That both girls deliver such mind-bending pronouncements while alternately giggling and glowering is part of their charm. "They bring life to the game, a different dimension to the game," says Bruce Schilling, director of U.S. sports marketing for Nike. "Tennis is a finite world. They expand the boundaries, and that is—uh, would have been—good for us."
Forgive Schilling his disappointment. Nike lost out to Puma in the bidding for Serena 16 months ago—just as it lost out when Reebok signed Venus in May 1995—but how was Schilling or anyone else at Nike to know that a big sneaker deal wouldn't be mega enough for Richard Williams? Richard is predicting that his girls will be "bigger than Michael Jordan," and who better than a movie mogul to set his crossover conquest in motion?
On April 15 Serena cracked the Top 10 for the first time, tilting the deal Richard struck with Milchan in Serena's favor to the tune of $2.5 million a year for the remainder of the five-year contract. "Now we're paying a ton of money to Serena, and we love it!" says Milchan, who also owns the WTA's international television rights. Better yet, after Venus's and Serena's screen tests last March, Milchan is convinced that the Williamses "have the goods" to be multimedia stars, players in movies or TV sitcoms. "The camera loves them," Milchan says, "and the incredible thing is, they're not even 20 years old."
Yesterday's fool is driving 90 mph with no hands. His left thigh is wedged under the steering wheel of the black Mercedes ML320, and with the slightest nudge Richard Williams makes the SUV glide from lane to lane. His large hands flutter about, juggling two constantly chirping cellular phones and a rumpled green pack of cigarillos. It's 8:20 on the morning of April 27, and the sun is beginning to sizzle on I-95 outside Jupiter, Fla. Serena is on one of the three courts back at the family house in Palm Beach Gardens, practicing on clay. Venus and her mother, Oracene, are in Hamburg for a tournament. Richard is rocketing north to Fort Pierce to give what he calls a "motivational speech" to administrators at an elementary school. He's 57 years old. Even while he squints against the harsh light, his eyes glitter like precious stones.
Richard begins reciting the family saga, worn smooth by years of constant handling: How he met Oracene at a bus stop in Los Angeles and loved "her big old gorgeous beautiful legs" and told her right then and there that he wanted to marry her and have five girls. How one day, after the first three daughters—Yetunde, Isha and Lyndrea—were born, he saw Virginia Ruzici receive a $30,000 check on television for winning a tennis tournament, and he decided his next two kids would play tennis. How Oracene resisted having more children, and he hid her birth-control pills and wooed her with romantic dinners. How Venus ran a 5:29 mile at eight years old and how Richard grew so disgusted that year with the maniacal parents infesting junior tennis that he tried to make Venus quit the game. "She used to love it so much, I had to try to take the racket from her," Richard says, "but she wouldn't give it up. Right now we would like her to retire at 22. I don't think she will."
Thirty seconds later he says, "When we got started in tennis, it was to go out and make a lot of money. Believe me, we have made tons, and I'll make even more."
A cell phone beeps. It's Richard Dove Williams III, 33, one of his two sons from an earlier marriage. Richard III and his wife are helping to run his father's various enterprises, including a newly created charter bus service called Williams & Williams. The son is calling about someone trying to drop off a car at the Williamses' family compound. The father first commands his son to donate the car to Goodwill and then changes his mind. "Go back to the office and do whatever you were doing," he says. "Have a good morning and thank you very much my son I love you very much good morning."
Richard puts down the phone. He says that pro tennis is detrimental to all families but that his is too strong to be damaged by it. He says that Jim Pierce, the infamous father of No. 8-ranked Mary Pierce, "is one of the best parents I have ever known." He says you shouldn't ever blame race for your troubles. He says that he's finished coaching his daughters: "If Venus and Serena don't have enough sense to go out there and teach themselves, that's their problem. I've done my job."
It's 8:50 a.m. A half-hour conversation with Richard Williams is a fun house ride of contradiction, twisted logic, mangled language and startling pronouncements delivered with an air more suited to someone ordering breakfast. His verbal gyrations have become part and parcel of his daughters' rise over the last decade, the disconcerting kick on an already overpowering serve.
"I hope you win," he said to Arantxa Sánchez Vicario, then No. 2 in the world, before she played Venus in the latter's debut tournament in 1994.