As a tennis fan from childhood, I spent a lot of time with my father watching the Grand Slam tournaments on television and attending exhibition matches locally here in DC at Rock Creek Park. Every few years or so, a new powerhouse player would come into the scene; the era which I remember was famous for players like Andre Agassi, Pete Sampras, Michael Chang, Boris Becker, Steffi Graf, Jennifer Capriati, and other greats. However, in the late 90s, a new force was rising in the tennis world which is still present today: the Williams sisters, Venus and Serena. Everyone knows the story of their life, but very few have been shown what you’re about to see in Venus and Serena, a new documentary by Maiken Baird and Michelle Major. Following the sisters for a year in 2011, Venus and Serena takes us behind the courts and the press tables to examine what makes the Williams sisters tick.
Baird and Major’s cameras find Venus and Serena both suffering and recovering from various injuries and ailments in 2011; Venus is saddled with a hip injury, while Serena recovers from complications stemming from stepping on broken glass. As we move through the months in 2011, we also see the sisters’ development as preteens and up-and-coming tennis champions, kind of like a reverse version of Christopher Nolan’s Memento; as the 2011 frame story continues, parallel flashbacks take us from the early years to the present. We get to meet all their family members, not just the infamous Richard Williams, the family patriarch whose antics and oddities have been thoroughly spotlighted by the media. Through it all, Venus and Serena both are chomping at the bit just to play; as tedium sets in for both of them, we see how they deal with it, and it’s not all pretty. Waiting for their doctors’ clearances and for their bodies to catch up to their hungry minds has got them a little stir-crazy, but they manage to pull it together to start on their long-anticipated journey back to the tennis court.
No stone is left unturned by Baird and Major – we see family drama, the ways the sisters can pick at each other (however playfully or barbed it may be), the tensions between the girls’ mother Oracene and her ex-husband Richard and his new wife. And we really see just how controlling and self-aggrandizing Richard can be; from manipulating interviews to calling attention to himself on the courts where his daughters are playing, he’s not painted as a terribly great guy. The cameras don’t seek him out; he comes to them, making an unnecessary show of himself and his expressive ways of showing his pride for his daughters. But at the heart of it all are Venus and Serena, either watching impatiently as the circus goes by, or being a part of it. Regardless of what side they’re on, their magnetic personalities are captured well; seeing highlighted events in the context given by their personalities goes a long way towards explaining and understanding certain incidents, like on-court outbursts or seemingly flippant and arrogant comments at the press table.
I’ll admit I wasn’t a fan of the grunting and squealing every time they exerted themselves when hitting a ball. But that’s just one facet of their play; the rest is truly art. Their strength, their footwork, their form, and their power all combine to make each of them a tough opponent on the other side of the net. And whether or not you’re a fan of the Williams sisters, their style of play, their father, or their shenanigans, Venus and Serena provides this very interesting, refreshing glimpse into two of the best tennis players of the modern era.