"It was 1991. I fly into L.A. I take a cab to Compton. On the phone, Richard [Williams] said, 'The only thing I guarantee you, you won't get shot,' " says tennis coach Rick Macci. "I thought he was kidding."
Macci was meeting with Williams and his two young daughters, Venus and Serena, as prospective students at his Florida tennis academy, where wunderkinds like Jennifer Capriati got their starts. The next day, "They pick me up in a Volkswagen," Macci recalls. "The thing is shaking back and forth; there were about two months of McDonald's and Burger King wrappers in the back. I sat in the passenger side and got harpooned by a spring that was sticking out of the seat. I'm a director of an academy at a real nice resort, and I'm going, 'This is crazy.' "
A new documentary, Venus and Serena, follows the Williams sisters throughout 2011, weaving in the timeline of their ascent from the courts in Compton to the upper echelons of tennis. The film marks the directorial debut for veteran ABC News producers Maiken Baird and Michelle Major.
Macci, who trained Venus and Serena, appears in the film to gush about the girls' early competitive spirit, despite the schism that severed his friendship with their father. He is one of the few coaches the family has allowed to enter their inner circle.
Underscoring this theme, gaining access to the family was the directors' biggest hurdle. They approached the sisters in 2007 but didn't get the green light until 2010. "They are very, very, very, private people," Baird says. "So, it took a lot of persuading."
Baird and Major filmed the sisters during a year in which the stars struggled with health issues and faced setbacks alongside big comeback scores. Their vérité-style story offers an unprecedented window on the Williams sisters on and off the court, and reveals a tight-knit family that cultivated and protected a startling degree of confidence in each.
"They were in their late 20s when we were filming," Major says of the sisters, "and I couldn't believe how close they were to their father and their mother. [Richard] literally comes on court every single day. And they greet him with, 'Hi Daddy!' And I thought, 'My God!'
"Because over the years we've heard rumors about how they split with their father ... which we found were [just] rumors. There is no way you could keep this [façade] up on a daily basis. ... They support each other so intensely, they always had each other's backs, they were always there for each other. They didn't need the outside world as much."
That insularity, Major says, may be part of why, in Venus and Serena, neither sister acknowledges Macci's importance as one of their first coaches, praising instead only the roles of their parents. Despite the snub — which has been both narrative and financial — Macci still espouses Richard's excellence as a father.
On Macci's first day with the family in 1991, he recalls, when they arrived at the public courts, everyone greeted Mr. Williams as "King Richard." The courts were littered with glass; Richard jokingly called it the "East Compton Hills Country Club." He kept used tennis balls in his Volkswagen: They didn't bounce as much as new tennis balls, so it made the girls work harder to get to them.
Still, Macci wasn't impressed with the sisters. At first. "My baseline — no pun intended — was someone like Jennifer [Capriati], who had great technique, rock-solid ground strokes and great preparation. Then you see these two girls who are just arms, and legs, and hair flying everywhere, especially Venus. ... She was real tall and spindly, and they had the [hair] beads back then. And Serena was, even at 9 years old, already cut."
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What happened next convinced Macci to move the entire family to Florida for the next four years: He asked the girls to play against him for points. "The minute it meant something, the minute it became competitive," he says, "the footwork got ... better, the preparation got better, the consistency of their shots got better. It's like a bell went off and they wanted to win every single point like it was their last spread. It blew me away."
While Venus and Serena captures the spirit and challenges of those early days — including archival news clips of the girls in Compton, Mr. Williams on The Today Show and other gems — the film is deft enough to honor the sisters' roots while focusing on what they have become, and the ferocity with which they work to shape their futures. Says Major, "They're not in any way victims, or 'woe is us' — they don't even relish in telling that story. But you can see how that being on the court, being protected by their father early on — having to be, because there's gang members at the courts watching them — they felt completely protected by their family."
Baird and Major also capture some of the sisters' quieter moments, such as doctors' visits, which highlight their fear of aging and reveal their vulnerability. One such moment features Venus in her hotel room after losing a big match, in which she shares how tough losing used to be — she wouldn't get off the couch for a week — and how she now tries to move on as quickly as possible. As she sits in what appears to be light from a TV at the end of her bed, it's a rare moment of reflection for a woman who seems to be larger than life.
"There are two things they're not used to," Baird says. "One thing is [that] they don't pay any attention to media. They don't read or really watch the press that they're in. And secondly, since they haven't let anyone in like [they did with us], they allowed us to be part of their entourage, like flies on the wall, and got used to us, for the most part. I felt like there were times they forgot we were there."