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“This movie is a win for the whole family.” So says 15-year-old actress Saniyya Sydney in a promotional clip advertising the new tennis blockbuster King Richard.
Although Sydney’s line was written with cinemagoers in mind, it could also apply to the film’s subjects. Yes, Will Smith occupies the foreground with an Oscar-worthy turn as family patriarch Richard Williams. But we also see plenty of mother Oracene and the three half-sisters who never became tennis pros: Yetunde, Isha and Lyndrea.
Travelling around in a yellow Volkswagen minibus, these older siblings were almost like extra parents for Venus and Serena. As well as collecting tennis balls during daily practice sessions, they also participated in endless card games and staged talent contests. Not just because they were trying to look after their younger sisters, but also because it was fun.
And then, once the two prodigies began to play professional tournaments in their mid-teens, the whole family worked together to insulate them from the worst instincts of American society. Speaking to Telegraph Sport last week, Isha recalled sifting through mountains of mail in order to eliminate all the hateful messages.
“I remember being an undergrad in 1997,” said Isha Price, during a phone interview from Warner Brothers’ offices. “I would come home to Palm Beach in the holidays and find stacks of unopened mail. When I went through it, there would be requests for photos and stuff, but at least a third of it was hate mail.
“It was people calling my sisters ‘monkeys’, or saying that they shouldn’t be playing tennis at all – ‘go play basketball instead’. As a family, we didn’t want them to hear that. So we started telling them, ‘Do not read the papers, do not read your own fan mail, just focus on your game, speak with your racket, show passion in what you do.’”
While Venus and Serena followed this advice to the letter, there was no escaping the racist remarks or boos that would occasionally ring out from the stands. As the elder of the two – and the first African-American queen to emerge since Althea Gibson in the 1950s – Venus served as a sort of John the Baptist figure, paving the way for her sister to pile up titles like other young women might collect ear-rings.
“Venus took the hit for a lot of that stuff,” Isha told me. “Which is one of the reasons why she became so stoic on court and showed a lot less emotion. But her doing that allowed Serena to be expressive and emotive, to be her whole self. Serena had more friends on the tour. She was a lot freer because Venus took the hit.”
Making the film brought back powerful memories for the whole Williams brood, especially of their late sister Yetunde. While Isha became a lawyer, and Lyndrea moved into fashion and design, Yetunde was a nurse and a mother, with three young children. She lived in Compton – the same gang-ridden Los Angeles suburb where the Venus and Serena first practised their groundstrokes – and in 2003 she was shot dead by a member of the Crips, apparently in a case of mistaken identity.
“Seeing Yetunde onscreen was an emotional experience for us,” Isha said. “We all became so close, from living in such a bubble back then. We just hung out with each other. It wasn’t until we got older, and started sharing experiences with other people, that you go, ‘Oh, wait, maybe the way I grew up was a little bit different.’ But it felt normal to us. We thought everybody was just in their family group, working on their dream.
“Us older girls knew that Venus and Serena were going to be successful from when they were nine or 10, because they really enjoyed it so much. We just believed it would happen, even though tennis wasn’t a part of the community we grew up in. There were times [in Compton] when people would drive by and we would hear shooting and just hit the ground. But my dad said that if you can play tennis with gunshots going on in the background, it won’t matter if someone shouts out in the crowd. To him, everything was a lesson. ‘Just tune it all out,’ he would say.”
After becoming an attorney, Isha was drawn back into her family’s close orbit and wound up managing Serena’s affairs. She also became an executive producer on King Richard, having rejected numerous unrelated script proposals before this one caught her eye. The great strength of Zach Baylin’s treatment, she felt, was the narrow timespan of around five years in the early 1990s. This avoided the paradox of trying to tell the family’s whole story when – in her words – “that story is still being written”.
Isha was on set every day throughout the shoot, watching Saniyya Sydney (Venus) and Demi Singleton (Serena) give uncannily convincing impersonations of her sisters. But when the real Venus and Serena turned up to watch the director’s cut, several months ago, they didn’t know what to expect.
“It was a lot of tension for me,” Isha said, “because I was the one who convinced everybody, ‘Let's do this.’ So I think I probably held my breath for two hours and 20 minutes. And then, when we're walking out of the theatre, Serena was like, ‘I hate you.’ And I was like ‘What?’ And she said ‘You said it was good, but you didn't really prepare us for how good it was.’ And then I could exhale.”