The table was set for a moment of family triumph. Venus and Serena Williams were dressed and seated for the big occasion Sunday night, and Will Smith, who had played their father Richard with a creepy likeness in the movie “King Richard,” was poised to win the Oscar for Best Actor.
But then, as is often the case with the Williams, things got complicated and, through no fault of the sisters, an evening that should have claimed their rise to stardom against high odds instead became one in which Smith slapped comedian Chris Rock. on stage.
When Smith accepted the Oscar, he delivered a tearful, rambling, half-apologetic speech in which he said that “art imitates life” and “I look like the crazy father, just like they said about Richard Williams.”
Serena, watching the speech from a front row seat, covered her face with her hand.
Unexpected and uncomfortable to watch, Smith’s inability to control his temper or rise to the occasion turned the night into a night the Williams sisters will never forget, for all the wrong reasons.
This has often been the case for these extraordinary brothers, with moments of triumph mitigated by controversy or conflicting emotions.
Smith said of the man he portrayed on screen: “He was a fierce defender of the family.” On Monday he apologized to Rock, the Williams family and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, calling his actions “unacceptable” and “unforgivable” and saying that “violence in all its forms is poisonous and destructive” .
“We don’t know all the details of what happened,” Richard Williams, via his son Chavoita LeSane, told NBC News. “But we do not forgive anyone who beats someone else unless it is in self-defense.”
Richard Williams, no saint and often difficult to read, certainly created some of the friction and misunderstanding with the rest of the world. But, as “King Richard” makes clear, he and Oracene Price – they divorced in 2002 – also laid the foundation for one of the greatest success stories in sport and two glowing tennis careers that have lasted far longer than they’ve ever had. you could imagine considering that neither Venus nor her younger sister Serena had much choice regarding their career path.
The sisters were raised from birth to become tennis champions, with Richard Williams’ 78-page plan as a blueprint and plenty of help from coaches like Rick Macci, who for four years in the early 1990s polished shots and tactics of the sisters and provided the capital seed and support that helped make the long-range family dream a reality.
Macci said he saw Richard Williams, now 80, at his home in West Palm Beach, Florida, about three months ago and received a visit from him with a documentary crew about a month ago at his academy. tennis in Boca Raton, Florida, where the sisters once trained. Macci said Williams was belittled after two strokes, but they were still able to swap stories.
“There has been a smorgasbord of things that have happened over the years: the good, the bad, the ugly,” said Macci, who had a leading role in “King Richard,” on Monday. telephone interview. “I think when you’re on top and you’re one of a kind, or two of that kind in their case, you’ll only have bumps along the way. Last night was just unlucky as it was just such a celebration of a story you can’t make up and unfortunately now that slap is history. And the story should have been this miraculous thing.
Some of the bumps were bumps of a different type. In 1997, Venus Williams had her first major impact in a Grand Slam tournament, reaching the US Open final at the age of 17 with white beads in her hair and thunder in her strokes.
“I’m tall; I’m black,” said 6-foot-1 Williams at the start of the tournament. “Everything is different in me. Just face the facts “.
But her breakthrough took on another dimension when she and Romanian player Irina Spirlea met during a change in the semi-final. In the defeat, Spirlea suggested that Venus Williams had an arrogant attitude, while Richard Williams spoke of the racism her family had faced on tour and labeled Spirlea a “big, tall white turkey”.
In 2001, the family came to Indian Wells, California and was booed by the crowd after Venus Williams withdrew from her semi-final against Serena Williams shortly before she started due to injury. At the time it was speculated that Richard Williams was predicting his daughters’ match results – speculation the Williams denied – but the late withdrawal sparked suspicion and shocked viewers. When Serena Williams returned to the pitch for her final against Kim Clijsters, with Richard and Venus in the stands, there were boos throughout the match and Richard and Venus said they heard racist slurs from some fans.
Serena won the title, but the triumph still had a bad taste in her mouth. She boycotted the tournament for 14 years, returning in 2015, with Venus ending her 15-year boycott the following year.
Even without controversy, the sisters’ double success had a dark side. Remarkably close in their youth, as they remain today, their rise to the top of the game meant they became frequent opponents, and although Venus Williams was the first to reach No. 1 and the first to win Wimbledon in singles, Serena Williams would prove to be, as her father predicted, the greatest player, winning 23 Grand Slam singles titles against Venus’ seven.
Venus handled the usurpation gracefully and Serena always made it clear that she would never become the champion she did without Venus as her role model and cheerleader in chief.
“Venus was not at all resentful,” Macci said. “She has never been like this. And Serena has always admired Venus as “my big sister” and they still have it today. It’s very rare. You’re not keeping score, because it’s the family and if one wins, we both win. I saw it at the beginning “.
It worked beyond even Richard Williams’ imagination. Even though he predicted greatness and no. 1 for Venus and Serena, he has long argued that they would retire relatively early to pursue other interests. Instead, they resisted and excelled as they pursued other interests, including interior design and fashion design. Although they are now nearing the end and haven’t toured since last summer, they haven’t retired. Venus Williams is 41 years old. Serena Williams is 40.
Sunday night would be a time to enjoy the length of their journey, the depth of their successes and Richard’s legacy. Instead, for Serena it turned into a night to cover her eyes, but cinema, even when it’s an Oscar-winning true story, won’t be the last word on the Williams sisters, or their father.