Venus and Serena Williams have dominated women’s tennis for the last 15 years, despite their unlikely rise to stardom in the sport. The Compton, California-raised sisters learned the game on public courts from their parents, Richard Williams and Oracene Price, who had no prior experience coaching or playing tennis. In defiance of the White country club ethos that was as much a part of tennis as the racquets and balls, the Williams sisters sported beaded braids and flamboyant tennis wear while beating almost everyone on their way to a combined 22 Grand Slam singles titles.
Now competing in the year’s first Grand Slam, the Australian Open, they’re finally getting well-deserved documentary treatment, from veteran filmmakers Maiken Baird and Michelle Major. Baird and Major, who is African-American, followed the Williamses throughout most of 2011, a challenging year for both sisters, who spent much of it dealing with debilitating injuries.
Shot in cinema vérité style and focusing mostly on their lives off the court, Venus and Serena is a compelling look at a two-woman tennis dynasty and the triumphs and challenges of the players behind it. Unprecedented access helps Baird and Major capture moments like Serena airing out her hitting partner before a Grand Slam final; Richard Williams’s multiplying children; Venus struggling through a mystery disorder; and the fact that despite their groundbreaking careers, they are still viewed as outsiders to much of the tennis world.
Due out in June 2013 after a well-received run on the festival circuit, Venus and Serena is more revealing of the usually guarded sisters than anything that’s come before. We talked to Major about how it all came together.
EBONY: You chose a fairly intimate style to tell the story rather than a sports-specific recounting of their lives and careers.
Michelle Major: Everybody wants to know about them and nobody really understands or knows them that well. So we thought that by spending as much time with them as we could, we could get a closer look into how these amazing women live day to day and what makes them stand out, and to tell the story of who they are.
EBONY: How were you able to get the kind of access to the sisters that you did? There are definitely some surprising moments in the documentary based on that access.
MM: They are very insulated. And I commend them for that. Otherwise the outside world would just eat them alive. They’ve all been raised to be incredibly protective of each other. The main reason we were allowed to do the film is that we were persistent. We started asking in 2007, didn’t get them to agree until 2010, and weren’t able to start until 2011. It was just being there and asking and asking them and looking at different ways we could do it. I think there was an advantage to us being two women, and we both had significant enough pedigrees that we could get our foot in the door. But we got a lot of nos before they said yes.
EBONY: Were there parameters set up beforehand or things that were considered off-limits?
MM: Initially, no. It was “you can ask us whatever you want.” We dealt with their assistants or agents or one of their sisters to set up specific times to talk to them, so if there was something going on, we could come down and film. Over time, Serena was more open. Venus had a harder time letting us film things like her at the doctor. She didn’t know she had Sjogren’s [an autoimmune disease] and she was afraid it would get out. Imagine this world-class tennis player who’s led the world and then she couldn’t get up. Sometimes she was just too tired to be filmed.
EBONY: What surprised you the most in spending this kind of time with them?
MM: Serena is hysterically funny. And actually, so is Venus. Those are two things that really, really surprised me. But I was most surprised by how close the immediate family is, the three half-sisters—though they don’t call them that—and how not close they are to their siblings on their father’s side. The scene that shocked me the most was when Serena didn’t know the name of this person who I had just met on the court who was calling Mr. Williams “Dad.” Whenever I would ask any of them the names [of all of Williams’s children] they would just trail off. (laughs)
EBONY: Given that, is there any truth to the fact that Venus and Serena have withdrawn their support from the film because of the portrayal of their father?
MM: No, and it’s incredibly annoying because we talked to their agents two days ago. It’s a story that just ran amok because they didn’t show up in Toronto, and up until a couple of days before, we thought they were going to show. So you don’t get a call from Venus and Serena; you get a call the day before from Venus and a call the day of from Serena. That’s very much their modus operandi, and not in an inconsiderate way. It’s more like, “we have a ton of shit to do, we have to prioritize, and the biggest priority for us is always tennis.” We’ve talked to their agents. They fully support the film and they’re going to come to something in future, we just don’t know what.
EBONY: One thing missing from the film was the lack of participation of the sister’s competitors. Billie Jean King, John McEnroe, Anna Wintour and even President Clinton were interviewed, but none of their opponents. Was that by design?
MM: Believe it or not, we did effort to include their major opponents and none of them would do an interview. They all declined for various reasons. We offered to travel to them wherever they were in the world, but while some agreed, the interviews never happened.
EBONY: How much do you now believe that they care about their legacy?
MM: I think that they care enormously about their legacy. I wish we could have put more in the film about how much they do give back. We spoke to McEnroe, and he said it’s really impossible when you are still playing and fighting to be no.1 to give back anything. Having a tennis academy? Not possible. People shouldn’t be expecting that much from them at this time. But in following them, we saw them go to the ’hood and different places and I saw Serena incredibly moved. Venus is a great teacher and I think she’ll want to teach and be a commentator. But both of them really, really care a lot about how their achievements will live on and affect younger people.
Tonya Pendleton is an entertainment writer based in Philadelphia. Follow her on Twitter @amazonink.