Richard Williams: ‘I was close to being killed so many times’

Story highlights

Richard Williams helped daughters become tennis stars

He has been their coach, teacher and father

Serena and Venus have dominated women's game

CNN  — 

On the tough streets of Compton in the late 1980s, a crowd of school children hurled insults at two young black girls, whose father happily watched.

The city, in Los Angeles County, was riven with internecine gang warfare at the time, and verbal conflict could quickly escalate to violence.

Yet this was not one of Compton’s then-common violent scenes.

For a start, the schoolkids had been bused in specifically to the local tennis courts.

This was Richard Williams doing his worst to toughen up his beloved daughters Venus and Serena, who in just a few years would begin their domination of women’s tennis.

LONDON, ENGLAND - JULY 07:  Serena Williams (R) of the USA celebrates with her father Richard Williams and sister Venus Williams after her Ladies? Singles final match against Agnieszka Radwanska of Poland on day twelve of the Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Championships at the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club on July 7, 2012 in London, England.  (Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images)
A rare audience with Richard Williams
05:11 - Source: CNN

“In order to be successful you must prepare for the unexpected – and I wanted to prepare for that.,” Williams recalls in an interview with CNN’s Open Court, explaining why he let the girls be exposed to such abuse. “Criticism can bring the best out of you.”

On one occasion, he says local gang members tried to intervene, having been so unsettled by what they were seeing. It was “everything that white people shouted,” the 73-year-old explains.

“When (they) came to me and said, ‘You can’t talk to Venus in that way … I said, ‘Watch out. I’m going to do what I want to do.’

“Criticism is one of the greatest things, I think, that we’ve been trained to live through.”

Richard Williams was no stranger to racism. Growing up in Shreveport, Louisiana, in the 1940s and ’50s, he says he witnessed a friend being lynched.

Another died after being run over by a white woman who claimed it was the victim’s fault. “There was no investigation, there was no police car,” he says.

“But that was life. I was close to being killed so many times. A hell of a lot of times.”

‘A genteel lynch mob’

When he became a father, Williams wanted his kids to be ready to overcome adversity, racial or otherwise.

In 2001, the unorthodox training he provided his daughters would prove prescient when they were abused at one of the most prestigious tournaments on the world tennis circuit.

As Serena walked on court for the final of the Indian Wells event in the well-heeled Californian desert community, the watching crowd let rip.

Boos rained down on the then 19-year-old, while Venus and her father received a similar welcome as they took their seats in the stand.

The crowd was unhappy that Venus had pulled out of the semifinal clash against her sister a day earlier due to injury. Some suspected that matches between the duo were fixed by their father to maintain family harmony.

Accusations of racism would follow, with Serena writing in her autobiography that “all I could see was a sea of rich people – mostly older, mostly white – standing and booing lustily, like some kind of genteel lynch mob.”

Richard Williams would also state in an interview with USA Today that “one guy said, ‘I wish it was ’75, we’d skin you alive.’” Although nobody was arrested, tournament director Charlie Pasarell said he didn’t discount that Williams Sr. was racially abused.