Richard Williams is strange but true to his principles

July 13, 2000|By John Eisenberg

Watching Richard Williams dance on a television booth and hold up a strange, handwritten sign to a baffled British crowd after his daughter, Venus, won Wimbledon last weekend, there was only one logical conclusion to make:

That's one weird guy.

But also a guy that, for all his eccentricities, deserves a ton of credit for sticking to his principles and being oh-so right in the end.

At the moment, Williams' tennis-playing daughters, Venus and Serena, are the reigning Wimbledon and U.S. Open singles champs, and also the doubles champs in three of the four major tournaments. They're young, poised and powerful, they're just getting started, and they're going to dominate for years.

If they aren't already the best in the world at ages 20 and 18, they're going to be soon. As talented as rivals Martina Hingis and Lindsay Davenport are, they'll be no match for the Williams sisters once Venus and Serena get just a little more experience.

"I think I can be [No. 1] next year," Venus said.

"I'll be there, too, soon," Serena said. "We're both improving fast."

In other words, Richard Williams has done it.

With help from his wife, and of course, with Venus and Serena doing the hardest work on the court, he has guided his girls from cracked public courts in Compton, Calif., to the pinnacle of women's tennis, and he has done it his way, going against the grain of tennis tradition almost every step of the way.

Instead of throwing his girls into the suffocating, all-encompassing junior tennis pipeline - the traditional mode of entry to the pro game - he put them through school to make sure they (gasp) got an education, became well-rounded and had a life beyond tennis.

Instead of hiring a domineering teacher/guru, he has kept his girls under the thrall of an amateur tutor with no record of success as a player or coach - himself.

Instead of making Venus and Serena turn pro as soon as possible, the better to maximize their earning potential, he kept them on a limited schedule for years, insisting that he would loose them on the world only when they were old enough and mature enough to handle the heady success that was bound to come their way.

"They're going to be the best in the world," he used to say to anyone who asked, even when the girls were fledglings.

His brimming confidence, unorthodox methods and unusual behavior have drawn criticism for years, but look who is laughing now.

Yes, his unpolished, instinctive teaching has given Venus and Serena a solid baseline of fundamental skills.

No, they didn't have to sweat through the junior tennis monster, being exposed to the typical agents and bloodsuckers, to get to the top of the women's game.

Yes, as unorthodox as Williams might be, he has raised two poised, articulate, lively, self-confident, worldly young women who can laugh at themselves while the rest of the world marvels, but who also believe they're destined for greatness.

There's some pretty good parenting right there.

Not that you can paint Williams so easily, with a single brush stroke. He's too complicated for that.

His various utterings have made headlines for years, from the time he charged racism in the women's locker room to the time he called another player a "big, tall, white turkey" to the time several months ago when he said he was urging Venus to retire and "concentrate on her investments."

Huh?

Before Venus and Serena played in the Wimbledon semifinals last week, Williams said he would spend the day at the funeral of a stranger rather than watch. When it turned out the funeral was held a day earlier than expected, he said he would spend the time in front of his computer, monitoring his investments. In the end, he went for a walk and waited for someone to call him on his cell phone with the results.

Then, when Venus beat Davenport in the finals, he danced on a broadcast booth and held up a sign reading, "It's Venus' Party and No One Else was Invited."

Whatever.

It was goofy beyond words, but just that.

Williams surely is cunning, self-promoting, indefatigable and more than a little maddening, but mostly, he's just weird.

We live in a cynical era of sports self-promotion, a time when athletes long to be different in some way, any way, so they can cash in on their eccentricity, contrived though it may be. It's made good, old-fashioned weirdness a lost art of sorts. Somehow, being weird has become just a good career move, not a personality quirk.

Williams is a throwback, the real deal, a guy who certainly isn't opposed to attracting attention and making money, but more than anything, just a flake.

A flake who has delivered what he promised, in a brilliant, bizarre way.

You couldn't have written a less likely script, taking a father from one of America's toughest inner cities and having him groom his two daughters into tennis heroes - and doing it on his own, in a contrarian style, despite no background in the game.

The odds were a million to one, but Richard Williams pulled it off. And while he continues to leave you scratching your head, and probably will for as long as his daughters play, you have to give him credit. His is a nuclear family, a successful family and a happy family. Imagine that.

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