Such flakiness, of course, doesn't put Richard in the first rank of obliviously overbearing tennis parents such as Pierce, Stefano Capriati and Marinko Lucie. When it comes to the development of Venus and Serena as players and people, in fact, Richard has been unerring. In 1991, against the advice of tennis experts, Richard, who had learned to play in part by watching instructional videos, pulled both daughters off the Southern California junior tennis circuit. He moved the family to Florida and enrolled Venus and Serena in Macci's academy, and, while he deftly worked a homemade hype machine, he and Oracene demanded that the girls expend as much energy on education as they did on practice. "Richard and I had ups and downs over a lot of things," says Macci, who had a long-running dispute with Williams over unpaid coaching fees until they reached a settlement in December 1997, "but he's always been an incredible father to those two girls. If he'd wanted more money, he could've had them playing more. But I can remember 50 times when he called off practice because Venus's grades were down. They'd be in my office studying French, and I'd be saying, 'Hey, we've got to work.' "
The result: Besides reaching the Top 10 in tennis, Venus and Serena maintained 3.0-plus averages at The Driftwood Academy, an accredited 30-student private high school in Lake Park, Fla. According to Driftwood founder and administrator Sandra MacManus, Venus graduated in January 1998 and Serena the following August. Both are now mulling over going to college and seize every opportunity to show off their knowledge. They write and edit a newsletter called The Tennis Monthly Recap, which they distribute in the players' lounge during tournaments and also offer to subscribers. Venus studies French and German and wants to learn Italian. She raves about her "ramified" interests, writes poetry and wants to work in fashion design.
Serena has learned some Russian from her mixed doubles partner, Max Mirnyi, and after winning her first tournament, in Paris in February, she gave a short acceptance speech in French. Then she fielded a few questions in French in the postmatch press conference. The point isn't that the Williams sisters are intellectuals but that they're fearless to the point of arrogance. During her U.S. Open debut last year, Serena tussled with a roomful of journalists over the origin of the word ghetto. Confronted by the fact that her explanation was off by a couple of hundred years, Serena said, "You have your information, and I have mine." If they don't like a particular question, they'll glare at the questioner until the topic dies.
"My kids were brought up working," Richard says. "Every kid in the house was working at two years old; Venus and Serena were delivering phone books. I taught my kids to be very, very independent. My wife would get upset about it, but I didn't care who got upset. One day that kid would have to be on her own." Richard grew up in the Cedar Grove section of Shreveport, La., the oldest son of Julia Mae Williams, a single mother of five who picked cotton, whipped him when he was disobedient, harped on his potential for greatness and insisted that he solve problems on his own. He says he saw no reason to raise his daughters any differently.
He nudges the Mercedes onto an exit ramp, realizes he's early for his meeting and begins cruising slowly down a shabby stretch of Orange Avenue. He pulls into a car wash and steps out in his bare feet, walking for a while on the asphalt with a cell phone to his ear. An attendant cranks up the pressure hose and begins spraying water and soap over the mammoth likenesses of Venus and Serena stuck on the sides of the SUV. After a few moments Richard tugs on a pair of Reeboks. Then he leans into the Mercedes and begins fiddling with the dials on the stereo. He turns the volume up and smiles. The interior of the vehicle fills with sound: a manic organ, a crew of backup vocalists, a man reciting. It's Richard.
Being misunderstood never bothered me none. I grew up my whole life that way. So to what people think and say about me and my wife and my daughters, my methods, my views and my statements: It really don't bother me none. (Bother me none!)...People often ask me (How did I think!) how did I think that I could be (Think that I could be!) the mental force behind two winning female tennis stars? Even though I had no real exposure to the game? The answer to that: I didn't think I could do anything. I could help my daughters. I didn't think I could help them. I didn't think I could make them something special: I knew I could make them. I knew I could help my daughters be successful. (I knew.)...
Now, I see some of you shaking your heads (Shaking your heads!), getting ready to call me ignorant son of a you-know-what. (Son of a what?) And I might say I do sound cocky. But I say it because if you believe in yourself, it can happen. (It can happen!)
Richard Williams. (Richard Williams!) Richard Williams.
The organ fades. When asked the name of his keyboard player, Richard jabs a thumb into his chest. "I bought it at Circuit City," he says.
The next morning Richard is on the family clay court, brushing the white lines, picking up loose balls like any tennis coach. He's less talkative today, seems smaller, as if dwarfed by the expanse of his own success. With a front lawn broad enough to accommodate a circus, the Williams place sits in a clearing on 21 acres of leafy isolation. The house is roomy, white and simple. A big, half-empty pond stretches across the lawn. Serena walks toward the court slowly, past placards reading SERENA YOU MUST LEARN TO LISTEN and VENUS WHEN YOU FAIL YOU FAIL ALONE and SERENA YOU MUST USE MORE TOPSPIN ON BALL. She warms up her serving motion by hurling into the air broken rackets taken one by one from a massive pile by the side of the court.