All-American: Venus & Serena

Episode 2: The Plan

Richard Williams: Two girls that you see in the picture here is our Serena Williams. Raise your hands Serena. 


Cecil Harris: In this grainy home video from 1988, Richard Williams narrates as his daughters smile and pose for the camera. 


Richard Williams: Venus Williams. Serena is seven years old. Venus is eight years old. 


Cecil Harris: The girls stand with their backs to each other in a grassy city park. They're wearing jeans and sneakers. Richard made this tape for Vic Braden. Braden was a well-known tennis coach who worked with top players like Tracy Austin and Andre Agassi. Braden also wrote tennis books and made instructional videos. 


Richard Williams: We have your tape. Tennis Our Way and we have been viewing it. However, the tape says that you'll be good by Friday. Guess what, Vic? We got good bye Tuesday. That's how good the tape is. 


Cecil Harris: The home video cuts to a shot of a tennis court where Venus and Serena stand side by side, hitting balls toward the camera. 


Richard Williams: Great, serve. I think think brain going to love this here. 


Cecil Harris: After several minutes of showing off the girls skills, Richard tells Venus to say a few words. 


Venus Williams: Hello Vic Braden, how are you doing? Yeah, fine, I guess. I want to hit with you sometimes. And can you keep in touch with us? Thank you. 


Cecil Harris: This video was all part of the plan--Richard Williams's plan to bring Venus and Serena from the public courts of Compton, California, to the world of professional tennis. There are countless books, articles and even a feature film about Richard's plan to turn his daughters into the tennis stars they are today. But it wasn't just Richard who made this happen. The whole family was involved, especially the girl's mother Oracene Price, whose role in this success story is often overlooked. So today we'll tell you what we know about "the plan", and we'll take a look at not just Richard's role in making it happen, but Oracene's, too. I'm Cecil Harris, and this is All American Venus and Serena. Episode two: The Plan. 


Cecil Harris: Here's how the story begins. In 1978, Richard Williams met Oracene Price. Oracene had three daughters of her own. She and Richard married in 1980, and they all moved in together. One day when Richard was watching a tennis match on TV, he saw the tournament director present the winner with a check for $40,000. 


Richard Williams: And I figured since I work for $52,000 a year and this girl make $40,000 in four days, I knew I was in the wrong business. 


Cecil Harris: That's Richard in 1992 speaking to the British TV program, Transworld Sport. Richard goes into more detail about this life changing moment in his memoir, Black and White: The Way I See It, he writes that after watching that young woman win $40,000 in prize money, he hatched a plan. He decided he needed to have two daughters of his own. He and Oracene would learn the game of tennis so they could coach their daughters until they became pro tennis stars. Richard writes that he had everything in this plan typed up, quote, more than two and a half years before they were both born. Richard and Oracene weren't tennis players, but they were both athletes, in fact, Oracene played basketball and volleyball. When she was a kid, she told The New York Times magazine in 2012 that she learned to play tennis in a year, which is pretty impressive. She said, quote, I always wanted to learn and to learn the right way, like a professional. And Richard would show everyone my backhand. I first met Richard Williams at the 2000 U.S. Open. More than two decades later, my producers and I sat down to pass through my early memories of the Williams family. 


Cecil Harris: Once I became a sportswriter and had access a couple of times at the U.S. Open, I'd see him getting up and walking toward the stands. I knew enough about him that that's what he liked to do. And I took walks with him on a couple of occasions through the National Tennis Center, and he used to say, No, don't record me, don't write about me. We can just talk. And I wish I had surreptitiously recorded him. 


Cecil Harris: By the time I took those walks with Richard Williams, I had already heard and read a lot about the family's time in Compton and about this big plan that Richard says he wrote. But I wanted to hear about it from him. 


Producer: What did you what would you talk about? 


