Before Richard Was King…

By Cheryl Jones and Mark Winters

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On November 19th “King Richard”, the biopic movie about the singular approach that Richard Williams used to develop the tennis talents of his daughters, Venus and Serena, was released. Early reviews praised the production along with the cast. That Richard is receiving his “Just Due” (as does Oracene Price, his former wife, and the other Williams sisters) is absorbing. For us, this isn’t surprising because we knew him long before he was king…

Richard is, indeed, the focus of the film, but truth be told, there is much more to the story. It is the real-life manifestation of an African proverb – “It takes a village to raise a child”. During my time as the Director of Communications for the Southern California Tennis Association, I often wrote about the LA84 Amateur Athletic Foundation/National Junior Tennis League. The summer program was held at public parks and assorted clubs throughout Southern California. Its purpose was to introduce youngsters, who resided in economically disadvantaged areas, to tennis. 

Serena and Venus Williams at court
Serena and Venus Williams before a Between Match Activity at the Volvo Tennis Los Angeles. Photo: Cynthia Lum

As the late Arlene Barco, LA84 AAF/NJTL Program Director, explained, “Richard taught for NJTL at East Compton Park. Venus and Serena were participants in the program. They took part in one of the Between Match Activities, which were exhibitions staged during the Volvo Tennis Los Angeles tournament, the annual Los Angeles men’s pro event (held for many years under various sponsorships). LA84 AAF/NJTL was always featured after the first singles match on Tuesday night. Venus and Serena were little but they really impressed the crowd because they were so good.”

Thomas Enqvist of Sweden with Venus and Serena Williams
Thomas Enqvist of Sweden with Venus and Serena Williams, along with Jessica Roland, at the Volvo Tennis Los Angeles. Photo: Mark Winters

At the time, the park was located in a culturally mixed African American/Hispanic neighborhood, where drive-by shootings regularly took center stage. The cracked, poorly maintained courts were not a typical launching pad for Hall of Fame careers. The situation began to change dramatically in 1990 when Judy Jones became the Recreation Supervisor for the Los Angeles County Parks & Recreation Department at the facility. She brokered a “peace” between the gangs and set about breaking down the territorial tribalism that was part of maintaining group status in the area.

But, it wasn’t “movie script” easy. On her first day, she drove her new car to work. When she left at the end of the day she found the car had been “freshly detailed” with a different color of paint splashed on it. The slogan, “Welcome to East Compton Park”, was also scrawled across the windshield.

She later explained, “The gangs knew the girls and though they were shocked to see these young black kids playing tennis, they respected them because they were doing something positive”.

(I must add, on several occasions, I attempted to arrange an afternoon visit to watch a workout. Richard always asked me what kind of car I drove and I responded that I owned a gray Honda Civic. He would then tell me that he would arrange for “guards…so that when I wanted to leave the park my car would still have all its tires and I would be able to drive home…” Unfortunately, I never made the trip. )

Jones’ brother, James Pyles, taught mathematics and coached tennis at Morningside High School in Inglewood, California. She suggested that he come to the park and see what Richard, with his market basket full of tennis balls, was doing. Richard was aware of the success Pyles had enjoyed empowering financially disadvantaged high school students to become good players and good people, too. Word is that Richard and James reached an “agreement” on Pyles’ role in training the girls. Years after the sisters had become international stars, Pyles continued to praise Richard for what he accomplished, but made it quite clear that while he wasn’t bitter, he had never received any compensation for his work.

Early in his involvement, Pyles said, tongue in cheek, that Richard was putting the girls through workouts at the “East Compton Country Club”. He once told me, “I worked mostly with Serena and only about a quarter of the time with Venus. Earthna Jacquet, a star in the days before African-Americans could play in regular tournaments, taught the girls a big serve. They both played power tennis. They really powered the ball.”

Pyles remembered that daily training sessions often lasted until it was too dark to clearly see Venus or Serena on the other side of the net because the courts were not lit.

