Richard Williams: The Tenacity of a Black Father


As Wimbledon fever is upon us, the man behind undoubtedly the most famous tennis sisters in the world, Richard Williams has released a book entitled ‘Black and White: The Way I See It’. Ahmed Slue CFA reviews the book and reveals some fascinating insights into the motivations of the Williams’ family and some of the unorthodox, but extremely successful, methods that have led to their success.

If one observes Richard Williams strolling during the Wimbledon Championships in his shorts with his canon camera hanging across his shoulders as he puffs his cigarette and puts his arms around his wife’s waist, one can tell that this is a man who defies convention. If one were to then take a closer look into his eyes, one would also be able to tell that this is a man with a story to tell.

Well, Richard Williams, the father and coach of 24 times Grand Slam winners Venus and Serena Williams has finally revealed that story, with the release of his book entitled “Black and White – The Way I see It.” The book is not only a biography of Williams’ life, but also an instruction manual on how to raise children based on his own personal experience. As the title suggests, the book also addresses the issue of racism.

Indeed, the Venus and Serena Williams success story might never have happened had a Good Samaritan not come to the rescue of a woman named Julia Metcalf 72 years ago. Julia Metcalf was alone in her house in Shreveport, Louisiana when she went into labour. Since, at the time, the Jim Crow laws prevented any nearby hospitals from treating blacks, she was forced to attend a hospital far away from her home.

As she walked towards the hospital drenched by the rain and in severe pain, many car drivers including someone for whom she worked for ignored her, simply because she had the “wrong skin color.” After walking for several miles, she fell to her knees and said a prayer. Shortly after, a member of her church came to her rescue and took her to the hospital where she gave birth to Richard Williams.

Williams’ upbringing was a humble one in the segregated community of Shreveport where he lived with his four siblings in a house with no bed or in-house toilet. His mother, who he calls his greatest hero, was a strong hardworking Christian. Williams attended a school named Little Hope, which he says was aptly named as the black students who attended had little hope there.

Williams’ father, who he is named after, was an absent father who never stayed around to support his family. Richard Williams recalls an incident when three white men beat him in public while his father looked on without intervening. The absence of a father figure left a void in Williams’ life, which spurred him to become a great father to his children.

Richard Williams is a man accustomed to standing up to authority; something to which the tennis fraternity can bear witness. Williams repeatedly violated the Jim Crow segregation laws and challenged the Ku Klux Klan (KKK). Williams was able to infiltrate the KKK by disguising himself as a Klan member and used the cloak of anonymity to physically attack some of the Klan members. He also beat up a police officer who had earlier punched and racially abused him.

Tired of the limited opportunities and racism in Shreveport, Williams left for Chicago and later settled in California. He had reached a crossroads in his life when he decided that he had to succeed. He equipped himself by working hard and reading. In 1978, he met Oracene Price who had three daughters from a previous marriage. At the time, Williams had no interest in the game of tennis, but that all changed one day when he was at home watching television and asked his stepdaughter Yetunde to change the television channel.

As she switched the channel, she tuned to a TV station which was showing a tennis match. Williams watched in astonishment as he heard the announcer say, "That's not bad for four days work" in response to the victorious player's $40,000 prize winnings for claiming the French Open title. Upon confirming the prize money after reading the following day’s newspaper, Williams made up his mind that he would have two children and make them play tennis.

This dream was far from realistic, and from the onset the odds were stacked against Williams. He had not yet had the children whom he wanted to play tennis, nor did he even know how to play tennis, as this was not a sport at which many black people excelled. However, self-motivation and determination - traits which are deeply etched in the Williams family DNA - spurred him on.

Williams began writing a 75-page plan mapping out how he was going to achieve his dream for his unborn daughters. He read all he could about tennis, watched tennis videos, joined a tennis club and had discussions with members of the US Tennis Association.