Cecil Harris: I would ask, why don't you want to watch the match? And he said, I get too nervous. I said, Have you gone over strategy with, let's say, Venus and how she's going to play? And you're confident that she's going to do everything you want to do? Oh, yeah. Venus knows. Venus knows how to follow the plan. And I would ask things like, when you are starting to teach them tennis in Compton, Compton's kind of rough, you know, N.W.A. Straight Outta Compton and everything. I mean, were the guys in the neighborhood really, you know, willing to just let you teach them or would they sometimes get in the way? He would talk about having to sweep crack vials off the court and ask the gang bangers, Hey, I'm working with my daughters here. Can you give me, you know, give me some space, you know? Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, man. And then. And he would say, the the gangbangers say, Yeah, she is good. But the other one, the other was missing too many shots, you know, things like that. 


Producer: Do you feel like you guys connected on some level? Do you think like he liked you or like did you feel like you got to know him a little bit. 


Cecil Harris: At times I felt like he was performing, but I didn't mind. Because I could ask him about his daughters and he would say things to me that I wasn't reading anywhere. There were certain things he said he clearly wanted to say, and I think he wanted to make sure that I knew that his daughters are proud of being black, proud of where they come from. They understand that black girls especially are looking up to them and that he really wanted to make clear that they knew where they came from and that they weren't trying to be something they're not. 


TV Journalist: Born in Compton, California, one of Los Angeles poorest suburbs, we learned that it was their father, Richard, who started them playing tennis before they were five. He saw sport as their ticket out of the ghetto. 


Cecil Harris: The reporter, in that same 1992 Transworld Sports segment is recounting a popular narrative here that the Williams family was a Compton family through and through, and that tennis was their way out. But in Richard's autobiography, he says that he moved the family to Compton as a strategic choice. In fact, shortly after Richard and Oracene were married, the family was living in Long Beach, California, in a home a few blocks from the beach, to be exact. Richard believed that moving to Compton would give his daughters a, quote, fighter's mentality. He also considered how much easier, quote it would be to play in front of thousands of white people if they had already learned to play in front of scores of armed gang members. Another part of the plan was finding a coach who could bring the girls to the next level. Things didn't work out with Vic Braden, but after some searching, the family found another coach, Rick Macy. 


Venus Williams: Within 5 minutes of playing points. I knew they both could be number one in the world. 


Cecil Harris: My producer, Albert Chan, tracked down Rick to ask him about meeting the family and deciding to work with them. 


Albert (Producer): That's right. I gave Rick Macy a call. And you should know Rick's kind of a legend in the tennis world. He's coached, five players who went on to become ranked number one in the world. So in 1990, getting Rick to buy in on Richard's plan for his daughters, that was a big deal. Before he agreed to move them down to Florida, Rick flew out to Compton to take a look at the girls tennis skills. 


Rick Macy: On the outside,They didn't look like a Ferrari, but on the inside there was a Ferrari. And the movement was crazy. The way I saw Venus move on the court, tennis is never, ever going to see something like this. Then Venus goes, Daddy, can I go to the bathroom? Yes. Venus you may, very structured. Venus goes out the gate the first five yards. She walks on her hands the next five yards. She kind of goes into a backward cartwheel. I'm going. What is this? I mean, I'm just sitting here and I go to Richard. I go, I might tell you something right now. You got the next Michael Jordan on your hands. And he put his arm around me, goes, No, brother, man. I got the next two. A true story. I'm telling you, I was there. 


Albert (Producer): Rick he's a bit of a character. He talks a lot about himself in the third person. And he definitely wants you to know that Rick Macy played a big role in the sister's success. And he does deserve a lot of credit. Rick definitely took a big bet on Venus and Serena. He financed the family's move from Compton to Florida. Rick coached both girls for a few years, and he let Richard be in the driver's seat. For example, after arriving in Florida, Richard unexpectedly pulled his daughters out of all junior tennis competition. This is a complicated dynamic for a coach. And so I asked Rick about navigating coaching the girls when he couldn't fully be in charge. 


