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Richard Williams: 'I was close to being killed so many times'

Serena and Venus have dominated women's game

Eoghan Macguire and Don Riddell | 12/16/2015, noon
On the tough streets of Compton in the late 1980s, a crowd of school children looked on as an imposing ...
Serena Williams speaks to CNN on the red carpet of the 2011 Essence Black Women of Hollywood Awards. CNN

— On the tough streets of Compton in the late 1980s, a crowd of school children looked on as an imposing middle-aged man berated two young black girls.

The city, in Los Angeles County, was riven with internecine gang warfare at the time, and verbal conflict could quickly escalate to violence.

Yet the man doing the shouting, and the girls on the receiving end of his invective, were not acting out one of Compton's then common tragic scenes.

For a start, the schoolkids had been bused in specifically to witness the event at the local tennis courts.

This was Richard Williams doing his worst to toughen up his beloved daughters Venus and Serena, who in just a few years would begin their domination of women's tennis.

"In order to be successful you must prepare for the unexpected," Williams recalls in an interview with CNN's Open Court. "Criticism can bring the best out of you."

On one occasion, he says local gang members tried to intervene, having been so unsettled by what they were seeing. It was "everything that white people shouted," the 73-year-old explains.

"When (they) came to me and said, 'You can't talk to Venus in that way ... I said, 'Watch out. I'm going to do what I want to do.'

"Criticism is one of the greatest things, I think, that we've been trained to live through."

Richard Williams was no stranger to racism. Growing up in Shreveport, Louisiana, in the 1940s and '50s, he says he witnessed a friend being lynched.

Another died after being run over by a white woman who claimed it was the victim's fault. "There was no investigation, there was no police car," he says.

"But that was life. I was close to being killed so many times. A hell of a lot of times."

'A genteel lynch mob'

When he became a father, Williams wanted his kids to be ready to overcome adversity, racial or otherwise.

In 2001, the unorthodox training he provided his daughters would prove prescient when they were abused at one of the most prestigious tournaments on the world tennis circuit.

As Serena walked on court for the final of the Indian Wells event in the well-heeled Californian desert community, the watching crowd let rip.

Boos rained down on the then 19-year-old, while Venus and her father received a similar welcome as they took their seats in the stand.

The crowd was unhappy that Venus had pulled out of the semifinal clash against her sister a day earlier due to injury. Some suspected that matches between the duo were fixed by their father to maintain family harmony.

Accusations of racism would follow, with Serena writing in her autobiography that "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."

Richard Williams would also state in an interview with USA Today that "one guy said, 'I wish it was '75, we'd skin you alive.'" Although nobody was arrested, tournament director Charlie Pasarell said he didn't discount that Williams Sr. was racially abused.