PALM BEACH GARDENS, FLA.
Richard Williams, father of already legendary teenage tennis phenom Venus and phenom-in-waiting Serena, the other day was rolling around his rural property here in his golf cart while the girls practiced on their private courts. He brakes, squints against the sun, and casually watches the two hit tennis balls.
He smiles a beatific smile.
He has the air of a man terrifically pleased with the way he has turned out.
He could be right.
Whether Mr. Williams is worthy of his own prideful serenity, however, will await judgment another day. That's because Williams is going to be evaluated based solely on how Venus and Serena turn out. Predictions come easily to Richard: "Both will be No. 1. They will play each other in the finals of Wimbledon and the US Open."
If that should happen, it would generate a flaming rebirth of interest in floundering women's tennis that would make what we thought were the days of roses and Perrier with Evert and Navratilova seem like the days of petunias and dishwater. Imagine, the sister act on center court. Venus, the older one with the clicking beads in her hair and the long legs taking on her stocky by comparison and deferential sister. That would be an event for the ages.
Already, there are hints that this might come true. At the Italian Open earlier this month, Venus played and defeated Serena in the quarterfinals.
At the start of last year, Venus was ranked 211th in the world. Today she is ranked 8th. To say her climb has been meteoric doesn't do justice to her achievement. As the French Open gets ready to claim center stage beginning Monday (see story, Page B8), Venus Williams is the focus of a fascinated public. Venus has been bothered lately with minor injuries, but she has not even hinted that she might withdraw.
Some think the French could be the moment when she wins her first Grand Slam tournament, the first of a zillion. Or maybe more.
Whoa. Let's pause and organize our thoughts. First, Venus plays better on hard courts so the red clay of Roland Garros could be an adventure in the wilderness for her. Second, let us remember this is a young woman who has played in only 29 professional tournaments in her 3-1/2 years as a pro. And prior to winning two small tournaments in Oklahoma City and Key Biscayne, Fla., this year, she hadn't won a single tournament since she was a child.
As the attention on her mounted, it seemed she was a lot like Zsa Zsa Gabor, famous mainly for being famous. All sizzle but no steak. After all, it was less than three months ago that Williams got her first pro victory. At the Italian, the rapidly rising Venus got to the finals where she lost to the current No. 1 ranked player, Martina Hingis of Switzerland. Hingis admitted it was a difficult match but couldn't resist one zinger, saying of Williams: "I thought she would fall apart."
So things could be setting up for a glorious series of Grand Slam triumphs for Venus, and possibly, but not likely, for Serena. (Serena, who has bolted from oblivion to a No. 27 world ranking over the past few months, has played in only seven tournaments in her fledgling career, winning none of them.) At the French Open, it may be established that Venus is now ready to shine brighter than all others. Or, it may be established that Venus is many moons away yet from even the possibility of any sort of eclipse of women's tennis.
Hingis, who treated Venus with a haughty flippancy when the two met in the US Open finals in New York last fall, no longer is so openly smirking. Hingis has four losses this year, two of them to Venus. Anyone would have to be myopic not to be able to read these signs.
Yet, as much as the performances of Venus and Serena have caught the public eye, it is their enigmatic father, coach, and business manager, who - for better or worse - often grabs the limelight.
At the Lipton Championships in Key Biscayne, Richard Williams waved handwritten signs, one proclaiming, "I love my wife." Another professed his affection for the sponsor's tea. Signs are waved at baseball and football games, not tennis matches. It's the code of the hills. But conventional wisdom interests Williams nary a whit.
"People think I'm a nut," he says cheerfully, as he decides to roll his golf cart over to a spot on his 25-acre property in Palm Beach Gardens where he can hit some practice 7-iron shots.
At the very least, Richard Williams is a study in extremes.
He can be arrogant to the max and kind to the core. He can be wonderfully perceptive and totally off the wall. He can get to the heart of the truth, and he can fib like a felon. He can be a racist, and he can be a world humanitarian. He can make abundant sense and no sense. He celebrates education, and he trashes it. He casts himself as an intellectual, and his usage of the language is atrocious.
But if he's slightly left of center, there is no disputing that he comes with an intriguing patina. And the more a microscope is put to Williams, the more mysterious he becomes. He's a bit like Mars.
What generates this fascination is the unconventional approach Williams has taken with Venus, and subsequently, Serena. He didn't allow them to play junior tournaments to develop their skills because he thought that scene was hateful with horrible-acting parents and children who detested doing what their parents made them do.
Then, in a world in which there is near unanimous agreement that 14 is way too young for a little girl to become a touring tennis professional, this most protective of all the parents abruptly decided that would be the proper next step. Although the girls have been playing a relatively few tournaments, the Williams family has managed to alienate much of the tennis world with their arrogance and standoffishness.
"I don't [care] what anyone thinks," says Richard.
