Feature Week of June 27, 2004
WILLIAMS, INC: THE ENTERPRISE RICHARD BUILT
- A man of wisdom is a man of the years
Tennis balls just aren’t bouncing right these days for Venus or Serena. The sisters, once ranked 1 and 2 in the world of tennis, have been taking losses in 2004. But, not to worry, due to a strong family focus things look good for the Williams Clan.
In the past 10 years, Venus and Serena Williams have become cultural icons. The sisters’ style, athletic talent, and imagining father have combined to make them two of the world's most wealthy and visible women. Women's tennis had some serious problems as recently as five years ago, but the Williams sisters have been at the center of the resurgence of women's tennis. The women’s tennis tour now plays to world-wide acclaim, and directly attributable to their father, the Williams sisters earn more off the court each year than the tennis tour. Due to her dad, “Serena” is now in the rarified air of first-name product endorsers: Serena, Tiger, Shaq, Renaldo, et al.
Now ranked among Forbes magazine's top 100 wealthiest and most powerful celebrities, Venus was born on June 17, 1980, and Serena, September 26, 1981, the youngest of five sisters. They were no more than toddlers when their father, then a private security firm entrepreneur, set in motion what was to become a sporting juggernaut.
Over the past 20 years, it was Richard Williams who set the tone and pace for Williams, Inc. With the type of dedication and time not enough black fathers show to their children, he began hitting balls to his girls at a court near their house before they had even started grammar school. In 1984 Richard loaded four-year-old Venus, six rackets and seven milk crates full of tennis balls into his Volkswagen van and traveled to public courts in Watts and Compton, where he gave her tennis lessons based on what he had learned through self-study from books and videos. Saying, “These two were brought up to be tennis stars,” Williams had the confidence then that his two daughters would battle for major championships in tournament after tournament.
He started engineering the Williams, Inc. hype machine in the late 1980s. By the time Venus was 10 years old, Richard Williams had gotten her on the front page of The New York Times and in pages of Sports Illustrated, often telling people that Venus and Serena were "the next two female Michael Jordans." Richard’s coaching and training soon paid off; by 1990, Venus was the top-ranked female player under 12 in southern California.
By 1991, even Don King had come to pay homage to Richard’s girls. After he was seen having lunch with the Williams family at a soul-food restaurant close to Compton; the sisters were spotted later that year competing in the Southern California Tennis Association sectional championships wearing white polo shirts with the King Productions logo embroidered on their sleeves. But Richard did not sign on with King; and uprooted the family to enroll Venus and Serena in Rick Macci's Delray Beach Tennis Academy in Florida, where they trained “six hours a day, six days a week until July 1995.
Williams, Inc. was adequately bankrolled when in 1995 Richard got Reebok to sign a five-year, $12 million deal. He landed each sister a $12 million sponsorship while still in their early teens – Serena went with Puma. To date, the two have promoted items from Wrigley gum to their own dolls. Williams, Inc. ongoing bankables include: Puma/Reebok, shoes and apparel; Wilson, tennis racquets/strings; McDonald's; Wrigley's, Double mint chewing gum; Avon, cosmetics; and Close-Up, toothpaste. Serena ranks 63rd and Venus 77th on Forbes magazine’s Power 100.
Venus started planning a second career during a hiatus following the 2002 US Open. She opened an interior design business, V Starr Interiors, which caters to high-end clients. She has also created designs for the Wilson Leather clothes line. Both have taken courses in Fashion Design at the Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale, Florida.
The success of Williams, Inc. proves you shouldn’t believe everything you read in the newspapers. Throughout the years, mainstream media has not been kind to Richard Williams. They have called him “eccentric” and accused him of “bad-mouthing” the girls’ opponents. His dancing at tournaments or commenting on his plans to purchase Rockefeller Center or other wild-eyed business ventures only fueled the controversy about him. "The only thing I have a tendency of saying is what I believe in. I notice when Muhammad Ali says what he says, people say he's crazy," says Richard Williams. "But any black person comes along in this country, and says anything, they're crazy. Well, I'm not crazy. I've got plenty of money though, but I'm not crazy."
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