Icons. That’s the word that leads the poster for the upcoming Magnolia Films documentary “Venus and Serena,” which was released for rent on iTunes and other Video On Demand platforms today and hits theaters May 10. It is the word that best defines these two sisters who grew up on the cracked concrete courts of Compton, Calif., and redefined the culture and game of tennis by transcending the sport with their talent, boldness and refusal to apologize for who they were, where they came from and their insistence on where they were going, institutions and traditions be damned.
The 99-minute documentary, directed by Maiken Baird and Michelle Major, features unprecedented access during the sisters’ tumultuous 2011 season. Serena was hospitalized for a variety of complications stemming from the toe injury that sidelined her for almost a year. Venus had health troubles that culminated in being diagnosed with Sjogren’s syndrome. You see Serena giving herself daily injections and trying to get dressed with a drainage tube coming out of her stomach as well as the moment when Venus is forced to tell U.S. Open officials she has to withdraw.
“But I want to play until I’m 40,” Venus says with a twinge of sadness to her mother, Oracene Price, as they walk down a corridor under Arthur Ashe Stadium.
“The years go by so fast so it’s definitely a reminder of what the year was,” Serena said this week in Charleston, S.C., where she’s playing at the Family Circle Cup. “That was a tough year for us because we both got injuries and so many issues. So seeing that is just motivating to see how much we’ve overcome and to make us stronger.”
Anyone who follows the Williamses will recognize the archival footage. There’s Venus winning her first WTA match, in Oakland, Calif., in 1995. There’s Serena roaring at the crowd in reaction to the ugly scenes at Indian Wells in 2001. And yes, there’s Serena erupting at umpires at the U.S. Open in 2009 and 2011. On the lighter side, there’s footage of Serena pole dancing, a cameo from Serena’s ex-boyfriend Brett Ratner and more karaoke sessions than you could expect. But what makes the documentary compelling are the quiet moments.
The best scene features an argument between Serena and hitting partner Sascha Bajin after her third-round win over Victoria Azarenka at the 2011 U.S. Open. Warming down from her match on a treadmill, Serena is furious at Bajin, telling him he was horrible in practice and needs to improve.
“You were like just … hitting patty-cake,” she said. “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.”
It’s one of the few moments in the movie that doesn’t feel like Serena cares about her image or is trying to be “on” for the cameras, and it’s incredible to hear her speak with such vulnerability and self-awareness as to how she thinks she’s perceived in the locker room and how much she’s hurt and motivated by it.
More than anything, the film shows just how close a relationship Venus and Serena have and how important that relationship has been in molding each into the tennis player and woman they are today. Serena has always joked that she always wanted what Venus had and that included wins, titles and Slams, but you realize quickly that Serena wasn’t kidding.
“I was never the one that was supposed to be good,” Serena said. “I was never the one that was supposed to be a great player. But I was determined not to be a statistic. So that was the only reason I played tennis. I was a copycat, basically.”
While father Richard Williams focused his efforts on Venus, mother Oracene Price worked to make Serena believe in herself and get her out her sister’s shadow.
“He claims he couldn’t handle Serena because she crazy,” Price tells the cameras in one of a series of insightful if not humorous interviews. “I told her different. I made her believe in herself. Made her think that she could get to any ball.”
The documentary comes with controversy. Serena and Venus were reportedly unhappy with the film’s portrayal of their svengali-esque father, Richard, though when both Serena and Venus spoke about the film this week neither expressed any criticism or concerns.
“You know, obviously we wanted the film to reflect our life and we want it to be successful,” Venus said in Charleston. “So yeah, that’s all it is.”
The film does takes an arguably unnecessary tangent into Richard’s womanizing history, questioning the family about his other families and children, one of whom pops up unannounced while Serena is preparing for her comeback at Wimbledon. Asked about Richard’s new wife, Lakeisha Graham, Oracene practically rolls her eyes.
“I don’t know anything about her. More power to her,” she says, laughing. “The only advice I could say is run. Do not pass Go. Do not collect 200 dollars.”
The film is at its best when putting the sisters’ lives into context. The archive footage is cut together well alongside new interviews and used to great affect. As Serena’s U.S. Open outbursts are recounted with current footage, the editors cut in a clip of a young Serena talking about her idol, John McEnroe. Asked if she thought she could ever throw a McEnroe-level tantrum on court, Serena thinks and sheepishly smiles.
“Maybe,” she said.
Similarly, when recounting the pair’s many head-to-head finals, the film cuts back to an early interview with young Venus where she described playing her sister as “horrible.” On the whole, the filmmakers do an admirable job of showing just how much the Williamses have meant to tennis and how they’ve gone about it in their own unique ways.
As one voiceover points out, “Through their injuries it’s kind of woken people up to the reality that there would be a tremendous void when they’re gone.”