There is a legend in the annals of tennis that is almost too crazy to be true. It says: In 1978, the son of a cotton picker and security guard in Compton, California, named Richard Williams, watched a tennis game on television. After the match was over, Richard watched as the lowly winner received a check for $42,000. More money than he had earned in a year.
Inspired, Richard sat down that night and penned a (now legendary) 78-page plan on how to turn his daughters into Grand Slam champions. The only problem was that Richard had never held a tennis racket in his life. He had no foray into the expensive, predominantly white sport, and the two talented girls, for whom this whole plan had been hatched, hadn’t even been conceived yet.
Those girls, of course, would be Venus and Serena Williams, and decades later, after teaching himself and his wife, Oracene Price, to play tennis on the ball-riddled courts of Compton, learning from tapes Instructional VHS he’d ordered through the mail, and after years of financial sacrifice and racial animosity, almost everything Richard predicted in his plan came true. His daughters have combined to win 30 Grand Slam singles titles and are undoubtedly two of the greatest athletes in history.
As a tennis fan, I had known the broad outlines of this story from years of watching Venus and Serena on TV, but was reminded of it in 2017 during a meeting with producer Tim White. Our meeting was actually about another project (which I didn’t understand), but on the way out I mentioned that I was going to the US Open in New York. Tim asked: Do you like tennis?
Turns out Tim (a ridiculously talented tennis player himself) had been trying to make a Richard movie for years, and when he reminded me of the story, I immediately begged him to hire me. .
I know that sounds like overkill, but this was one of those rare times where you get hit with a bolt of lightning and know that if you don’t move your ass now, you’ll regret it forever. I love tennis and I am fascinated by prodigies. I have two young children and I wanted to write about being a parent, and although I had written scripts that I was proud of, I hadn’t made a film and was desperate to be part of something special. Tim said, “Crack the story and we’ll talk.”
I went home that night and read everything I could about Richard and his family. I read about the horrific racism he faced in Shreveport, Louisiana as a young man and his explosive proposal to buy Rockefeller Center; I read about his tumultuous fights with famous agents and coaches and his controversial decision to withdraw his daughters from junior tennis tournaments. I read the good and the bad, and a few nights later, much like Richard, I wrote my plan.
I wrote to Tim and his brother (and partner) Trevor that this film might not only be one of the most inspiring underdog stories in sports history; it was also an ode to a family and a character study of a controversial dreamer determined to earn respect and a better life for his family, by any means necessary. To this day, I still think email is the best thing I’ve ever written. They gave me the job. There was only one problem. We had no access to family.
We knew that in order to pull off the film and to properly capture the intimate details and emotions, we would need the trust of Venus, Serena and the whole family to help us tell their story. For a writer without product credits, this was no small feat. So we decided as a team that the only chance we had of gaining their trust and making the film was to bring them a great script.
After nine months of research and writing, we thought we had a pretty good one. Tim was attracting interest from studios, financiers and even a former president turned producer.
Miraculously, we had also heard that Will Smith was interested in playing Richard, but we still hadn’t gotten the one crucial thing that Will, the producers and I all knew we needed. The blessing of the family.
It took months of pleading and begging, but finally in 2018 I returned to the US Open, this time with Tim to have lunch with Isha Price, Venus and Serena’s sister and manager. During our lunch, Tim and I threw our guts out while Isha politely listened, holding her cards. She knew the script and was understandably worried about letting strangers tell their story, but she left the restaurant that day saying she’d take another look. I was sure we were dead. But Isha read the script I had written about her family, spoke with her sisters, and called us to say we could meet again the next day. I can never thank her enough.
For the rest of the tournament, on the days they weren’t playing, Tim, Trevor and I caught up with the Williams family to hear their stories first hand. We heard their concerns, their struggles, their triumphs and their emotions which were absolutely essential to capture their voices. At the end of those weeks, I sat with Tim in the Williams family dressing room at Arthur Ashe watching Serena perform in the finals with their blessing to make the movie. Three years, a pandemic and many other challenges later, we have a Warner Bros. movie, with an incredible cast, shot by Robert Elswit, directed by the remarkably talented Rei Green.
The journey it took to realize this scenario is in no way commensurate with the impossible and improbable journey that Richard began when he wrote his plan. But, he certainly inspired me to embark on a dream that often seemed impossible. And, as Richard proved, crazier things happened.