Albert (Producer): So what about that balance in terms of like Richard's involvement and, you know, this idea of him being like, you know what? We're going to take the week off. We're going to go to the beach today or we're not going to play as many matches as other juniors are playing. Can you, what can you tell me in terms of how he wanted to do it his way or their way and why that was effective? But at any point where you like, that's, you know, there's a way to do it. 


Rick Macy: Well. I think the best plan in life is always one that's flexible. Got to remember, once they came to me, the publicity and the hype just went through the roof. Because now it's more global. Because what I've done, who I coach and now they've moved. So it even amped up the whole thing. And there's media all the time and Richard fed into it. He wanted that. She was almost legendary before you're a legend. It was like crazy. So I think he said, you know, the junior tournaments, they're not going to learn anything. And plus, Rick, I'll probably end up in jail. So if I get in so many arguments and fights with parents because he thought it was just a different a different thing. This is about developing, you know, technique, strategy. This is all about pros. I don't want them to play any tournaments. And I said, well, they might learn a little bit. But the one thing I did agree with them, they were natural born competitors. 


Albert (Producer): Rick didn't agree with Richard about some things, but he says the two of them became close and that he ultimately trusted Richard, especially when it came to the girls. 


Rick Macy: He had two young girls that were rough, tough, athletic. And, he put a lot of belief in them, you know, and that's a big thing. But, you know, they would always hug, kiss. Thank you, Daddy. It was very real. He did not push them. I'm telling you, that never works. You can push to a certain limit, but it's got to come from you. So whatever anybody else says, they don't know. Rick Macy knows. He did not push them. He gave them the opportunity. There's a fine line between pushing and maybe abusive. He was never like that. Never, ever. I could tell you a thousand off the top of my head who were, you know. But he's never like that. Sometimes he say, we're not playing today. We're going to the beach, Rick. We're not playing today. We're going to Disney World. I'm saying we got to train. He goes, No, no, we'll be back in three days. So you got to understand, this is from the inside. He was one of the best dads ever because of the balance. 


Albert (Producer): Richard had a big personality and he was in charge, but he also just let his girls be girls. According to Richard, another part of the plan, and this is part of the plan that's overlooked, was having the girls ready for life outside of tennis. A few years into their time in Florida, Venus' career was taking off. The Williams family was capturing the attention of many people in and out of the tennis community. And reporters wanted to learn more about this insular family. But who would they decide to let in? 


Linda Robertson: Initially he turned down the whole prospect of me actually coming and doing a, you know, an in-person sit down, spend some time with you at your home interview. 


Cecil Harris: This is Linda Robertson. She's a longtime reporter for The Miami Herald. Back in 1997, she was struggling to get Richard Williams to agree to an in-person interview with his daughters. 


Linda Robertson: He was willing to maybe do something at a practice court. You know, he was running everything for them. So you had to go through Richard. And so it was just a matter of persuading him to give me access. My goal was to spend some time with them, not just do, you know, phone interview and hear the same old stuff, try to do something in person, in depth on the family. But, you know, I just kept calling him and talking with him. And I guess my pitch was basically, look, we've heard a lot of hype about you, but here's a chance to sort of introduce yourself to South Florida. And you've got a good journalist here who is familiar with tennis, with your story and just let me in. 


Cecil Harris: Eventually, Richard agreed to Linda's pitch. This was a big get for her. It would have been for any reporter at the time. In the spring of 1997, Venus was 16 and Serena was 15. Few in the media had done an in-depth profile with the whole Williams family. People were curious. 


Linda Robertson: One of my ideas was to sort of get to the bottom of this whole thing and cut through that mystique, which Richard had very carefully built up. There was just a lot of anticipatory attention about, you know, their potential. 


Cecil Harris: Linda drove out to where the Williams family was living just north of Miami. Richard greeted her at the door. They chatted a bit. 


Linda Robertson: And then he said, You know, the girls are upstairs doing homework, so why don't you just go up there and talk to them? And he didn't even go with me. He just let me go up there and introduce myself. And I just said, okay, you guys keep doing what you're doing. And I'm just going to you know, I'm just going to sit here and listen. I knew. I think I knew pretty quickly. Like, this is gold. 


