Life With Father

Richard Williams watched as the crowd turned on his youngest daughter. This was supposed to have been a glorious victory for Serena, who'd long trailed her sister Venus in the rankings and hadn't won a major tournament of her own in months. Instead, Serena's big win at Indian Wells, Calif., this past March was greeted with the angry sound of fans yelling "loser" and "cheat." Why had the crowd, always so fascinated by his golden girls, suddenly become so surly? And who was to blame? Serena was going to face Venus in the semifinals, but at the last minute Venus pulled out, saying she had a knee injury. Rumors that the father had ordered one daughter not to compete against the other began swirling with gale force. Once again, Richard Williams found himself in the eye of the storm.

That's exactly where he's most comfortable. Williams consistently manages to rile the tennis world with his inflammatory remarks. Not about to sit back and take the heat for the uprising at Indian Wells, Williams turned the tables and accused the crowd of racism. "I was called the N word and told I'd be skinned alive if it were 20 years earlier," he says. "I really just think a lot of people in the tennis and business world are jealous of me. They'd rather see me sweeping the floor at the U.S. Open or picking cotton somewhere. But I'm not."

As his daughters vie for center court at Wimbledon this week, Richard Williams finds himself once again vying with them for center stage. Of late, the 59-year-old father of five has stolen the spotlight. Recent news stories report that his wife of 30 years, Oracene, has moved out. These follow reports of spousal abuse and extramarital affairs--allegations Williams denies. "It's funny to me that people think I'm controversial," he says with a laugh. But Williams is controversial. And complex. Part huckster, part stage dad, part ambassador, part entrepreneur, he likes to wear many hats." He lives his life by his own standards, and that's what we do," Serena, 19, told NEWSWEEK.

In person, Richard Williams comes across as a down-home, uncomplicated product of the Louisiana backwoods. He reminisces about bittersweet times as a boy in Shreveport, where he endured racist taunts that made him overly self-conscious. "I used to always be worried about my nose being too big and making me funny-looking," he says. "But my mother was so smart: she would tell me that's what made me special." Even as he jets with his daughters around the globe, he manages to avoid many of the trappings of fame. A recent trip to Los Angeles finds him, clad in a plain white T shirt and shorts, at a musty Motel 6 near the airport. "I never stay anywhere else; I don't need anything fancy,'' he says. The reason for his visit is anything but ordinary, though: a British documentary crew is filming the Richard Williams story and has brought him back to Compton.

It's not the only film about Richard Williams in the works. Fox TV is making a movie about his life that will air this fall, and Williams hopes to produce a cinematic autobiography. He is taking cinema classes four days a week at a community college near his home in Palm Beach, Fla. He says he got the idea to become a documentary-film maker after an elderly black woman approached him at last year's U.S. Open. She told him she wished her 115-year-old mother could have been there, too. Williams was so fascinated by the old woman that he immediately left Arthur Ashe Stadium and bought a camcorder. "I couldn't figure out heads or tails of that camera, so I knew I had to take classes," he says. "And besides, everyone wants to make a film about me, so I figured I'd make one myself."

Of course, filmmaking may turn out to be just another passing fancy of Williams's, but he has plenty of room to experiment. The family's financial empire, fed by Venus and Serena's tour wins and endorsements, is estimated at $150 million, and as their manager, Richard gets more than enough to indulge his whims. And so, when he's not at tournaments or in school, Williams is playing mad scientist in his garage, developing a sports-nutrition drink. Asked what the difference between his Smash drink and Gatorade will be, he says, "I'm making it. That's the difference." Then there are the books--three of them--that he has written about his daughters' adventures, including the Indian Wells incident. So far he hasn't found a publisher. He also likes to play Robin Hood: whenever his daughters sign endorsement agreements, he asks the companies to donate goods to needy kids in the black community.

"When people ask me if Richard's crazy, I say, 'Yeah, crazy like a fox'," says a former tennis instructor who worked with the girls in their early teens. "He may pull that simple thing on you, but it's all a farce." Indeed, Williams is so savvy that he managed to get his family out of Compton and into the sports-history books. But that same determination may have strained his family relationships. People close to the Williamses say the sisters struggle with their father's reputation. "They're good girls, but they often get overshadowed by their father and his antics," says a former Women's Tennis Association player. "People project their dislike for him onto them, and that's a difficult place for them to be." If the sisters are upset with their father's behavior, however, they don't let on publicly. "We always were happy and got what other kids got," remembers Venus, 20. "Our parents taught us that a strong family was what mattered."

Acting as both coach and manager, Williams focused on teaching Venus and Serena to be tough. "I taught them how to handle problems and solve them, to walk through them and not around them. I told them that's what rich people do," he says. In the early days, Williams would pay neighborhood kids to yell obscenities and racial insults at the girls while they practiced. Explains Williams: "You can't wait for a situation to happen to get ready for it." That kind of trial by fire has been critical to the success of two black girls trying to make it in the predominantly white world of women's tennis, he says. "The WTA is a close-knit community that tends to embrace its own. We've never been a part of it. But then, we never planned to be a part of them either. We're a part of ourselves," he says.

"People can criticize me and complain about me, but no one wants to see a tournament that Venus and Serena aren't in. We breathed life into this game, and people dislike us for it. But they picked the wrong family to try to tear apart," Williams says. It will all be explained in more detail--in Richard's autobiography.