“There were some rough looking people around the park,” he said. “You would see the drug deals every day, but these guys looked out for us.” 

He pointed out that it was important to develop routines…on hearing gunshots dropping to the ground and staying down until the shooting stopped. Being aware kept him safe, which was the reason that Pyles learned the park’s drug trade’s “Baseball Cap” code – If a dealer was wearing his cap with the bill facing forward, nothing was available. If it was turned backward, business was open…

Jeff Annoreno replaced Jones as the Recreation Supervisor at East Compton Park in 1991. He remembered both Venus and Serena, offering, “They were typical girls. They would ask their father for a break to get a drink of water then they would sneak into the rec room and play ping-pong. They would stay in there as long as they could.  They were very friendly and got along well with all the kids.”

Richard and Fred Williams
Richard and Fred Williams. Photo: Our Weekly

Fred Williams and his brother Richard were legends in the Los Angeles tennis community for doing more than teaching the game. They specialized in keeping kids out of the municipal courts and keeping them on the tennis courts. The brothers’ junior development program at Centinela Park was storied and it has become even more so since they set up shop four miles away at the Rancho Cienega Sports Complex. There is a very special relationship between the Williams families, it is much more than having the same last name. Richard Williams taught “the” Richard Williams – Venus and Serena’s father – how to play. “The reason he knows so much about the game and hits the ball so smoothly is because he took lessons from Rich,” Fred pointed out.

Teaching aside, for many years, Fred Williams served as the tennis columnist for the Los Angeles Sentinel, the leading African-American newspaper in Los Angeles. “When I heard about Venus and Serena, two little black girls over in Compton, I didn’t think they existed,” he admitted. “No one had seen them play in tournaments. We didn’t know how good they were. When I finally saw Venus play, I wrote the first article about her. I said, ‘I have seen a future champion. This young lady will be a star.’”

The late Pete Brown, who was an icon in Southern California for his work in the African-American tennis community, knew Richard Williams for quite a while. “Both girls showed a lot of potential at an early age,” Brown explained. “They could hardly see over the net, yet they were already volleying. Richard and I are pretty good friends. I remember they all came to visit me when I had pneumonia and was in the hospital in 1990.”

Serena and Venus Williams with Ronald Reagan in 1990
Serena and Venus Williams with Ronald Reagan in 1990.
Photo: Sports Illustrated

The late Jim Hillman was the Director of Junior Tennis for the Southern California Tennis Association for twenty-two years. He told me in 1990, “Nancy Reagan had the ‘Just Say No’ campaign against drugs and both Venus and Serena were asked to participate in a tennis exhibition. As a result of that appearance, they were asked to take part in other fund-raisers in Southern California.”

It has been well documented that the girls didn’t have extensive junior competitive resumes. “The last tournament Venus played was the 1991 Girls’ 12 Southern California Junior Sectional Championships singles final (which she won),” Hillman remembered. “She was supposedly undefeated in the division that year and an attorney came to the match with her.” (Serena was the Girls’10 tournament champion.)

As a result of her victory, a story appeared in the New York Times. “The press coverage took off after that,” Hillman continued. “Venus and Serena played a pre-match exhibition at the Los Angeles Forum (the former home of the Los Angeles Lakers) that fall (1991). The next day the whole family left for Florida.”

Mugette Ahn and Serena Williams
Mugette Ahn, 1990 Girls’ 10 K-Swiss Summer Grand Prix Masters champion with Jim Hillman and finalist Serena Williams. Photo: Mark Winters Collection

(Venus, who was the Girls’ 12 K-Swiss Summer Grand Prix Masters winner, was so tall parents regularly asked if tournament officials had checked her age identification card to make sure she was playing in the right division.)

As is the case with some Williams stories, the distance between truth and fiction has, as years have passed, been smudged. This is certainly true of the claim that neither Venus nor Serena lost a match during their abbreviated careers in Southern California. In fact, a couple of former junior players earned default victories when one sister or the other would come up with an injury if they had been down in a match’s third set.

