He strategically prepared his daughters to become the most dominant sports siblings ever and also for life after tennis, yet he has seldom received the credit he justly deserves.
Richard Williams’ children – Venus and Serena — have been the most successful players in the last decade, winning a combined 48 Grand Slam titles and netting nearly $60.5 million in career prize money plus millions of dollars more in endorsements.
Through instructional videos, the former Louisiana sharecropper and security-guard company owner taught himself and ex-wife Oracene Price the sport and moved his family from the comfortable Michigan’s Saginaw County – once a thriving lumber town and manufacturing centre – to the gang-, drug- and violence-riddled Compton neighbourhood in California with the hope that the change would provide his kids with toughness and a competitive edge.
Growing up in the ghetto, Williams felt, would motivate his daughters to want to achieve excellence in order to escape the mostly despair, hopelessness and disempowerment associated with their surroundings.
“My dad saw Compton as a place where you could see both sides of life and as a place of opportunity because, once you are there, there’s only one place you could go and that is up,” 30-year-old Venus Williams told a roomful of mostly women leaders and executives attending the Deloitte Women of Influence luncheon series last week at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre.
Venus, who started playing the sport at the tender age of four, credits her father with helping the sisters redefine the sport around booming power and overwhelming athletic ability and speed.
An explosive hitter of the ball off the ground, Venus holds the women’s record for the fastest serve struck in a main draw event, recording130 mph at the Zurich Open two years ago. She also holds the record for the fastest serve in the four Grand Slam tournaments, the Australian Open, the French Open, Wimbledon and the U.S. Open.
“People say Serena and I changed the game, but actually it was our dad behind the scene who changed the game,” said Venus, the first Black woman in the open era to become the world’s top-ranked player in February 2002. “Growing up in the 80s, he taught us different footwork techniques, how to hit the open stance two-handed backhand which was pretty much unheard of then, the swinging volleys and the unbelievable attacking in-your-face game combined with solid defence.
“He came up with these unbelievable ideas to change the game. He taught us how to think differently, how to be creative on the court and how to prepare. We spent countless hours playing tennis, but dad would have us mentally prepare off the court as well. He would have us visualize what we were going to do and how you are going to win a point.
“I remember the first time I played at Wimbledon, he told me to go to the stadium court when no one was out there, sit down and just visualize what it would take for me to win the tournament. He wanted me to visualize match point and how I would handle that pressure and also how I would come back if I was down a break point.”
Venus lost in the first round in her inaugural Wimbledon appearance in 1997 to Magdalena Grzybowska and reached the quarter-finals the next two years before securing the first of five singles titles in 2000. She is one of only three women in the open era to have clinched five Wimbledon titles. In addition, she has teamed with Serena to capture four doubles championships.
Williams’ master plan for his daughters also included the ability for them to think entrepreneurially and become financially independent.
At three years old, Venus helped her father deliver phone books in the neighbourhood and she accompanied him to business seminars. He also encouraged his children to listen to business tapes at a young age.
In 2002, Venus launched V*Starr, a Florida-based commercial and design firm that works closely with clients to create fresh and distinctive environments. She teamed with retailer Steve & Barry’s to launch her own fashion line, EleVen, in 2007 and two years ago, she and her younger sister bought a stake in the Miami Dolphins, becoming the first Black women to obtain ownership in a National Football League (NFL) franchise.
“When I wanted to start a fashion line, it wasn’t as popular as it is today for celebrities and athletes to do something like that,” said the Palm Beach resident. “No one kind of believed in what I was talking about and I was told to do something in the traditional path. However, I wanted to go out of the box and create a business for myself outside tennis. After all, I delivered phone books and I had an entrepreneurial mind at a young age. Also, our dad taught us not to be afraid of hard work and to relish challenges.”
Because of a busy schedule on the tennis circuit, Venus took eight years to receive her associate degree in Fashion Design from the Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale. She graduated cum laude with a 3.5 Grade Point Average and is currently pursuing an Interior Design degree at the same institute.
“For school now, I feel a little bit afraid because I know the amount of hard work it takes,” she admitted. “I, however, remind myself that I am going to find a way to get it done and I shouldn’t be afraid of hard work because that’s what our parents taught us…They gave us the tools to be able to dream and achieve and become successful women.”
Venus, who says her ultimate dream is to design a huge stadium, led the charge for women to be paid equally with their male counterparts, accusing Wimbledon of being on the “wrong side of history” on the eve of the 2006 championship.
Wimbledon bowed to the pressure the following year when Williams won $1.41 million which was the same as men’s champion Roger Federer.
Barring injury, she plans to return to Toronto in the summer for the Rogers Cup tournament at York University’s Rexall Centre.