By any standards of achievement the story of Venus and Serena Williams is a remarkable one. Astounding,in fact. Two black sisters from the area of Compton in Los Angeles, becoming, in turn, the number one female tennis player in the world would have been unthinkable to most. And not just the number one but the most dominant female player in the game during their respective reigns.
The prize money, adulation and fame was duly earned by each woman. But behind the two players was, possibly an even more remarkable story – that of their father, Richard Williams.
As a huge tennis fan, I can remember watching Venus play in the early years and seeing the restless figure of her father pacing around off court, while she obliterated each opponent. Not for Mr Williams, the sedate family box seat from which he watched, either poker faced or with encouraging fist pumps. Instead Richard Williams was like a caged tiger, prowling his lair expectantly.
His expectation was that his daughter would win, win big and fulfil the destiny he had planned for her.
Richard Williams was a controversial figure on the tennis circuit from the start. His coaching style, his language, his mere presence all were new and challenging for a traditional sport such as tennis. He had the zeal of a prophet and not everyone took to him.
But Williams had a mountain to scale and he was going to reach the peak on his terms.
As Will Smith, playing Williams, in the new film King Richard, poignantly puts it to the young Venus and Serena, “The world never showed no respect to Richard Williams but they’re going to respect you.”
After this film, the world is likely to give the credit and respect to Richard Williams he deserves. And Hollywood may well give Will Smith the best actor Oscar. He is phenomenal in this film, not because he gives a phenomenal ‘performance’ but because he inhabits the essence of Richard Williams and his vision, which, initially seemed like madness to everyone who came across him.
Every humiliation, setback and rejection Richard Williams ever suffered, every ounce of determination he had to overcome them is writ large in Will Smith’s every facial expression and bodily movement as he too prowls and dominates the screen looking to release his pent up energy. Never has Smith dived so completely and convincingly into a role.
You can forget the rapper, the fresh Prince of Bel air, the man in black, the wisecracking leading man who was always bigger than the characters he portrayed. You can even forget Ali where he encountered a character even bigger than his own.
This is middle-aged Will Smith embodying a lifetime of hurt, pathos, dreams and ambitions of a man who was only ever meant to be one of life’s also-rans.
Going toe to toe with him in his seemingly absurd journey is Aunjanue Ellis who plays his wife Oracene Williams. Even in the first half of the film when she is a quiet, supporting presence, you can see the simmering tension building up in her. When it explodes in the second half, it’s a crowd cheering moment. I fully expect Ellis to be in the running for best supporting actress awards.
Demi Singleton as Serena and Saniyya Sidney as Venus admirably round out the Williams family. There must surely be a bright future for these two young talents.
Meanwhile, veteran Jon Bernthal has a ball as legendary tennis coach Rick Macci. Expect him to be in the conversation for best supporting actor.
Elsewhere, Liev Schreiber is equally impressive as Paul Cohen, the coach who first takes a chance on the girls.
In short, the cast, as a whole, is hugely impressive.
The film charts the years of the two sisters, particularly Venus, before their Olympian levels of success but it’s not any less engrossing for that. It hits as hard as a family drama as it does a film about sporting accomplishment. Aided by a fine script which rounds out each character and doesn’t stray lazily into sentimental hagiography, the film is a must see even if tennis is not your sport.
Alternately laugh out loud funny and tearjerkingly real King Richard is a royal triumph.
If I had to pick a tennis slam to describe it I’d say it’s Wimbledon with the brash, noisy bravado of the US Open.
King Richard opens in the UK on 19th November.