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.
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.
If we as a people want people to be better for us, then we need to keep our own money in our pockets, in our own neighborhoods, in our own schools, and then we can change things.