King Richard and I — How Venus and Serena’s Dad Got Us All Past the Gatekeepers.

In 1998, Richard Williams told me he could see the future. It took me 20 years to figure out how he did it.

I didn’t have cable TV as a young child, so I rarely saw tennis on our TV at home. But whenever I visited one of my father’s friends, there always seemed to be some tennis on his TV. Because of that, my earliest memories of tennis are of Martina and Chrissy and John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors on a grass court in all white. When I got older and my family moved and had access to tennis on TV, we watched it more often. We followed Pete Sampras and Steffi Graf and Monica Seles. We cheered and cried for Zina Garrison, Chanda Rubin, and Malivai Washington. However, my real connection to tennis didn’t happen until much later, in 1997.

That year, I started hearing about a young tennis player, Venus Williams. She had made it all the way to the US Open Finals as an unseeded player and was beaten by the number 1 player, Martina Hingis! But because of the anomaly of her race and upbringing (a Black girl from Compton playing tennis), we were learning more about her and her family, and especially her father. Any black person remotely interested in tennis always became more keenly interested when someone who looked like them made it on TV.

Of course, those players were saddled with the extra weight of representing the hopes and dreams of all the Black people in America whenever they stepped on the court. We watched with a cautious optimism, seldom prepared for the feelings that came when the player lost. But this felt different. Venus was young, and seemed to be capable of dominating, not just doing well, despite the pressure. And then when we learned that she had a sister who was coming up right behind her, the hope grew stronger. I was determined to see her play in real life.

As a kid in Miami, I had never had either the occasion or the budget to go to the Key Biscayne tennis tournament. But now, all of a sudden, I wanted to find a way. My college spring break was later than that of most colleges, and my spring breaks at home in Miami coincided with the massive annual tennis tournament in Key Biscayne — the Lipton, now the Miami Open. For me, it may as well have been the US Open or any Grand Slam because it was my dream opportunity to see Venus in action.

I tried to go when I could, but, without the budget for tickets, it was difficult. One time a friend of my parents got an office ticket for a seat in the 400 level near the sky and gave it to me. I took every other opportunity I got, but they were rare. A friend of mine told me he was signing up to be a volunteer and I should do that too. It would be hard work and many hours. But you would get to see some tennis. Without a sure way of making it to and from Key Biscayne, I didn’t believe I could make the commitment. So I told him I would prefer to be the recipient of the occasional free ticket he would get when he volunteered.

But there was one day I remember. It was the women’s semifinals and Venus would be playing Martina Hingis again, but I had no ticket. It was such a huge deal that I decided to just show up at Crandon Park and see what would happen. Since I had been there a couple of times, I was familiar with the location of the player and media entrance gate. That’s where college age me and a bunch of little kids would gather all day hoping to get a glimpse of a star. If you were lucky, you could get an autograph on a piece of paper or on an oversized tennis ball. This was before smart phones, so no selfies. But if you had a camera, you could wait for hours trying to get a picture of a player, almost never a picture with a player unless your parents were with you to take it and you had film left on the camera.

So when I got to the stadium that day, I figured out how to walk around to the left of the main entrance to find the player entrance. I was just going to take a look. Maybe I would see someone from the Williams family and wave or maybe I would get nowhere and just go back home. But somehow, moments later, I had gotten as far as the valet section of the player entrance. No one said anything, and I kept walking. And all of a sudden, I was in the stadium with no ticket and no plan. The buzz of arrivals or maybe absent-minded staff and pre 9/11 lax security had all conspired to help me out. I had no ticket, so I wouldn’t be able to get into center court to watch. But at this point, I didn’t care. I just wanted to hang out until I saw the Williams’.

And I did. I only remember that Venus drove herself. I believe it was a Toyota 4runner. Smiling and happy, she was too far away or too quick, or I was in shock, but I said nothing, didn’t call out to her, didn’t try to get an autograph. But that’s not why I am telling this story.

At some point after Venus had already gone in, I looked up and saw an imposing man. A tall black man. At this tournament, there weren’t many black people other than the ground staff or food service workers, some volunteers, and maybe a handful of older people in tennis gear who played together at some local court. You could spend a day at a tennis tournament and not see more than a couple of other black people. So, although I noticed Coach Williams, the more significant thing was that he noticed me.

