Richard Williams: On raising champions

He’s been described as the Svengali persona that produced two of tennis world’s greatest athletes. His methods were considered unorthodox and his character bombastic. Who can forget Wimbledon 2000 when he jumped into the NBC broadcasting booth to perform a victory dance after his youngest daughter, took home the title. He was indeed the brash, unapologetic driving force behind the success of daughters Venus and Serena Williams.  Critics would agree that there isn’t much left to say about Richard Williams. And for the most part, they are right. He’s shown us exactly who he is. A no holds barred, pushy, outspoken sports parent.

But standing before me today, at 72 years old, pot bellied in a Nike Polo shirt, Navy Dickie’s shorts and ribbed tube socks pulled all the way up slim legs, he seemed more tender & less militant than the relentless father who cultivated the skills of champions in the middle of his Compton Los Angeles neighborhood. However, a hard look into the softened eyes of this iconic sports parent tells a different story. And Richard Williams was happy to reveal the details behind his success, in his first book, ‘The Way I See It,’  that began with a life of pure hell, and a mother who never allowed him to fail at anything.

In front of a small packed room of eager listeners, Williams spoke openly about, the segregated south where he was born, raised and regularly brutalized. ” I feel like I got beat by everybody in the south,” he said in a matter of fact tone. “But I’m thankful that white people beat me, because if they hadn’t I wouldn’t be so strong.”  Still the brutality he suffered at the hands of white people in Shreveport Louisiana to Chicago, was sadly, at that time, common place. He recalls one brutal beating he suffered at the hands of three white men as his father looked on in fear and eventually fled the scene leaving his son to fend for himself. A memory that brought him to tears in front of his listeners.  Between tears and tales of the south, neck-bone soup filled with maggots and race brutality, he acknowledges that his mother was his confidant and his hero. “If it wasn’t for my mother, I would be dead because I would have killed a lot of white people.”

Perhaps that resilience is why he excelled in the ghettos of Compton. “Being in the Ghetto never bothered me. For me it was a pleasure being there, but for others, it was enslaving. In the ghetto there are three things you can count on, and one is that you are going to live or you’re going to die.”   However, becoming a professional tennis player wasn’t either of his daughters’ lifelong dreams, it wasn’t even Mr. Williams’. His dream was to be wealthy. “I put my two kids into tennis because I wanted a million dollars.” It’s a revelation that you will rarely hear sports parents make about the goals they’ve set for themselves, but hold their children responsible for achieving.

So in his self proclaimed method of planning his life, five to ten years ahead, he focused on turning his two small daughters into huge financial assets. And as the success of the two plaited black girls from the hood began to rock the tennis world, many questions arose. Where did they come from? And who in the hell had trained them? These questions turned a long scrutinizing lens on the man with no professional coaching skills. “My children weren’t taught that they were just as good, they were taught that they were better.” His coaching lessons were also infused with lessons he had acquired from James Allen’s book, ‘So a Man Thinketh.’

Perhaps he noticed the confusion of his listeners upon hearing the simple recipe of success he concocted while serving tennis balls out of shopping cart, to his then young protégés.  So he grinned and reiterated his point. “A winner believes they are supposed to be a winner and a loser believes they are supposed to lose. Put the right thing in a child’s head, teach them who they really are, and they would be unstoppable,” said Mr. Williams. And his daughters are proof.  Throughout their careers, they have endured harsh racism in one of the athletic world’s most civilized sports. Who can forget the 2001 tennis match in Indian Wells. A place the two sisters vowed never to return to again. And even there, Serena took home the trophy.

When asked how do we deal with prejudice in sports, can it be stopped and how America can start the conversation about race in sports, he responded, “You can’t because nobody will start the conversation and be honest with you.” Perhaps Richard Williams doesn’t ever think there will be a post racial world but given his experiences he would be justified. “You cant avoid prejudice in America under no circumstance,” he said.   But Williams raised two girls to believe that they can be the best in a sport that wasn’t designed for them within a world that wasn’t ready to give the title of “Best ” in anything to two black girls from the hood. “The hardest thing to overcome is disgust. It makes you do things you never thought you’d do, and that’s what happened to Donald Sterling. He got so disgusted that he didn’t mind showing you who he was,” said Williams.

Perhaps Richard Williams does not believe in America’s post racial society. But one thing he stands firm on, “From where you sit you create everything that’s going to come.” So Williams set out to create the life he wanted. “You can’t do anything if God isn’t in it. And that’s why we have been so successful.”    To some it may seem that by sheer will alone, Richard Williams raised two winners on and off the court. And although many questioned the integrity of his methods few can dispute the enviable outcome and for this he is a father to be honored. “Always tell people who you are and what you do. Don’t lie, tell them who you are and they will always remember that.” And by doing just that, Williams has become one of the most notable parents & fathers in the sports world.


By: Teresa Marlena


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