Closed Stance, by David Bax
You’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who knows less about professional tennis (or tennis at all) than I do. Thanks to my ignorance, I found Maiken Baird and Michelle Major’s hagiography Venus and Serenae engagingly informative. For those who are already aware, however, that Venus and Serena Williams grew up in Compton, California and have won a whole bunch of major tennis titles and represent huge leaps forward both for female athletes and for black Americans in sports, the film likely won’t contain much that you couldn’t have read somewhere else previously.
Baird and Major followed the Williams sisters throughout 2011. Early in that year, both Venus and Serena were injured and rehabilitating. The film follows their journey back into the spotlight – culminating in some late addition footage of Serena winning at Wimbledon in 2012 – while also telling the story of their life in tennis.
As already stated, Venus and Serena grew up in Compton. Their father, Richard, was not a tennis fan but decided – seemingly on a whim – that his daughters were going to be among the greatest tennis pros of all time. Starting at the age of four, he taught them the game and worked them hard. Eventually he moved them to Florida to work with a professional coach but after a few years took them out of the school and coached them himself. Richard comes across as a controlling, often belittling and unpleasant man but the film frustratingly insists on treating him as gruff and lovable. Still, when we hear about his Louisiana upbringing and the racial hatred to which he was subjected, it’s difficult not to be in awe of what he’s done. Furthermore, it’s difficult not to agree with the film in the few instances when it points out that the sisters’ treatment in the white world of tennis has repeatedly been suspect in ways that must feel very familiar to Richard.
That treatment may go a way toward explaining – perhaps even excusing – the documentary’s biggest failure. Their father’s demons, their cloistered upbringing consisting of little else than tennis practice and the suspicious derision with which they are treated by sports press and fandom; these things combined have led to a highly self-protective existence. For all the apparent access Baird and Major got, the Williams family remains opaque.
Venus and Serena is occasionally exasperating in how close it comes to being a true portrait of its subjects’ inner lives. Yet, confounded at every turn by the practiced deflections of these media-savvy personalities, it never gets below the surface, allowing us only blurred shadows of what lies beneath.