On the one hand, we should really know everything there is to know about the Williams sisters by now, shouldn't we? As Venus and Serena, a new documentary, makes clear, the two have been media darlings since they were giggling, bead-covered pre-teens riding around in their father’s ball cart on cracked courts in Compton, Calif.
On the other hand, the trailblazing sisters of tennis, despite our constant attention for two decades, have somehow managed to keep their distance. They began their lives firmly inside the cocoon of their family, and in large part that’s where they’ve remained. With fellow players and press alike, they’ve always stood apart.
That's what makes this new film, directed by Maiken Baird and Michelle Major, both intriguing and a little disappointing. Here we follow Venus and Serena farther than we’ve followed them before—into their homes, their practice sessions, and even onto their hospital beds. While we’re there, we get intriguing hints about their motivations and frustrations, as well as the consequences of their unique relationship and upbringing. Some of the details and themes that the film picks over are new, or at least new to me. But we don’t quite break the wall of their polite words and smiles.
We also spend a fair amount of time in their past. How much of that will be new, and how much a rehash, depends on your prior level of knowledge. I personally didn’t need to see Irina Spirlea bump into Venus Williams again. And while the video of Serena raising her arm in triumph and sticking it in the face of the fans who booed her at Indian Wells in 2001 never really gets old, there isn’t anything to be added to that well-known story at this point. The overarching tale of their unlikely rise from the street to Centre Court has been told many (many) times before.
Yet there are still insights to be found in the trip back in time. Simply seeing the height difference between them in the early interview that opens the movie is enough to give you an idea of the nature of their relationship, and how it would shape both of their personalities. Venus towers over Serena at that stage, and through the years she would shoulder the twin burdens of being the older and more famous of the two, as well her little sis’s protector. In that early interview, Venus is asked how playing tennis makes her feel. “Good,” she says. Serena is asked the same question. “Good,” she echoes. As Serena herself admits in the film, she wanted everything that Venus had.
Venus would play tennis with a sense of responsibility to her sister and her parents, while Serena, the baby of the family who had to be the star of every show, was free to play for herself. Serena was the more emotional player and thus the more natural competitor. Plus, with her older sister always a step ahead when they were growing up, she had a target to aim for, someone to surpass. In the movie, we see Serena pass Venus to win the first of the sisters’ Grand Slam titles, at the U.S. Open in 1999. Venus, who had lost in the semis the day before to Martina Hingis, watched the final with a dark hood pulled tightly over her head. Talking about that moment in the movie, Venus says that she learned to compete from watching her younger sister win the Open.
I was also happy to see that the Williamses’ early coach, Rick Macci, was given some credit for his role in their success. He taught them at his Florida academy for two important formative years, but has mostly been written out of the sisters’ story since, in favor of the legend of Richard the Savant. Here Macci repeats a story he has told many times before, about his first glimpse of Venus and Serena. He says he wasn't all that impressed until he happened to watch Venus walk from the court to the bathroom on her hands, just for the heck of it. The tale has been told before, but it still gives you a vivid notion of one reason why the Williamses succeeded where so many other prodigies have failed—they had, quite simply, something special. (Of course, Macci, a character in his own right, may overstate his role in the sisters’ rise to greatness just a tad when he says, “Richard laid the foundation, but it was taken to the mountaintop by Rick Macci.”)
These flashbacks alternate with the story of the sisters in 2011. The filmmakers followed the two of them on and off the tour in what would turn out to be their annus horribilis. First Serena suffered a pulmonary embolism; then Venus was diagnosed with Sjogren’s syndrome. We see each of them struggle with their physical problems. The toothy, confident young champions of the early years have grown older and more fragile in their 30s.
At the same time, they also have no plans to do anything else with their lives, and that includes getting married. Venus and Serena talk briefly and vaguely about their relationships with men—Serena says, “I don’t mind white guys,” while Venus laughs and tells us, “My ideal guy has a body.” But both maintain that their lives are about tennis, and they don’t see that changing any time soon. The dream came true long ago, but it's still all they know.
It’s noted by someone else in the movie that Venus and Serena, who share a house in Florida, are more like twins—they’ve had all of the same life experiences. The two refer to themselves at times as a married couple, and you do wonder how anyone from outside the family could wedge himself between them, or take one of them away from the other.
Judging from what we hear in the film, Venus and Serena could also be forgiven for not having the most sanguine view of marriage. Their mother, Oracene, who is as cool and direct as ever in her interviews here, is asked to give Richard’s new wife, Lakeisha Graham, some advice. “Run,” she says. Later Richard complains about the filmmakers’ constant presence. “It’s just too much,” he says. “That’s why I got rid of my first wife.” At one point a young man walks onto the family practice court claiming to be Richard’s son. “Who was that guy?” Serena asks the woman interviewing her for the movie. She doesn’t sound particularly shocked to learn that Richard might have a long lost son that she had never heard about before. (Venus has criticized the movie for the way it portrays Richard.)
Venus says at one point, looking back on her upbringing, that she was “brainwashed” into believing she was the greatest tennis player in the world. She never went to parties, and never even “talked on the phone” to other people. The Williams sisters and their family created a universe of their own, and they’ll always be tough nuts for the outside world to crack. But even if their story doesn’t gather into a driving narrative here, there’s enough to make its 99 minutes worth your time.
I liked seeing more of Serena’s close, and sometimes love-hate, relationship with her hitting partner, Sascha Bajin. And it was eye-opening to watch an assistant come to her and ask her to “approve” an expense for her father. Serena complains at one point that she always has to pay for everything; how the sisters handle their money is probably worthy of an article in itself.
Best of all may be her “explanation” of her Infamous Tirade at the 2009 U.S. Open. Serena blames it on one of her alter egos, Taquanda. She refers, with a laugh, to her loss to Kim Clijsters that night as, “That match that Taquanda played.” (Taquanda must be a real piece of work, because apparently she’s even worse than one of her other alter egos, who goes by the name Psycho Serena.)
But it’s Venus who is the poignant character here. She fulfilled her father’s prophecy, but along the way she was upstaged by the sister she had always helped and protected. In the film, we see Venus asked, at a very young age, what it’s like to play her sister: “Horrible,” she says, shaking her braids.
In that same interview Venus is asked if she ever dreams of playing at the Grand Slams. Yes, she says. She dreams that she “gets a wild card in the first round, and a bye in the second round.” In the third and fourth rounds, she plays “someone you never heard of,” and then she makes it to the final—"and I win."
Most of us have had a similar dream at some point, but this girl, against every odd, would make hers come true. It's a story worth remembering, and seeing again.