All the pools point to Will Smith as the winner of the Oscar for his portrayal of Richard Williams in Williams method. Although the film pretends otherwise, the figure of the father of the tennis players Venus and Serena would have enough traits to become the villain. He alternates bucolic scenes of a well-to-do family and energetic speeches with an unhealthy obsession for turning his daughters into professional tennis players from a young age and drawing up “a plan” for them. In the middle of the latter, however, Arantxa Sánchez Vicario interferes, who is reflected as the unexpected antagonist of the film, which starts with six nominations for Hollywood awards.
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The Catalan tennis player appears at the zenith of Williams method, when Venus faced her first professional match in the women’s league in 1994. The American was 14 years old and on the other side of the net she had to face Sánchez Vicario, who was nine years older than her and according to the film was the best player in the planet. “Not Ali versus Frazier. If he wins it will be the biggest surprise in the history of the sport”, they express in the tape.
In the match, you can see how the little girl stands up to him without being intimidated until Arantxa (played by the Mexican tennis player Marcela Zacarías) asks for a break to go to the bathroom that lasts ten minutes. “It’s an old ruse to deconcentrate her, we can’t do anything,” explains former Venus coach Ricky Macci. After that, Vicario wins the Oakland tournament. A hard – and unfair, according to the film – blow to Venus. Although the teenager began to sign million-dollar contracts and accumulate victories just a few months after that, it is a highly dramatic moment in the film.
It is an effective cinematographic stunt, but that was not what happened in 1994. Neither Arantxa Sánchez Vicario was the world number one (at that time the German Steffi Graff still held the position and she would get it three months later) nor did she play dirty. It is true that Williams was winning in the first set, but the Barcelonan ended up chaining eleven games that would give her victory and without any escape to the bathroom.
“It’s still early to say if she’s going to win Grand Slam tournaments, but she’s already a great player,” Arantxa said of Venus after that match. In fact, even Richard Williams celebrated the result: “I am satisfied with her game, but I am also happy that she lost. She gives us the opportunity to go home and let her be 14 for the rest of the year.” Four years later, as pointed out in EsquireIt was Venus Williams who used the bathroom trick against Lindsay Davenport at the 1998 US Open.
The virtue of Williams method it is having recreated that match in Oakland without trickery from the camera: they are two real tennis players who battle it out on the court, as Venus and Arantxa did. For the filming of this scene, which barely lasts 15 minutes, they needed six weeks. “My shots are similar to hers, I just had to change my serve”, said Zacarías, who studied every movement of the Barcelona player to interpret her on the big screen. The former Spanish tennis player, who faces a criminal complaint from the bank of Luxembourghas not commented on his appearance with many licenses in the Oscar nominee.
Friendly portrait of Richard
It is true that the figure of Richard Williams has been continually judged by the media. His reputation for being strict, arrogant and flippant precedes him. But, as with everything, there are different versions of this. On the one hand there are those who believe that the character was created by a racist sector such as tennis in the late 90s and early 2000s, and on the other those who think that Will Smith has mythologized him too much.
“When it comes to confronting those prejudices, the film Williams method he makes a greedy and capricious overcorrection. In his resistance to not mirroring Richard Williams as a greedy narcissist, he ends up smoothing over almost all the rough edges of this man,” They point out in the New York Times. For its part, Esquire defends that what the Williams sisters and their father have suffered is a campaign of harassment and defamation: “The family received racist attacks, hostile treatment by other players, unfounded accusations of match-fixing and biased coverage of the media”, they write.
A superior knowledge of the world of tennis and North American sports in particular is required to form an opinion on the matter. What is clear is that racism is central in its history. Richard is aware that his daughters are going to be treated differently because of the color of their skin and he interferes to unsuspected limits to prevent them from hanging a label on them. At one point in the film, the coach cuts off a live interview accusing the journalist of putting Venus, “an African-American girl”, against a rock and a hard place. But he also held in high esteem the example they would set for other black girls if they succeeded in the sport, just as he had predicted.
Richard Williams had a 78-page plan on how Venus and Serena were going to become the best tennis players in the world while his wife was still pregnant. That sick obsession is shown in the film, but always with a morally superior justification. If a neighbor criticizes him for making the girls train at night or in the rain, he replies that he is saving them from ending up in one of the criminal gangs in her neighborhood in Compton, California. If he loses his temper, it is because he is worried about the future of his family. The fact that there are tyrannical parents or those with a much harder hand when it comes to designing their children’s professional careers does not mean that Williams’ attitude was normal – despite the fact that the film insists on selling him as a man who considered his daughters too small to launch them into professional competition, but not to make the most of them in training.
The truth is that Venus and Serena have always had words of gratitude towards their father. “He was never a villain”, they have defended. The two appear in the credits of the film, so that reflection is not accidental. In fact, cleaning up his image was the only intention of the film, as Venus Williams has confessed. But Ricky Macci, who was his coach in the years in which the action takes place, has also come out in defense of the patriarch: “If they didn’t want to play and wanted to go to the beach, they went to the beach. If they wanted to go to the mall, they went to the mall. Tennis was my mission and I knew we could make it in the sport, but I respected Richard even if he was out of control or saying crazy things.”
Beyond considerations about the father, Williams method it’s a biopic that could have exploited the really interesting characters in the story: Venus and Serena. How did they live that anomalous childhood? How did you intersperse the competition with the reality of a 15-year-old teenager? Did they feel racism and, later, machismo? If the movie had even dared to show Richard in all shades of him, it would have been worth it. But it’s just a watered-down portrait of a man who dwarfs two of the greatest sportswomen of all time.