It reads like a plot-line outlandish enough for Hollywood: two black girls from the Los Angeles ghetto power their way to the top of the most lily-white of sports, driven by pushy parents who plot their trajectory before they are even born.
But the true-life journey of Venus and Serena Williams, the sisters who have dominated, captivated and polarised the world of women’s tennis for more than a decade, is as real as it is remarkable.
Their supremacy on the court has long been matched by their privacy off it. Now a new fly-on-the-wall documentary, to be shown on BBC Two in the UK tomorrow, the eve of Wimbledon, before its release in British cinemas, is lifting the veil on their tight-knit and complex family.
Drawing on candid interviews with the sisters and their parents, as well as archive footage, Venus and Serena chronicles the story of two women who are each other’s greatest rivals but also fiercely loyal friends when the racquets are down. Now aged 32 and 31, they have lived together their whole lives, and the film-makers are granted unprecedented access to the home they share with their dogs in Florida. The cameras follow them throughout 2011, as they battled illnesses and injuries that threatened their careers.
Their public personae are of indomitable and relentless focus and ambition, but this film also reveals their vulnerability and self-doubt. They emerged triumphant. Serena is the reigning Wimbledon singles champion and comes into this year’s competition as the oldest top-ranked woman in history on the back of her success in last month’s French Open. The sisters, who are also the reigning women’s doubles champions, have 53 Grand Slams between them, including 10 Wimbledon singles victories — five each.
In the film, Bill Clinton, John McEnroe and US Vogue editor Anna Wintour share their thoughts. “Part of their attraction is that they were these incredible, magnetic, athletic goddesses,” enthuses Wintour.
For such guarded and protected individuals, the first viewing of the film evidently proved too raw. Venus, in particular, was apparently upset at the portrayal of her father Richard, which dwelt on his various children by different women. The sisters missed the world premiere at the Toronto film festival, but are now back behind the project.
The film had its roots in the tenacity of the directors Maiken Beard and Michelle Major, two US film-makers who pursued the sisters and their representatives for three years.
“Their story is a dream for a documentary film-maker and we wanted to make it before their careers were over,” said Beard. Venus agreed to see them in July 2010.
“We convinced her that this was a good idea. She, too, believed that the time was right to make a legacy film while they were still playing.”
What nobody foresaw was the drama with which they would be confronted in 2011. Serena suffered a serious foot injury and then a pulmonary embolism, and Venus was laid low by Sjogren’s syndrome, an auto-immune disorder. Serena is shown injecting herself following surgery; Venus grimaces during her intensive physical therapy. The mental anguish was just as extreme.
But their toughness shines through. Serena is seen fighting her way back to fitness, hitting tennis balls from a wheelchair. She later lambasts her hitting partner for not working her harder. Their father notes at one stage: “Ghetto makes you real strong, real tough, real brave.”
A son of the segregated Deep South in Louisiana, he emerges as a doting father, domineering taskmaster and fiercely protective parent. He and his ex-wife, Oracene Price, have been their daughters’ self-taught coaches for most of their careers.
According to family lore, Mr Williams was watching television at home in the LA suburb of Compton in the late 1970s when he happened upon coverage of a female tennis player being presented with a winner’s cheque. He had no interest in the game but realised this was a potentially lucrative sport, even for young women. He drew up a 78-page manifesto on how his future children might be trained from early days to become champions.
The fact that he lived in a crime-plagued district that gave birth to “gangsta rap” did not deter him. Indeed, grainy footage shows him putting his daughters through their steps on a crumbling public court in the middle of gang territory. They are hitting used tennis balls that he had persuaded country clubs to give to him rather than throw out. Today, the sisters are divisive figures, loathed by some for what is perceived as their family’s abrasive attitude, loved by others for their guts and breaking new ground for black and female athletes.
“They are not the first African-Americans in tennis, but they are the most prominent,” said Beard. “Yet they also travel in their own pack, in a tight-knit family, and they all view life as us-against-the-world, as their father says. That’s how they have operated since they grew up in Compton and it turns some people off.”
For Serena’s detractors, her flaring temper — and, most infamously, her foul-mouthed rant at the 2009 US Open, when she threatened to stuff a ball down a lineswoman’s throat after a controversial foot-fault call — have fuelled the antagonism. But the film also looks at her stance on boycotting the Indian Wells Open since 2001, after what the family believes was racially tinged treatment by fans.
But at the heart of the film is the relationship between the two sisters, who are so close they jokingly call each other “the wife”, and relax at home doing karaoke duets. Serena admits that part of her drive was that she was adamant that her status as the younger sister should not hold her back. “I was never the one that was supposed to be good, but I was determined not to be a statistic,” she said.
“I know they’re not twins, but in a way they are,” observes the writer Gay Talese. “Their whole life experience has been within the shadow of the other person. There’s very little that’s happened to any one of them that the other’s not been privy to, maybe even witness to.”
They are, in fact, married to their careers and both seem deeply ambivalent, at best, about letting others into their lives. And although Venus has branched out with an interior design business and Serena has designed fashion lines, a future without tennis is, for now, unimaginable. “We’re just gonna keep playing and playing, and even when we’re too terrible for singles, we’re still gonna play doubles,” says a smiling Venus.
But, of course, tennis was always going to be their life. As Venus also notes: “My parents told me I’d be number one in the world. Haha, I was brainwashed.”
— The Telegraph Group Limited, London 2013