There is a moment most of the way through Venus and Serena, a new documentary about the Williams sisters, in which Serena lists the different personalities she sometimes takes on.
There’s Psycho Serena (“She’s awesome”), which is her on-court demeanor. Then there’s Summer (“She helps me out a lot”), who does menial tasks and errands. There’s fashionable Serena, who films the tennis star’s appearances on HSN. There’s Megan (“She’s really mean … you don’t want to run into Megan”), who seems to be a cast member from Mean Girls. And then there’s Taquanda (“Taquanda is rough … She’s not Christian”). Then Serena adds, “She was at the U.S. Open in 2009.”
That tournament, infamously, was the one where Williams exploded on a line judge, cursing at her and eventually being defaulted because of the outburst, creating yet another sensational chapter in the dramatic tale of the Williams sisters.
Much of that drama is on display in the documentary, which was released on iTunes last month and hits theaters on May 10.
“The most surprising thing for me with the Williams sisters—even having watched tennis my whole life—was how incredibly close they are,” says Maiken Baird, who directed the film with Michelle Major. “They are best friends, roommates, soul mates. It's not for show.”
Really, there is little that isn’t worthy of showing in the story of two African-American sisters who grew up on the gritty streets of Compton and together became one of the most compelling stories in the history of sports. From religion (they’re Jehovah’s Witnesses) to on-court strategy to health scares to Serena’s dating life (“I’m married to myself right now”) to the truth behind their seemingly wacko father, the documentary follows the sisters for the 2011 tennis season, but also jumps back in time with plenty of video clips and photos of the days when the girls were just getting started.
It’s a film that can feel a bit like it has multiple personalities itself, jumping from scenes at Wimbledon 2011 (where Serena made a comeback from a life-threatening pulmonary embolism) to grainy footage of her and Venus sitting on the ground by a net on a beat-up court in Los Angeles, their hair braided and their teenage years still ahead of them.
Serena turns out to be the star, the world No. 1’s comeback—then Taquanda comes back, and her second outburst at the U.S. Open in 2011 becomes a focal point of the film. But Major points out that it was the guarded younger sister’s candid approach that made many of the film’s best moments.
“Serena was incredibly willing to be so open to us. I'd ask her a question and just be shocked by her response and how candid she was.”
The sisters, too, have been candid about how they’ve felt about the film itself. “We wanted the film to reflect our life,” Venus told reporters last month. “We want it to be successful ... you know, I don’t—no, I’m OK with everything.”
Some of Venus’s hesitation was said to be because of the film’s depiction of their father, Richard, and his peculiar ways, especially with women. The documentary is probably the most in-depth look yet at Richard’s familial history—it details his family prior to Venus and Serena (he had five kids with another wife), his new family (he has a son with a much-younger wife), and a mystery child or two.
“I was wondering why that guy was calling him 'dad,'” says Serena at one point in the film, referring to a young man with her father whom she didn’t recognize. “I was going to ask my dad about it, but I got frustrated and had to leave. I’ll have to ask my dad."
The revelations and storytelling are such that viewers from tennis junkies to those who have barely even heard of Venus or Serena can’t help but be drawn in by the drama, glamour, controversy, and plain strangeness that is the Williams family.
In example of the narrative twists and turns, Venus finds out that she’s battling an auto-immune deficiency disorder known as Sjögren’s Syndrome during the filming soon after Serena rids herself of a cast that came from a foot surgery, which would later lead to her aforementioned pulmonary embolism.
Of course, perhaps the greatest twist is that the Williamses, known for being press-shy and heavily guarded, agreed to do the film at all. Baird and Major, ABC News alumni, said they worked for three and a half years before landing a deal with Carlos Fleming and Jill Smoller, Venus and Serena’s agents, respectively.
“There were many times when we felt like this wasn't going to happen at all,” Baird explains. “But we felt like this was such a great story and had to be told.”
As the film has inched toward a theatrical release following its festival debut in Toronto last summer, Serena has thrown more weight behind the project, even recording a greeting for screenings that thanks viewers for watching the film.
While the heaviness of the film can weigh on viewers at times—particularly as the sisters discuss the 2003 killing of their sister Yetunde —the lighthearted moments are surprisingly refreshing.
Serena is obsessed with karaoke (she’s pretty good); their mother, Oracene, gives marriage advice to Richard’s 33-year-old wife (“Run! Do not pass go. Do not collect $200”); Serena describes a date where she was picked up in a minivan; and both sisters snuggle plenty with their dogs.
But while the film features interviews with A-listers like Bill Clinton, Anna Wintour, Gay Talese, Billie Jean King, John McEnroe, and Chris Rock, the culminating scene at the 2011 U.S. Open is one of the most revealing, with Serena locked in a closet with McEnroe, discussing her second outburst at the tournament in three years.
“We were asked to stop filming when Serena went into the private room with John,” Major notes. “But Serena knew that she was mic'd and was quite capable of turning that mic off if she didn't want to be heard.”
Major revealed last month that she feared that filming would be “shut down” by the sisters at any point because of the persistent presence of the cameras around them.
But Venus noted the schedule didn’t bother them. “We knew when they were coming, everything was scheduled.”
Perhaps the only moment in the film in which Serena truly forgets the cameras is a scene during the 2011 U.S. Open with her hitting partner Sascha Bajin. Williams scolds him for not playing hard enough against her while she runs on a treadmill.
“You were … hitting patty-cake,” she tells Sascha, frustrated. “And I go out there playing girls that want to beat the f—ing hell out of me. They don’t play patty-cake with me. They hate me.”
“That scene of Serena on the treadmill, that's what makes her so great: she is hell bent on winning,” Baird says. “She hates losing more than she likes winning. That fire that the audience sees there is what drives her and makes her one of the greatest of all time.”