Richard Williams: Driven to Make Tennis History

Venus and Serena’s dad opens up to The Root about a violent childhood, racist attacks and the drive that pushed his daughters to success.

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Serena Williams celebrates her Evert Cup final victory with her sister Venus and her father, Richard, March 13, 1999, in Indian Wells, Calif.

MIKE NELSON/AFP/Getty Images

How many times have we watched that stern, focused visage give way to a knowing grin as Richard Williams awaited the inevitable embrace from one of his just-won-a-grand slam daughters, Venus and Serena? Their names synonymous with tennis dominance, the sisters are the embodiment of a blueprint for success once laid out by their driven father.

On the court, we see the Williams sisters’ desire to annihilate their competition. They learned that killer instinct from their father, who survived a harrowing upbringing with his fists and a gritty resolve. In his new book, Black and White: The Way I See It, he reveals the origins of a tough personality that often rubbed the tennis world the wrong way but has ultimately earned a grudging respect (winning changes everything).

Williams talked to The Root about his childhood, his strategy for tennis and the racism that has plagued his life.

The Root: You have faced a lot of criticism over the years for how you managed your daughters’ careers. On occasion, your daughters have been criticized. Did you feel that you needed to write this book to explain yourself and your family?

Richard Williams: People think that I’m a controversy, that I’m a problem, that I’m not a nice guy. A lot of people think that. This was the opportunity to clear up where I’m at in my life. I think I’m a nice human being. I would help anyone, as I have done for many years. And I thought people should know this about me.

TR: There was a lot of anger when you were growing up. It’s like you woke up angry every morning—a lot of fights, run-ins with the law. Where did all that anger come from? 

RW: I had so much anger in me as a child, it’s a wonder I didn’t blow up and die. [Laughter.] I got beat by a white man at the supermarket when I was about 6 years old. At that time, when you went to the market, you were not allowed to put money into a white man’s or a white woman’s hand. So one day I challenged a white man—I put the money in his hand and smiled. He picked me up and knocked the mess out of me and began to beat me. When he put me down, I looked around for my dad, but my dad had turned and left me.

I got beat up again at another supermarket. And then another time, the Ku Klux Klan attacked me, and my dad got up and left me again. So with the anger I had with my dad and this generation of white people beating up on me, I was extremely angry. My mom eventually taught me how to avoid problems, though.

TR: As you mention, you had a father who didn’t want you—flat out rejected you even when you were being assaulted—yet you’ve turned out to be one of the most famous fathers in the world. How did what you saw in your own father shape the kind of father you wanted to be?

RW: It made me want to be a great father. Not only did I write a plan for my kids, but I wrote a plan for me on how to be a great father, because I didn’t know. I wanted to be a great dad because I didn’t have a dad. He was nothing at all; my dad was scary. So I made myself a promise that I was going to be a good dad. And I wrote a plan on “How to Be a Good Father.” After planning and planning and working, I learned how to be a good dad—I think I’ve been a great dad.

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Sept. 19 2014 8:34 AM