He smiled and acknowledged me. I somehow did not freeze and I said something back… maybe, “Hi Mr. Williams, how are you? I am so excited to see Venus.” I don’t remember. But whatever I said caused him to stop walking. He came over to me, a toothpick in his mouth, really short shorts and a windbreaker. I introduced myself. He asked me what I was doing there. I told him I was home from college and came to see Venus play. We exchanged a few more words and then at some point he realized he had to go. But instead of saying good-bye, he said, “Come on.”

I remember the voice, the accent, the tone — firm, and urgent, but welcoming. All of a sudden, Richard Williams and I were walking together at a tennis tournament! He was headed into the player area, so as we approached the door, I was ready to say goodbye and thanks for the short chat. But he wasn’t done with me. The security asked for credentials. He showed his, and then told the lady, “He’s with me.” In the same breath, he turns to me and says, “Come on.” I will never know if the security was planning to ask again or stop me from going in, or if she called for backup, because Coach Williams and I just kept walking and I kept my head straight ahead as the door closed behind us.

Our conversation was not about tennis. All he cared about was that I was this little Black kid who was a student at Harvard. He didn’t know me an hour before, but he was proud of me. He talked about his daughters’ interests outside of tennis. He mentioned fashion design. He gushed about how ambitious his children were and how sure he was that they would succeed as business people! In fact, later on, when we got to the room with the rest of the family, he introduced me to Oracene Price, and to Serena, as a Harvard student who could maybe help with tutoring of Venus and Serena!

A side note: I only have two memories of my interactions with Serena that day. One was her saying in response to my questions to her and her mom, who seemed to actually consider the idea of me tutoring her daughters, that she was interested in fashion design. The second was me very timidly pointing to my yellow and black kodak disposable camera, during a changeover while we were in the stands watching her sister play, asking her with my eyes if she would take a picture with me. She said no… but I understood, her sister was in the middle of a match against the world no. 1!

Back to Coach Richard… The only thing he said to me about tennis was that Venus was going to be number 1 and that her sister Serena was really good as well and was going to be a superstar. Venus was the one who I had been watching from the year before and she was the one playing in the tournament. But he spoke of the Serena dominance that was to come with such conviction that when I look back, the only thing I can assume is that he could predict the future.

I was instantly in awe of this man. I was proud to have met him and I was more excited than ever to take a permanent seat on the Williams Sisters’ supporter train. If he turned out to be right, it would be the most high impact change to the sport of tennis that anyone could imagine in 1998, despite many things weighing against the Williams family. You have to remember that there were few reporters, or tennis experts, or people for that matter, who would ever discuss Richard Williams in a positive way. And, even worse, many of the people who were willing to praise Venus and Serena still found it necessary to always add “and they speak well too.”

As a Black person in America, both the active and the passive racism around the Williams and their story hurt me deeply. Yet, the Williams family kept it moving. These two Williams sisters thrived on and off the court and their earliest coaches, Richard and Oracene, stood firm in the face of challenge after challenge.

It is why, for the past 23 years, whenever I am in the stands any where in the world, or watching from home I cheer loudly for Venus and Serena, but I also cheer in my heart for Coach Williams. His and Oracene Price’s hard work helped to give us many years of enjoyment and triumphs (and anxiety) from Venus and Serena. By extension, their genius and dedication helped to get us Sloane and Madison and Naomi, and Coco and many other players who looked up to the amazing and awe inspiring Williams sisters growing up.

Coach Williams succeeded in his stated mission many years ago. In fact, as early as 2002, both Venus and Serena were so good that they each held the no. 1 ranking at different times! Yet, it has taken a long 19 years and many championships and Gold Medals to make it clear to a lot of people (including many of the Americans who caught my eye rolls during matches when they rooted for their opponents) that Coach Williams saw a future that he desired for his daughters, and did everything in his power to support them as they made it so.

As I grew older, and as the Williams family’s legendary status got stronger, I lost touch with Coach Williams. Eventually, I was no longer running into Coach at tennis tournaments and never had a third or fourth chance to be seated in the Williams’ player box.