Rhiannon Potkey, in her day, was a solid junior from Ventura, California. She went on to become an accomplished journalist but before she did, Potkey had a memorable experience with Venus. They were scheduled to play a singles semifinal at the Whittier Junior Tournament. Venus reported to the tournament desk, while Potkey stood nearby, and told officials she would not be able to play because she had to study. She was going to become an astronaut. Richard, who was behind her, supposedly said, “…To the Moon girl, to the Moon.”

Williams drew criticism then and it persists even today.  Looking back on the early years at East Compton, Annoreno said of Richard, “He was very cordial and always willing to help us at the park. He knew that the kids were going to be good, but he fought to keep them well  balanced. He protected them so they would not have to face pressure.  He always told me he would wait for the right set of circumstances to make his move.”

Jones offered a different opinion saying, “She (Venus) just wanted to be a little girl. Sometimes we felt he (Richard) pushed too hard, but we couldn’t get involved.”

“Youth vs. Experience” was an annual competition staged on Memorial Day in Southern California. It showcased singles and doubles matches between juniors on the way up playing veterans, who in the past, had been circuit stars. In event’s history of all the matches played, one stands alone – May 20, 1990…Dodo Cheney, (before she married, she was Dodo Bundy), became the first American to win the Australian Women’s Singles in 1938. Prior to facing Venus, she had won an astounding 315 US national singles and doubles championships. (She finished her career with a never-to-be matched 394.) “I remember the match and I remember her very well,” Cheney said of the meeting at the Los Angeles Tennis Club. “Most ten-year-old’s are pretty petite, but Venus was tall and hit the ball a ton. She didn’t play like a ten-year-old. She played like she was much older. She gave me a lesson. I don’t remember winning a point.”

The score was 6-1, 6-0 and as Pat Yeomans, co-founder of the “Y vs E” event recalled, “We had heard she was great and of course, Dodo, for years, lost to no one. Venus was at least 5’10” and she was so confident. She was unbelievable. She acted like an adult. Nothing bothered her”. 

After the match Venus said, “It is good experience to play people who have played in the past. You can learn things from what they do, and maybe copy from them.” I have a vivid recollection of the “Williams Show”. I watched both girls play standing next to the late Jack Kramer, one of the game’s most significant players and administrators. Widely respected for his ability to judge tennis talent, he was very impressed by what he had seen. He was particularly taken by Venus’ ability, given her height, to hit shots so fluidly. But, he was even more taken by Serena’s aggressive approach and predicted that she would become the better player.

Richard Williams with Arlene Barco
Richard Williams with Arlene Barco at the Indian Wells tournament.
Photo: Mark Winters

Having had on and off dealings with Richard Williams for ages, I experienced little, if any, of his “Ghetto Girls…us against them” rhetoric. Perhaps it was because of my close relationship with Arlene Barco, whom he treasured as a friend, along with the trust I somehow established. Depending on the setting, we would have exchanges of varying lengths. During our chats, he would sift through thoughts and offer opinions at a measured pace. The topics were ever-changing and often the comments could be categorized as “only Richard…”

Cheryl adds – Mark might have served to be my connection with Richard, but he always sought me out in the crowd of interested journalists. It wasn’t that I was really well-known, it was more that I was memorable because I was a woman at a time when women were an oddity in the world of sports journalism. I recall a time in London at The Championships where I was chatting with a fellow American who was on holiday from his banking job. Richard appeared in front of me, out of the blue, and introduced his new wife, Lakeisha (Juanita Graham) to the banker and me. The banker was dumbfounded that Richard had simply appeared and seemed so “normal”. Well, yes, he was, but that was before he was King Richard. But, looking back on his friendliness, maybe he was always King Richard, but didn’t quite know how to live up to the title.

In the end, Venus and Serena Williams came to the game from very unique circumstances and that forms the core of “King Richard”. Yet for many of those from his past, he isn’t royalty. He is simply and will always be…Richard.

Title photo of Richard Williams at UCLA in 2001 by Mark Winters

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