A few years after the birth of his daughters Serena and Venus, he relocated his family from the comfortable terrain of Long Beach to Compton - an area synonymous with drugs, crime, gangs and poverty. Despite the protest from his wife, who was concerned for the safety of her daughters, Williams insisted on the move as he felt the environment would give his daughters a fighter’s mentality. He writes:

“What led me to Compton was my belief that the greatest champions came out of the Ghetto. I had studied sports successes like Muhammad Ali and great thinkers like Malcolm X. I saw where they came from.”

Williams expressed a similar view in Britain to the disdain of the British tennis aristocracy when he warned the Lawn Tennis Association that tennis will not progress in Britain as long as the organization focused on players from the expensive elite private tennis clubs rather than looking around for potentially better players in the ghettos.

After moving to Compton, Richard Williams began to realize that things were not going according to plan. His daughters were unable to train on the dilapidated tennis courts of Compton as they were a haven for gang members and drug dealers. He tried to negotiate with the gang members, but they refused to yield.

After his negotiating tactics failed, Williams insisted on using the courts despite their objections. This led to clashes with the gang, which resulted in Williams having his nose, fingers and jaw broken and losing ten of his teeth. Despite the beatings, Williams refused to give up.

On one particular day after Williams was seriously beaten, he confronted the gang leader and started a fight in which he prevailed. After they were separated, the leader and his members walked off the courts. This was a turning point, with as Williams noting, “It had taken two years and almost destroyed my body and my spirit. But in that moment, none of that mattered. What mattered was the courts were ours."

Venus and Serena Williams have been able to dominate a sport in which few black people have had success, but how were they able to pull this off? To help his daughters achieve his vision, Williams taught them three key principles, namely commitment, confidence and courage. He calls these core values the "Williams Life Triangle." Another value essential to Venus and Serena is their faith. Williams states that faith connects each element of the Williams Life Triangle.

Besides being taught to have faith in God, the Williams sisters were also taught their family history, thus enabling them to appreciate the family's tradition of overcoming the odds to accomplish anything. Williams suggests that faith results in more confidence. He notes that at the age of nine, Venus believed that she could beat John McEnroe; a belief which he did not question in the slightest.

Richard Williams wanted his daughters to excel not only on the court, but also off the court, and so he instilled in them the importance of reading by buying many books. He also took them with him to work when they were young so as they could develop an appreciation of work ethics. When Serena and Venus were two and three respectively, he encouraged them to deliver phone books in the neighbourhood as a way to earn money. He also educated them on the importance of saving.

Racism is a thorn which Williams has had to face from the very day he was born. Indeed, to this day he still feels bitter about the Indian Wells incident which happened thirteen years ago when he and his daughters were jeered because Venus had to pull out of a match against her sister, due to injury. He notes that despite racial remarks being made against him and his family, paradoxically, it was his family's integrity rather than the fans’ behavior which was subject to public scrutiny.

Williams is sad that when Serena played against Kim Clijsters in the Indian Wells final, the crowd booed her even though she had done America proud by winning the US Open and the Olympics. He notes, “Being black in a traditionally white sport, we had often been met with criticism and condemnation…. We had put a black tennis player on the podium of Olympic victory, but when she came down, she was still just another nigger.”

I have watched Venus and Serena play at several Grand Slam tournaments and I often wonder how they are able to win so many matches and competitions despite the fact that most of the spectators tend to back the opposing players. Williams explains in his book that when his daughters were training in the courts of Compton, he would often hire school children to surround the courts and jeer his daughters. He notes that in order to toughen his girls up:

“I had the kids call them every curse world in the English language, including nigger.”

Overall this is a very good and informative book and could serve as a useful guide for parents in raising children. It also reveals the foundation behind the success achieved by Venus and Serena. While Richard Williams, like his daughters, may not be appreciated by many because of his outspoken views and his unconventional nature, one thing which cannot be taken away from him is his tenacity; something which has enabled him to overcome racism, segregation and poverty to rewrite tennis history.

Ahmed Sule CFA
Review of Black and White: The Way I See It By Richard Williams with Bart Davis, Atria Books, Hardcover: 292 pages.
Sule is a Serena and Venus Williams fan.