Women players, race relations and the celluloid world

USAWritten By: Ravikiran ShindeUpdated: Feb 01, 2017, 01:27 PM IST
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"Your win has always been my win. I think you know that." Venus Williams to her sister. Photograph:(Others)


On Saturday, when Serena Williams made history at the Australian Open Tennis tournament by defeating her elder Sister Venus to win her record 23rd grand slam, one person was missing in the family box of Williams - their father Richard Williams. The father of two great daughters, who together have 31 Singles Grand slams, numerous Doubles Grand slams and Olympics golds between them,  was absent due to illness.

Serena Williams recently said about her Dad “He’s been the most important person in my career, I miss him all the time. I call him. He watches my matches. He still tells me things that I’m not doing right.”

Richard’s early Life

Richard Williams’ biography - Black and White, The Way I See It -provides an extremely stirring and inspiring story of a poor sharecropper. Richard grew in the US of the 1940s. He was abdicated by his father and survived constant attacks from gang members and white supremacists like Klu Klux Clan. The narratives of Richard’s struggle would often send shivers through the spines. 

In his childhood, Richard sees his fellow African-American friends getting hanged or run over by car for petty reasons. He steals for survival, eats meat full of maggots to kill hunger, gets abused every day, and yet has a mom who tells him to remove prejudice of white men from his mind and shape his life.

Watching a Romanian player receive a check of $40,000 on TV as prize money for a Tennis match victory, Richards decides to learn the game and make his future children tennis stars.

For the sisters' incredible journey, Richard Williams has not just been a cheering father. He has been a coach and a visionary who wanted to make their children world number one even before they were born. 

The fairytale story of living through regressive times in the United States and the making of two African-American kids into the world champion that they are today would make a compelling story for a Hollywood biopic. Isn't it? But it is not to be it seems.

It was disappointing to see a seemingly liberal Hollywood deciding to ignore Williams’ story so far.

Bollywood movie Dangal, showing a father-cum-coach becomes hit

A coach father who takes their two daughters to ultimate glory in the Tennis world through trying times sounds exactly like the latest Bollywood film Dangal. The Hindi film showed a father Mahavir Singh Phogat’s incredible journey of turning his two daughters into top international wresters.  Aided by a superlative performance from lead stars, including Amir Khan, the film has become the highest-grossing film ever in the history of Bollywood.  Released on Dec 21, 2016, the movie collected $30 million overseas with its India collection at a whopping $57 million — the film still running in its week 6.

The success of Dangal lay not just in the performance of the lead actors but also in the authenticity of the presentation; the film illustrated village life that abhorred seeing girls fighting it out with boys, much less play wrestling.  Like all other sports based movies, although the end was known, a powerful narrative made people throng theaters not once but many times.  

In India, Dangal has become a hallmark of women empowerment  — although there is some criticism of the fathers forcing his wish on the kids. New York Times in reviewing the movie review, titled it as "A Father’s Dreams, Recast by His Daughters" opened with a line “Let it never be said that if you’ve seen one inspirational sports movie, you’ve seen them all.”

Phogat Sisters Vs Williams sisters

Phogat sisters are still actively playing. So it could be argued that it is never too early to make a film on them that would inspire generations to come. 

America already has seen top-class women tennis players in Martina Navratilova. Even today US has 10 women players in the top 50, including C. Vandeweghe who was reached last 4 in the 2017 Australian open. But nobody could ever match the struggles that the Williams family had gone through. 

Hollywood has made many sports based movies like Karate Kid, Million Dollar Baby, but very few biopics based on sportsperson, such as Ali, a movie on the biopic of Boxing legend Mohammed Ali.  

Social and Gender Bias

Although the Phogat and the Williams sister warrant no comparison but a simple juxtaposition reveals a lot. While the Phogat sisters faced patriarchy and misogyny while playing the sports that was famous for being masculine, the Williams faced both race and gender bias. In the top of their form during 2005, a close friend once told me “The women tennis is not graceful anymore, with Williams sisters, it's just power and I do not like to watch it now.” The rant had subtle racism in it, for never before the world had seen black tennis players on the court.

The Williams sisters have been subject to racism often. Serena Williams in her biography writes — "all I could see was a sea of rich people -- mostly older, mostly white -- standing and booing lustily, like some kind of genteel lynch mob.” During their Indian Wells tournament, the local crowd booed Richard Williams for allegations of fixing by pre-deciding which of the sisters would win. This turned out to be total rubbish.

Richard and Mahavir both defied societal norms but Richard’s early life was much difficult than Mahavir. While Mahavir Singh Phogat was born in a Jat family — a powerful farming community, and had a father who was a wrestler, unlike a poverty-stricken Richard who had no history of tennis in his family. Mahavir’s aim was winning medals for the country, but Richard wanted fame for his children and prize money. Yet, Richards’ struggle appears multi-fold compared to Mahavir Singh. 

Arther Ash, first African-American tennis player to win grand slam thrice was born around the time Richard was born —perhaps in a slightly better family than Richard —was another sportsman that should have featured in a movie but all he got was a Tennis stadium named after him and a posthumous Presidential Honor of freedom in 1993.

Serena and Venus both deserve much more respect and admiration than they currently get.  Serena Willams’ unattainable record prove that she’s not just the greatest female tennis players or all time, but arguably the greatest sportsperson of all times - male or female.

Hollywood, in celebrating diversity, needs to make more movies on delicate race relationship in sports, before it’s too late.