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Fri May 17, 2013

'Venus And Serena': An Extraordinary Story, Told On Film

Originally published on Fri May 17, 2013 1:52 pm

It's Cinderella plus Jackie Robinson times two. When Venus and Serena Williams burst onto the lily-white world of tennis, they changed the game and made history: They were sisters. From a poor neighborhood. Who brought unprecedented power to the game. And both reached No. 1.

Their journey is the subject of a new documentary called Venus and Serena, showing in select theaters around the country.

"It's not just about sports," says co-director Maiken Baird. "I think of it as the great American story. It's rich with family, sisterhood, race, hard work and tenaciousness."

The film spans the sisters' careers — from their childhood days learning tennis from their father on rundown courts in Compton to their slew of Grand Slam victories as adults.

As their first trainer, Richard Williams gets a lot of credit for his very unorthodox approach. "He'd say, 'Rick, I want someone to play Venus today who cheats a lot,' " says one of Venus and Serena's first coaches, Rick Macci, of the women's father. " 'Maybe a kid who doesn't like us a lot.' No other parent would do that. And this is when they were 10 and 11 years old."

Filmmaker Baird says Richard Williams was one of the reasons her team was drawn to the story. "The fact that the father divined this, and that he said they would be No. 1 in the world, and that they became it, and that they become each other's greatest competitors is just an extraordinary story that we've never seen before and certainly can't imagine ever seeing again."

But the film also shows just how big a role Venus and Serena's mother plays — on and off the court. Oracene Williams is as much their coach as her ex-husband Richard is. She also helped shape their image.

"I wanted them to be women of color and be proud of who they are and not let anyone make them ashamed of it," she says in the film.

It was an image that comedian Chris Rock really liked. "I remembered the braids and I remember they were like really black," he says on camera. "They were like, black black. They weren't like, country club black."

In the mostly white world of tennis, Venus and Serena say they've faced racism more than once. The documentary includes startling footage from the 2001 Indian Wells Tournament in Palm Springs, Calif. Venus was scheduled to play Serena but she defaulted because she said she was injured. It was reported that fans thought that was a lie.

Two days later, when she and her father entered the stadium to watch Serena play, the crowd booed loudly. When Serena walked into the stadium, she was also booed.

"We interviewed everybody in the family and asked them about Indian Wells," said the documentary's co-director, Michelle Major. "And the older sister said to me, 'That happened to them all the time. We just have that one on tape.' "

Serena won the match, but vowed she would not return to Indian Wells.

Even though this documentary is not "all about sports," there are rare glimpses of what it takes to be an elite athlete. In the third round of the U.S. Open in 2011, Serena won but played poorly. After the match, she's on the treadmill, berating her hitting partner for not giving her enough of a challenge on the court. And she is all business.

Serena — as Venus says in the film — is more of a fighter than her sister. But throughout the documentary it's clear they are each other's biggest fans. They've been inseparable since they were little girls. Venus is the protector, and Serena is the admiring-but-spoiled baby sister. But the film also shows just how tough it is for your best friend to be your biggest competitor.

"What's the toughest match you've ever been in?" an interviewer asks Venus, who is around 11 at the time.

"Probably the one against my sister," Venus replies.

"What was it like?"

"Horrible. She won 7-6. It was good that she won."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Finally this hour, a sports story that's Cinderella plus Jackie Robinson times two. When Venus and Serena Williams burst into the lily-white world of tennis, they changed the game and made history: Sisters from a poor neighborhood who brought unprecedented power to tennis. Both reached number one in the world. Their journey is the subject of a new documentary, as NPR's Elizabeth Blair reports.

ELIZABETH BLAIR, BYLINE: The documentary is called "Venus and Serena," and co-director Maiken Baird says it's not just about sports.

MAIKEN BAIRD: I think of it as the great American story. You know, it's rich with family, sisterhood, race, hard work and tenaciousness.

BLAIR: The film spans their careers with footage from when they were around 10 and 11 years old learning tennis from their father on rundown courts in Compton, California.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "VENUS AND SERENA")

RICHARD WILLIAMS: Good racket speed. Good racket speed (unintelligible) speed that racket head up.

BLAIR: ...to winning a slew of grand slams. As their first trainer, Richard Williams, gets a lot of credit for his very unorthodox approach. One of Venus and Serena's first coaches - Rick Macci - talks about how he worked on their mental toughness.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "VENUS AND SERENA")

RICK MACCI: And he'd say, Rick, I want someone to play Venus today who cheats a lot, maybe a kid that doesn't like us. No other parent would do that. And this is when they were, you know, 10 and 11 years old.

BLAIR: Filmmaker Maiken Baird says Richard Williams was one of the reasons they were drawn to the story.

BAIRD: The fact that the father divined this and that he said they would be number one in the world and that they became it and that they became each other's greatest competitors is just an extraordinary story that we've never seen before and certainly can't imagine ever seeing again.

BLAIR: But the film also shows just how big a role Venus and Serena's mother plays on and off the court. Oracene Williams is as much their coach as her ex-husband Richard. She also helped shape their image.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "VENUS AND SERENA")

ORACENE WILLIAMS: I wanted them to be women of color and be proud of who they are and not let anyone make them ashamed of it.

BLAIR: It was an image that comedian Chris Rock really liked.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "VENUS AND SERENA")

CHRIS ROCK: I remembered the braids, and I just remember they were like really black. They were like black, black. They weren't like country club black.

BLAIR: In the mostly white world of tennis, Venus and Serena say they've faced racism more than once.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "VENUS AND SERENA")

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Richard Williams walked down, and here's the crowd again. (Booing)

BLAIR: The documentary includes startling footage from the 2001 Indian Wells tournament in Palm Springs, California. Venus was scheduled to play Serena, but she defaulted because she said she was injured. It was reported that fans thought that was a lie. Two days later, when Venus and her father entered the stadium to watch Serena play, the crowd booed loudly.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "VENUS AND SERENA")

BLAIR: When Serena walked into the stadium, she was also booed. The documentary's co-filmmaker is Michelle Major.

MICHELLE MAJOR: We interviewed everybody in the family and asked them about Indian Wells, and their older sister said to me that happened to them all the time. We just happen to have that one on tape.

BLAIR: Serena won the match but vowed she would not return to Indian Wells. Even though this documentary is not all about sports, there are rare glimpses of what it takes to be an elite athlete. In the third round of the U.S. Open in 2011, Serena won but played poorly. After the match, she's on the treadmill, berating her hitting partner for not giving her enough of a challenge on the court, and she is all business.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "VENUS AND SERENA")

SERENA WILLIAMS: You were like just hitting (unintelligible) and I go out there, playing girls that want to beat the (bleep) out of me. They don't play (unintelligible) against me. They hate me. See, I know I need to improve, but I'm just asking you to do better as well.

BLAIR: Serena, as Venus says in the film, is more of a fighter than she is, but throughout the documentary, it's clear they are each other's biggest fans. They've been inseparable since they were little girls. Venus is the protector, and Serena is the admiring-but-spoiled baby sister. But the film also shows just how tough it is for your best friend to be your biggest competitor. This is an interview with Venus when she's about 11.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "VENUS AND SERENA")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: What's the toughest match you've ever been in?

VENUS WILLIAMS: Probably the one against my sister.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: What was it like?

WILLIAMS: Horrible. She won 7-6. It was good that she won.

BLAIR: The documentary "Venus and Serena" is showing in select theaters around the country. Elizabeth Blair, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.