Cecil Harris: The girls were sitting together on the bed practicing French. The 1997 French Open was around the corner. Richard told Venus if she wanted to play in the tournament, she needed to learn the language. 


Linda Robertson: It was one of those dialogs where there's two people talking. I think the name of the story was the Extraordinary Vase. Venus makes some crack about, you know, this isn't the best literature. And so they're speaking in exaggerated French accents. They're mocking the whole lesson and giggling, you know, and just like you could just see how these two girls are best friends and sort of had this language beyond the French French lesson. This language onto their own and their sense of humor was just spot on. I mean, for their age, it was just I was just, you know, laughing under my breath there. It was a very sort of pointed sense of humor about this thing. 


Cecil Harris: The fact that the girls seemed well-adjusted was somewhat of a surprise to Linda, given tennis's reputation for overbearing parents and unhappy tennis prodigies. Venus and Serena didn't appear to fit this mold. Not that the sisters were exactly like most kids. 


Linda Robertson: And I also noticed that on the bed there was Animal Farm, the novel by Orwell. And there was also a book like a workbook type thing on how to form and operate a limited liability company. And this went back to how Richard was also teaching the girls how to become entrepreneurs. And that was really his ultimate goal for them. He bragged about how they would be out of the game of tennis by age 24 and running their own businesses. 


Cecil Harris: Not only were the girls following Richard's vision, they seemed truly bought in. Venus told Linda something she found striking. 


Linda Robertson: She said, Yeah, we're going to keep everybody guessing. We're going to keep everybody wondering what we might do next. Hey, you know, maybe I'll run in the Kentucky Derby. Who knows? 


Cecil Harris: But there was a limit to how well-rounded they could be while pursuing this life. 


Linda Robertson: The girls admitted that they really didn't have any friends. They didn't really have much of a social life, that everything revolved around their family. 


Cecil Harris: But the girl's mother Oracene Price hadn't necessarily bought in on the plan in the same way. 


Linda Robertson: I think as the mom, she had a much more powerful hand then than it may have seemed because she was always kind of in the background and Richard kind of dominated. 


Cecil Harris: It seemed to, Linda, that although Oracene was there working in service of the plan, she had some understandable apprehension. 


Linda Robertson: Because she knew that this was building and building, and it was only a matter of time before they were going to be world famous. And what was that going to lead to? 


Cecil Harris: Linda didn't get much time with Oracene during her visit. In fact, not many reporters have. There's never been an in-depth story on Oracene, and you rarely see her sit down for extended interviews. I've always wanted to speak with Oracene,  I've reached out to her many times over the years for an interview, but the answer has always been a no. We've also contacted her for this project and haven't received a response. But here's what we do know about Oracene. She's from Michigan originally. She went to college there, Western Michigan University. She majored in education, and she worked many years as a nurse. She's a devoted mother and grandmother, and in the 1980s Oracene became a Jehovah's Witness. And she's been devout ever since. 


Linda Robertson: She told me that she had wished for her girls a much more anonymous life and that she would have preferred that they just be missionaries in their faith as Jehovah's Witnesses and that that they would just live a life of service. And that she was really, really worried that all the fame and fortune would corrupt them, would ruin them, would warp them. 


Cecil Harris: Faith seems to be a central component to her life, and the time that Linda shared with her Oracene spoke about it. And in a rare sit down interview with Will Smith in 2021, one of the only thingsOracene said was this. 


Oracene: It's the verse in the Bible A perfect bond and union is love, and you have to show that love. 


Cecil Harris: Oracene was reflecting on what made their family work in the early years when they were following the plan. 


Oracene: And then you have to work together and bond it together and make sure it happened. And then the most important thing is no doubt and no fear. So I never doubted. And when people will say, yep, they think they're going to do this, when people are like that, you learn on your way from those kind of people, you can move forward to where your goal is. We had a goal. It wasn't money. It was just a way of life that we wanted for the girls.


