But no article or author has adequately explained the most remarkable story in professional sports: How two sisters from crime-ridden Compton, Calif., schooled by parents with no formal tennis training, became No. 1 in the world and transformed the women’s game in the process.
Granted access to the Williams family through the 2011 season, filmmakers Maiken Baird and Michelle Major come closer than anyone to date in their documentary “Venus and Serena.”
Weaving a wealth of archival footage with surprisingly candid interviews with the sisters, now 32 (Venus) and 31 (Serena), and their parents, Richard Williams and Oracene Price, the documentary lifts a veil on the tight-knit Williams clan and largely allows the sisters to tell the story themselves.
It was their father’s dream to produce the best women’s tennis players the world had seen, and he wrote a 78-page plan for doing so before Venus was even born.
“My parents told me I’d be number one,” Venus says with a broad smile. “I was brainwashed.”
Throughout the film, such personalities as former president Bill Clinton, comedian Chris Rock and Vogue editor Anna Wintour offer commentary on the sisters’ impact. But it’s the hard work the sisters put in that sheds the most telling light on how they made muscularity and fierce competitiveness qualities to be celebrated in women and how they’ve maintained their dominance in a sport littered with victims of emotional and physical burnout.
In setting out to make “Venus and Serena,” the filmmakers had no idea the 2011 season would be fraught with so many setbacks. Venus is forced out of that season’s first major tournament, the Australian Open, by an abdominal injury and withdraws from the U.S. Open because of an autoimmune disorder known as Sjogren’s syndrome. Yet she talks about loving tennis so much that she wants to compete until at least 40.
And Serena, only recently recovered from foot surgery, is rushed to the hospital with a pulmonary embolism. We see Serena with a drainage tube in her stomach, giving herself injections and fighting her way back to form as she hits tennis balls from a wheelchair and, in a later scene, berates her hitting partner for not pushing her harder.
Venus is revealed as Serena’s lifelong protector and biggest champion, as well as the sister who shoulders the tougher psychological burden when the two compete against each other. Serena revels in the role of spoiled baby among five girls, always coveting what Venus has.
“What didn’t I do to copy Venus?” Serena says. “I was never the one that was supposed to be good, but I was determined not to be a statistic.”
The documentary also reveals the sisters’ almost symbiotic closeness. They live together most of the year, cook together, do karaoke together and joke about how difficult it would be if one chose to get married.
We know the ending at the outset: Venus and Serena become No. 1 in the world. The real story is their remarkable journey, which the film documents powerfully from the beginning. A battered Volkswagen van pulls up to a pitiful excuse for a tennis court in Compton. Richard Williams wheels out a shopping cart of used tennis balls. And his 9- and 10-year-old girls, braids in their hair, proceed to blast ball after ball as cars zoom past, indifferent to the champions in the making.
Clarke is a sportswriter for The Washington Post.
PG-13. At West End Cinema. Contains some strong language. 99 minutes.