Will Smith has a new movie out. It's called King Richard, and it's a biopic about Richard Williams and his daughters, Venus and Serena. Of all the South Floridians who have seen it, nobody watched with a more discerning eye than Rick Macci, the legendary Boca Raton tennis coach who was an integral part of the story.
Having interviewed Macci on many occasions about his latest prodigies, covered the Williams sisters for more than two decades and enjoyed many a chat with their eccentric father, I was curious if Macci found the film as spot-on as I did.
"Best tennis movie ever! A masterpiece!" the gregarious Macci said on Monday between tennis lessons. "I think it will stand the test of time because it's about power, family, love, inspiration, motivation, education, following dreams, about so many different topics. It's not just a highlight reel of Venus and Serena."
Smith's towering performance as Richard Williams, down to the hunched shoulders, shuffled gait and ever-present toothpick, is expected to land him a Best Actor Oscar nomination.
Macci was portrayed perfectly by actor Jon Bernthal, from the fast talking to the "Pop the popcorn! Extra butter!" he shouts at young players to get them to move their feet faster. Actress Saniyya Sidney, who played the young Venus, even requested - and received - a lesson from "the real Rick Macci" to make her tennis scenes more authentic.
Sidney and Demi Singleton, who played young Serena, captivated the siblings' sisterly bond and their love for their three older sisters and their parents. Aunjanue Ellis plays Oracene "Brandy" Price, the siblings' mother, a tough-as-nails woman who has never gotten the credit she deserves.
The film also captured the distinct personalities of Venus - humble, reserved, private - and Serena - self-assured, spunky, and outgoing.
"I told Will [Smith] when I met him, the attention to detail, the walk, the talk, the one-liners, even the clothes, everything put me right back down memory lane," Macci said. "The whole thing blew me away. Will was even more Richard than Richard was. It was amazing. No one can give a better critique than Rick Macci because I was there for four years, every single day, and this film gets it so right."
Isha and Lyndrea Price, the two older sisters of Venus and Serena, were involved in the production of the film because they wanted the Williams' controversial patriarch to be portrayed correctly. Isha, Venus and Serena were among the executive producers, and Lyndrea was a costumer.
The sisters relied on their collective memories to recreate watching Disney movies and playing charades, writing in their journals at bedtime, singing in their Dad's Volkswagen van, and practicing with flat, used balls on the littered public courts of Compton, California, while gang members cheered them on.
The writers and producers examined old video. They read memoirs by Richard and Serena. And they read the book Macci Magic, which the coach co-wrote with former Miami Herald tennis writer Jim Martz.
In that book, Macci recalls how he first heard about Venus, his first visit to Compton and his first impressions of the siblings, how he bought the Williams family a $92,000 motor home and later put them up in a house in Florida, and many rich details of their four years training with him.
Macci attended the red-carpet premiere of the film in Los Angeles, and said he shared laughs and many memories with Venus and Serena at the after party.
"The movie was so carefully done they even trained the girls how to hold and swing the racket the way Venus and Serena did back then," Macci said.
"It was spot-on. It's the best tennis movie, by far, ever, because the tennis part is right. And all the details about how the girls walked and talked and the mannerisms, all the little things, people would almost had to have been there to get it so right. It was mind-boggling to see."
He said even the outfit Venus wore when she made her pro debut in Oakland was perfectly replicated. Also, the way she played in that unforgettable second-round match against then-number one Arantxa Sanchez Vicario.
"She came to the net 33 times in that match, and they really emphasised that, before the bathroom break, how aggressive she was, swing volleys and approach shots," Macci said. "They researched every detail.''
The film crew flew from California to Haines City in Florida to see the Grenelefe Golf and Tennis Club, where Macci had his academy in the early 1990s and trained Andy Roddick, Jennifer Capriati and other champions. Macci, 66, now has his academy at the Boca Raton South County Regional Park, where he teaches more than 50 hours per week.
"How Richard acted in that movie, and how he thought, that's exactly how he was," said Macci.
Williams really did write a 78-page plan for his daughters' rise to greatness before they were born after seeing a female tennis player on TV receive a $40,000 winner's cheque. He really did demand that they practise at the crack of dawn and in the rain and that they learn multiple languages.
He really did pull his daughters out of junior tennis and really did turn down a $3 million Nike contract offer for Venus when she was 14 (seven months later, Reebok signed her to a $12 million deal).
As the final credits roll, one is left thinking about Richard Williams' complicated legacy. Was he an overbearing tyrant or was he just a loving, stubborn, unorthodox dreamer?
Probably a little of both. But one thing is not up for debate: His plan worked. His daughters are among the greatest athletes of all time and their rise from Compton to tennis royalty makes for a perfect Hollywood script.
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