given up hopes for a restored relationship with Richard and only hopes to connect with his other children. This could have happened with the film “King Richard,” which Serena and her sisters were involved with. The film portrayed Richard’s flaws and acknowledged his previous family (per Vanity Fair), but Sabrina didn’t find it sufficient. She believed the film didn’t want to tarnish his image so it didn’t portray all of the unsavory details of his life (via The Sun).

Richard Williams condemned Will Smith’s Oscar slap

When Will Smith slapped presenter Chris Rock during the 2022 Oscars ceremony, and the internet subsequently blew up, many people forgot about Richard Williams. Smith’s acceptance speech, in many ways, was supposed to be about Williams. Smith gave a career performance portraying the tennis dad, and he would inevitably thank the Williams family for the opportunity in his speech, no matter what proceeded it.

Williams isn’t much of a movie-watcher and wasn’t keen to watch the screener he received, according to Vanity Fair. And he was hesitant about the movie itself. Still affected by the media criticism of him over the years, his daughters needed to reassure him that the film wasn’t going to bash his character. But some believed Smith’s treatment of Rock ultimately defamed Williams, especially since Smith likened his protectiveness to the “crazy father” image that had long been attributed to Williams. A column in The New York Times argued that this statement was no different than the smears that Williams had been used to and was now trying to avoid. Williams ultimately released a statement, saying he didn’t condone violence, especially when it wasn’t done in self-defense, per NBC News.

His health has been on a decline in recent years

Richard Williams has spent the last several years of his life away from the public attention he often found himself in during the early part of his daughters’ career, and he wasn’t present to see Serena Williams win her 22nd Grand Slam title in 2016 (per ESPN). A major contributing factor for that has been his health. In 2016, Serena Williams went into her Wimbledon match with a secret no doubt weighing down on her: Her father had just recently suffered a stroke. In an interview at the time with Radar Online, his wife, Lakeisha Williams, said that Richard was experiencing memory issues and was working his way through recovery. He also hated the hospital experience and refused to believe that he had any health issues.

According to The New York Times, Richard has had two strokes, which have affected him in the long-term. In 2022, former Williams sisters coach Rick Macci visited 80-year-old Richard in his Florida home, and although the effects of his decline were evident, he was still able to communicate and swap stories.