The man with the plan

Published 12:00 am Sunday, November 17, 2002

The real story, Richard Williams will tell you, isn’t just that he turned sports tradition on its ear when he unleashed daughters Venus and Serena on the staid world of women’s professional tennis in the early 1990s.

The real story is how he long ago developed an intricate, detailed plan to do just that &045;&045; and then executed that plan step by step by step.

This despite monumental opposition from jealous competitors, an often critical media, and a tradition-bound tennis establishment that has been less than welcoming at times to two young black girls from the poor side of town who took what had been a largely white-dominated sport by storm.

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Currently, Venus, 22, and Serena, 20, are seated firmly atop the United States Tennis Association standings, ranked No. 2 and No. 1, respectively. This year alone, Venus has taken home more than $2.5 million in tournament earnings and Serena more than $3.9 million. They’ve pocketed millions more in lucrative endorsements. Reebok just recently signed Venus to a $40 million contract.

That’s a far cry from the days when the family lived in L.A.’s infamous Watts, which their father describes as &uot;the world’s second worst ghetto.&uot;

Alternately hailed as a genius and derided as a racist, Richard Williams is outspoken and opinionated and anything but bashful. He makes no apologies for his take on what it means to be black in America today. He is, in fact, writing a book on just that subject and stopped over in Selma on Friday to interview J.L. Chestnut Jr.

He had stopped in Selma earlier this year to help kick off the James Perkins Jr. Tennis Classic.

During a candid give-and-take with Chestnut, who is noted for having strong opinions of his own on the subject of race, Williams shared a little of his tell-it-like-it-is philosophy.

He achieved his self-proclaimed status as the world’s premier negotiator, Williams went on to explain, the same way he achieved almost everything else in his life: He devised a plan and then executed that plan.

Part of his motivation in writing the book, he said, is to convince black people that they possesses a natural genius which, if cultivated, would enable them to do far more than they ever thought possible, but that they must first overcome the negative &uot;conditioning&uot; imposed on them by a racist white society.

His plan to master negotiating, for example, began with him reading every book on the subject he could lay his hands on. Then, long before either Venus or Serena ever picked up a racket, he honed his budding skills by negotiating imaginary contracts.

To make those practice sessions even more realistic, Williams procured a mannequin and propped it up in the passenger seat of the family’s 1979 Volkswagen and negotiated with it as he drove to work each day.

At this, Williams guffawed loudly. He is a man who obviously relishes skewering sacred cows.

If the tennis world was caught off guard by the meteoric rise of the Williams sisters, their father was not. He carefully planned each step of their respective careers before they were even born.

He determined they would be tennis stars after flipping through the channels one day and chancing to hear sportscaster Bud Collins presenting a woman tennis player with a check for $40,000 and announcing, &uot;Not bad for four days work.&uot;

Recognizing a good thing when he saw it, Williams immediately set about devising the plan that would eventually produce the world’s two premier women tennis players and catapult him into the national spotlight.

The plan left nothing &045;&045; absolutely nothing &045;&045; to chance. From the devious plan he devised to steal his wife Oracene’s birth control pills during a time when her doctor was on vacation (she had previously declared her intentions not to have any more children) down to what the girls’ education would consist of, Williams thought of everything.

During his wife’s subsequent pregnancies, he talked to each of the as yet unborn girls about what he had come to think of as their &uot;mission.&uot;

Williams so completely believed in his plan that he even gave radio interviews about being the father of the world’s two best tennis players before they were born.

Relying on his own genius &045;&045; and at any rate unwilling to entrust such an important mission to anyone else &045;&045; Williams became his daughters’ first tennis coach. He mastered the basics after reading a book and watching an instructional video.

Nor did he content himself with merely teaching the basics of tennis. He determined to prepare Venus and Serena to be champions mentally, as well.

Williams often availed himself of parental object lessons in communicating the importance of certain principles.

He took his daughters to the very poorest parts of the ghetto and to the toniest sections of Beverly Hills, then asked them which area they preferred to live in. Told they naturally preferred the mansions of Beverly Hills, Williams responded, &uot;OK, here’s what you need to do to get there.&uot;

At a very early age, he began to instill in each of them the importance of having a good plan.

One day, for example, the two girls not unexpectedly rebelled against having to go to yet another practice session.

Rather than bring parental coercion to bear, Williams promptly offered each girl $50 NOT to go to practice. &uot;That’s the first prize money either of them ever won,&uot; he said.

The two girls warily accepted the money. When asked what they would prefer to do rather than go to practice, the girls &045;&045; $50 in hand &045;&045; exclaimed, &uot;Go shopping!&uot; Williams obliged by taking them to the mall and letting them spend the entire amount.

Then he surprised the girls even further by taking them to an expensive restaurant and encouraging them to order whatever they wanted. Williams, however, contented himself with a plain plate of spaghetti and a Coke.

The meal at an end, Williams called for separate checks. The girls protested that they had no money to pay, whereupon he stood up, pointed at their bulging shopping bags and angrily declared, &uot;You did just like all these other damn black people! You spent all your money! I’m paying for mine and I’m leaving! You all can pay for yours!&uot;

Then he paid his ticket and walked out, leaving two stunned daughters to manage their part of the bill as best they could.

Richard Williams pondered the question for a moment. &uot;I was a success even when I worked as a farm hand,&uot; he said finally. &uot;If anyone asked me how much money I made, I would tell them I made $2 million a year. Because that’s how much the man I worked for made, and I figure he couldn’t have made it without me.&uot;

The difference between him and all those other farm hands, he added, is that he had a better plan.