Cecil Harris: Oracene imparted her faith to her daughters to. 


Serena WIlliams: Wow as as Venus said, first and foremost, I give our praises to Jehovah, God because he really got me through this tournament. This was a tough one. 


Cecil Harris: That Serena at the 2017 Australian Open, both she and Venus often thanked Jehovah God in their victory speeches. This wasn't necessarily a component in Richard's plan. He never converted to become a Jehovah's Witness. But Venus and Serena's faith that comes from their mother. For all the apprehension Oracene expressed about the fame and frivolity that might come with professional tennis. By the time the family got there Oracene seemed to have a handle on it. 


Scott Price: There was just this calming presence, this sort of calming sort of air about her and and and completely unimpressed, by the way, the overwhelming sort of, you know, dazzled, bedazzlement of money. I mean, she she just called B.S. on everything. She just had this sort of, like, clear eyed, realistic take on the world. 


Cecil Harris: That Scott Price. His byline is S.L. Price. He met Oracene in the late nineties when he wrote the first of several Sports Illustrated pieces on the Williams sisters. For this first story, Scott flew to Italy, where Venus was playing in a tournament. It was a small, low profile event, but the venue was impressive. 


Scott Price: I think it was built by Mussolini. You know, it's full of like, you know, Greeks, you know, Roman statuary, you know, it's just, you know, it's just over the top. And if you if you want to be impressed with yourself and your riches and your, you know, this incredible life that we're living as professional tennis players, you know, this this was the place to do it. And Oracene just sort of, you know, would just amble around and, you know, kind of roll her eyes and say, you know, just kind of like roll their eyes and look at you and smile and a very soft spoken way sort of be like, and she didn't say this to me, but it's like, Can you believe this bullshit? Like, can you believe all this nonsense? 


Cecil Harris: So a lot of the professional tennis world was nonsense, but since Oracene was there with her daughters, she was absolutely going to help them navigate it. 


Scott Price: And, you know, she told me in 99, I teach my kids to live in reality. You're black. You always have to work harder and you don't have to prove yourself to anybody. I don't expect you to apologize. And essentially she meant for her, for their confidence, their cockiness to anyone. She would say, you know, there's no such thing as pressure, you know. And she said, you know, as black Americans, that's all we've ever had. It's life. So where's the pressure? So there's this perspective borne out of incredible pain culturally and but also sort of an understanding of of, you know, this stuff really doesn't matter in the end, does it? What really matters is how we treat each other and whether my daughters love each other. 


Cecil Harris: For as much as Oracene did and still does for her daughters. She doesn't get as much credit as Richard. But she quietly held the family together in many ways. 


Scott Price: It's very easy, I think, in general to say that mom did a great job in spite of and I'm not even saying it's not true. But I think that Richard, for all his faults and he had many, he deserves credit. I mean, there's no question that that he was part of this chemistry. For good and for bad. You know, the yin and the yang between him and Oracene, I think. Whatever it was, both parents. There was a chemistry created that allowed this to happen. 


Cecil Harris: This extraordinary tennis story is all because of Richard's plan. And his daughters seemed to appreciate that he dreamed it up. They even made a movie about it. But the plan would never have worked without Oracene keeping her daughters grounded and the often crazy world of tennis. Next time on all-American Venus steps into tennis's harsh spotlight for the first time alone. 


Cecil Harris: All-American is a production of Witness Docs from Stitcher. This episode was written and reported by Albert Chan and Jordan Bell. Our mix engineer is Casey Holford, who also composed our original music. Our senior producer is Jordan Bell. Our story editor is Johanna Palmer. Our executive producer is Camille Stanley. Extra production support from Nora Ritchey, Gwen Igor Vega and Manolo Morales. Fact checking by Kelvin. Bias legal support from Sidney Freeman and Thomas Burke at Davis Wright Tremayne. I'm your host, Cecil Harris.