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.

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

TR: Let’s talk about your obsession with tennis. You taught yourself how to play and formulated a plan to have two daughters who would be champions. You even wrote a 78-page document outlining your plan. But did you give Serena and Venus a choice about what they wanted to do with their lives? 

RW: That never crossed my mind. I was so sure of what was going to happen. I guess I assumed that they would love it, too. I brought them into the tennis game by forcing them to just go out there and play. I didn’t ask them to play professionally. That was my dream, a part of the plan before they were born. But what I did more than anything, I would talk to different doctors about how you raise a child in sports, how not to hurt them, how not to overdo anything, and keep their mind so that they can also be a child.

Venus and Serena loved tennis. I trained them the way my mom trained me. My mom taught me that if you are nice to a female, help them to believe in themselves and to make a commitment to something, she’ll be the best person she can be anywhere she shows up. I’ve come to learn that was true. We didn’t play in the same place; we went to different locations. We would drive all the way from Compton to San Francisco, and they loved the ride. They became so fascinated that they would beg to hit the ball. There was never any pressure on them.

TR: What does Black and White, the title of the book, mean to you?

RW: In this country, there has been so much prejudice that I have seen and prejudice against me. I remember, once, I was in a tennis club and I was called a nigger. Well, what I learned is that people will hide certain things in life. But if you hide something, it’s going to get worse.

We need to be able to talk about what the problems are, about racism. The reason why I know we need to talk about it is because I know what happened to me, and I see what happens to other young people who have my color. Until we’re ready to face that as a nation and speak about it exactly how it is, we’re going to always have that problem.  

TR: Even though we have a black president today?

RW: President Obama is one of the greatest presidents I’ve seen in my life, but what’s the use of having just one over the course of 200 years? That doesn’t make sense to me. I think a lot of black people are qualified to be a good president in this country, if they were given equal opportunity.

Until we are able to stand up as a black race and say, “You can’t do our black president like that—we dare you.” If they do it, we should stop spending our money with them. In the early 1950s, in Montgomery, Dr. Martin Luther King got people to stop riding the bus, and the bus company went broke.