Alas, King Richard

RICHARD WILLIAMS DEMANDS GLORY. The pursuit of glory is revised madness, the ambition of addicts, to get so high they collapse, and are forced to repeat the ascent as if for the first time. It’s preemptive repentance disguised as innocent yearning to win. You have to need vindication to need victory so desperately. Richard Williams is looking for redemption. In a scene from a 1990s video of Richard, father of tennis champions Venus and Serena Williams, we see him genuflecting on a tennis court in Compton, California, in front of a shopping cart full of tennis balls—the ground swells with them. He’s gathering the splayed balls and placing them into red plastic milk crates with the reverence of a praise dancer. What altar is this? A shrine of crumbling adobe, chalk, felt, and plastic. What utter fixation on the unglamorous, what risk of a dedication with no yield? What we know now turns the pathos in Richard’s gesture here into dramatic irony. The menial duties of this father intent on training his daughters to be the best athletes in the world will be redeemed. He will not kneel and scour the ground for these fuzzy green chess pieces in vain.

Richard has a scar on his shin from where an iron nail was hammered into it by disgruntled whites in his Louisiana hometown when he was just a kid; they were disgruntled because he refused to call them “mister.” A phantom crucifixion seems to trail him. His preemptive penitence is a constant—it seeps into the texture of his presence, into the way he corrects his daughters’ stance during daily practices, his curt benevolence and pent-up rage transmuted by infinite patience. And it is evident in the way he speaks, in a lilting hushed tone during the many interviews he gives to local and national reporters, like he’s always offering you a dangerous secret, about to snitch on himself or his motives, which he knows to be the selfish altruism of those who need glory to endure. His reason for choosing tennis as his route to profound achievement is not at all profound on the surface. One day he was watching television and he saw a young woman receive $40,000 for winning a tennis tournament. This was equivalent to his yearly salary. He told his wife they would have two children and mold them into tennis stars. His introduction to the sport was not some love or fascination with the texture and rhythm of it; he was infatuated with a check issued ceremoniously on television. He would breed in order to cash this check. Maybe more pursuits of glory should be this openly opportunistic. Why shroud the desire to win in nobility and conceal the inner ruthlessness that allows anyone to sustain it?

Because actor Will Smith depicted Richard Williams in the recent biopic of him, it’s hard to overlook the parallels between the two men: earnest desire to be perceived as perfect, a harrowing ability to tune out anything that might detract from that pursuit, self-delusion that works so well it convinces the rest of the world, charisma, jittery nerves alchemized into iron will, and a constant wish to topple the first domino of self-sabotage and mischief that shows up as further temptation to win. But inevitably the dominos fall and the dread in their hearts materializes as some public catastrophe. Like a pair of parachutes these perfectly flawed glorious men tumble through their own airs. Once that chain reaction is set into motion, so is the spiral that swoops glory and madness into the same acts and makes them lifelong accomplices, and so is the addiction to winning that requires not only sacrifice but some intentional obstacles to outshine the more accessible thrills. There’s an eerie karmic unity, like a ghost walking between bodies and souls, between Richard Williams and Will Smith, especially now that Smith has gained so much glory and so much shame from his depiction of Richard in the film King Richard.

Daniel Gordon, Still Life with Tennis Balls and Racket, 2020, ink-jet print, 15 x 20". Courtesy the artist, Huxley-Parlour, London and Kasmin, New York.
Daniel Gordon, Still Life with Tennis Balls and Racket, 2020, ink-jet print, 15 x 20″. Courtesy the artist, Huxley-Parlour, London and Kasmin, New York.

Ultimately, one wonders if men this ambitious grow ashamed of so much glory, if it becomes grotesque and anathema and some deceptive call to authenticity, or some need to feel like themselves again, like the nail as it goes through the shin or the hand. One wonders if the lulls in their triumphalism come as compulsion, as the need to climb again from a renewed depth, or a drive toward resurrection. Maybe this is the most effective method for self-examination in a world where no one lets the famous change and evolve without a fight; they have to start fights with their former selves. They have to teach their former selves that the glory they sought was an illusion rigged with traps, and having left no map back to lives as modest men, they flee the desolation of the heights as fugitives.

As for the shrill stillness of Richard Williams in his all-red with his stark white tube socks pulled to mid-calf and held there by elastic and sweat, and the cryptic get-lowness of his pose, his groping for the tangible in a world of phantom goals—one thing about kings is they believe in their mandate, to rule, and that belief is what makes it valid and real. Tennis mastery changes the image of Black athletes, and the mandate maybe elevates it in the eyes of those naive enough to base their perception of quality and value on elitist tenets like who plays what sport best. But all tennis can do for Richard, his daughters, and those who play them in the movies is remind them of days of practicing for so many hours it felt like they had been born into contrition and would never repay the vague sin that is glory-seeking. Tennis brings this Black man to his knees, praying, crawling, working, scrubbing his heart clean, then soiling it with the need to outdo himself. This American gothic instant has no museum to occupy; it’s more fleeting than ephemera, a notion of humility and reflection in a sea of upbeats. This sport will only love its Black mascot for as long as it must tolerate his dominance, like the actors, like the players, like the game itself, perfect muses for those who are born to win so intensely that anything less is an interlude.

Harmony Holiday is the author of the poetry collection Maafa (Fence Books, 2022).