So while there is clearly an illogic to all of this, in another way it also adds up beautifully. After all, the women's tennis world is littered with little girls who become tennis and human disasters. Williams took one look at all the debris of young lives strewn along US Tennis Rte. 1 and decided he'd take a road less traveled. That is hardly the decision of a nut. Or is it?
Williams's view of the world was shaped in Louisiana where he was born and raised in the 1940s, in a fatherless home, by a mother who took him with her to pick cotton.
At times, they received welfare. Rhapsodizes Williams: "My mom was my hero. My mom was my life. My mom was the greatest person who ever lived. She was happy every day of her life. She taught me what life was about, what giving was about. She told me to be successful, I should keep my mouth closed until I have something to say."
After a blistering day in the cotton fields, his mother, Julie, who died in 1985, would ask him, "If you had to work this hard all your life, would you like it?"
Responded Richard, "No."
The message his mother repeatedly gave him, recalls Williams, is "get an education and then you will never have to work hard." While the wisdom of that advice can be disputed, little Richard bought it. Well, he sort of bought it.
When asked which high school he graduated from, he first says Carver High in Shreveport, La. But he later allows as how it was a high school in Los Angeles. He can't remember its name. Finally, Williams admits his is a high school equivalency diploma from some night correspondence school with a name he can't recall.
Eventually, Williams says he was making $30,000 a month buying real estate with no money down, then opened a janitorial service, then soon thereafter switched to security as owner of Samson Security, a small company with 55 guards for hire. That business, he says, earned him $300,000 a month. It is now being run by his sisters. There is no phone listed for Samson.
A spokeswoman for the Bureau of Security and Investigative Services in California's Consumer Affairs Department says the required license for Samson to do business expired in 1992 and was not renewed.
This is one of many examples with Williams: Run the numbers, literally or figuratively, and the numbers don't run.
Along the way, Williams moved his family to troubled Compton, Calif., a high-crime area in Los Angeles, because he says he wanted to go somewhere he was needed. Plus, since he had decided before Venus and Serena were born that they would be tennis players - just as he picked careers in advance for his three older girls - he wanted to live in a slum because "kids from the best neighborhoods don't try so hard.''
When Venus was born, Williams wanted to name her Winfield Two Horse Hop Grass Williams. That's because "I thought being born in the ghetto, she'd better learn to be ... as tough as can be." Fortunately, Brandy Williams, wife and mother, prevailed.
He and the girls would practice on run-down public courts: "I actually had to fight young mens to take that tennis court. I remember takin' them courts and they started shootin' at Venus, Serena, and myself. We had to duck and dodge and crawl like in Nam." The Williams family moved to Florida in 1991 and has lived in several different places.
Williams insists he is no dictator. Among his rules for the girls: No more than two hours a week of television, no parties, no clapping at tennis matches "because it don't do no good." When one of the girls wants a drink of water, they ask permission from their dad. But when it was time for Venus to consider turning pro, he insists the family voted and it was 3-2 in favor. He abstained.
"No one in this house," he says, "can make a decision until they get approval from someone else. That has been the problem with womens now for too long. Everyone makes a decision for a woman. One thing I can do is try my best to do the best I can and ask my wife what she thinks, and lots of time we use my wife's decision instead of mine."
So, he says, democracy rules. Then he immediately dictated how many tournaments Venus would play in and which ones.
Perhaps the best proof of how Williams is viewed inside the family lies in what Venus and Serena scrawled in a concrete ramp leading to the courts when the cement was wet: "King Richard's Entrance."
The girls are devoted to him. Venus wipes sweat from her face and says of her dad, "He's somewhat of a genius at what he does." Serena bumps it a level, saying, "He's more than a genius. Sometimes I think he is Superman."
Within the family, everyone says Brandy Williams is also a coach. Venus says of her mother, "She is as qualified as my dad. She's not as verbose but she has great insights. I have two coaches, my mom and my dad. People don't want to accept that."
At the tennis courts ($100,000 to build three, he says), Richard watches from his golf cart, then shakes his head in wonderment:
"I sit back and watch my daughters and I feel like I've done a great job with them. My girls are obedient, responsible, and they know commitment. Of course they do what I say. I don't have nothin' around me that don't obey me. Everything I've done so far, I think I've done the right thing. My girls have an education. Three girls in college. None of my girls doesn't do drugs. They don't have babies."
Everyone knows that pride doth come before the tumble, but at the moment, Richard Williams is living the dream half of the equation.
He ambles over and hits a few balls with the girls. Brandy leans on a fence and occasionally calls out advice. A backhand by Venus goes astray.
"Do you know what you did?" asks Brandy.
"Yes," says Venus.
"Then stop doing it."
Brandy has another suggestion: "Watch that toss, woman."
Venus hits a world-class angled overhead. Richard says, "That's beautiful, Miss Williams."
"Thank you, Daddy, very much."
* Douglas S. Looney's e-mail address is email@example.com