My ticket from the player’s box seats for a match in the 1998 US Open

But, I have had many opportunities to watch Venus and Serena build their legacy over the years. They have been a constant source of inspiration and amazing reminders that hard work is the minimum requirement for success. They have shown me that when success puts you in the spotlight, you must rise to the occasion, knowing that your actions, and your words, can inspire others to perform. These are philosophies that have guided me and I have Coach Williams to thank for some of that.

My family and friends who knew about that day in Key Biscayne thought the highlight of my day was being in the Williams’ player box for the match when Venus toppled Martina Hingis. They all thought it was cool that my face popped up on their TV screen multiple times during the match. Many were curious why I was wearing an MIT shirt instead of a Harvard one. And, when people see the video now, they think it awesome that I was sitting with a young Serena cheering on Venus back in 1998.

Blurry screenshot of CNN Sports report in 1998 of Venus defeating Hingis in Miami. Photo of the family box with Mark McIntosh, Serena Williams, Oracene WIlliams and Lyndrea Price. Everyone is on their feet cheering the victory after the winning point.
Blurry screenshot of CNN Sports report in 1998 of Venus defeating Hingis in Miami. Photo of the family box with Mark McIntosh, Serena Williams, Oracene WIlliams and Lyndrea Price. Everyone is on their feet cheering the victory after the winning point.
Screen grab from TV footage of Venus’ victory over Martina Hingis in Miami. Back Row L-R Mark McIntosh, Oracene Price; Front Row L-R Serena Williams and Lyndrea Price

The reality, however, is my thoughts during that match were not only on my shirt, or on the match and Venus but also on Coach Williams. Rather than sit in the player box, he sat courtside to get a better look. But I was sitting with Serena and Ms. Price and other important people, like Linda Long, from Puma who had just signed Serena to a contract. But in between the ups and downs of a 2 set to 1 win, my mind often wandered as I thought about the man who put me in that seat. I was grateful for his attention to me that day, and the attention to his goals over the years that played a major part in his daughter’s journey to that stadium. She was laying the foundation for a special legacy that she and her sister were about to build.

I will never forget that day. (And even if I do, I have digitized the VHS tape that my parents made of the match and the news report on CNN about Venus’ victory). But here’s what I learned from my interactions with Coach Richard:

We are supposed to do well. It is the price we pay to be here. On that day, and whenever we spoke after that at other tournaments or on the occasional short phone call (was often difficult to hear him — “Mark! Hey young man. I’m in a convertible. It’s windy.”), he always focused on performance. He always asked how was I doing in school. He was making sure I didn’t let myself or my family down. He spoke in the same way about his children. Keep your head up and show them that you know your worth.

Coach Williams understood the challenges. But he also figured out how to deal with them: Some people would always view you through a different, unsupportive lens. However, we have a responsibility to our families and to our communities to represent the best of us. Most importantly, consistent hard work increases the probability that you will win.

This philosophy that he shared with me just by the way he spoke to me, with the questions he asked, and the responses and advice he gave, was clearly a part of his plan to become the coach of two number 1 ranked, Grand Slam tournament winners. Thank goodness Venus and Serena were such talented and intelligent players that they performed beyond even his expectations. I stand in constant awe of Coach Williams’ ability to devise such a plan in the first place.

Picture of Coach RIchard Williams, father of Serena and Venus in the stands with a toothpick in his mouth.
Picture of Coach RIchard Williams, father of Serena and Venus in the stands with a toothpick in his mouth.
Coach Richard Williams, with a toothpick in his mouth, watching Venus defeat Martina Hingis from a lower level seat at the Lipton Tournament in Key Biscayne, Miami

Maybe it is true that Coach Williams predicted the future. But, what I have learned from his family over the years is that predicting the future wasn’t about seeing the future as an out of body experience, existing separately from you and your actions, fated to occur through some magic. It is more of a calculated guess at the future that is likely to happen if you assess your opportunity, your talent, and your resources and then you carefully define the inevitable result of optimizing these things. Then, you march towards that result — through, over, and around obstacles — buoyed by the confidence that no matter what others say, you have what it takes to get to your destination. Thank you, Coach Williams and Coach Price for what you have done. And thank you Venus and Serena for raising the bar.

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