Say some super villain like Lex Luthor or Donald Trump has taken you prisoner and forced you to play a doubles match to save your life. The one person you’d pick to go into battle with would have to be one of the Williams sisters — Venus Williams or Serena Williams. True warriors of the court, they have dominated the game for a decade and a half and you’d bet your life on their competitive edge.
And you’d need one of them, because chances are, the other has agreed to partner up with the villain.
“Venus and Serena” is an intimate, mostly glowing portrait of these two closer-than-close tennis champions, siblings who have battled the best players the rest of the world has to offer, the tennis establishment and each other, courting controversy almost every step of the way.
Filmmakers Maiken Baird and Michelle Major followed the sisters through a trying year — 2011 — when injuries and age pointed toward the end of their dominance of the game. The thesis here is that after they’re gone, people are really going to appreciate what they did to the game and for the game. And we’ll miss them.
Old TV profiles capture their budding prowess on the courts of Compton, Calif., and the surprisingly gentle coaching of their father, Richard. It takes a while before we’re reminded of a what a hustling, self-promoting boor their father can be, the single most alienating aspect of their tennis lives.
Chris Rock marvels at how two girls from a rough neighborhood, “REALLY black, not ‘country club black,'” broke through. Vogue fashion maven Anna Wintour calls them “tennis gladiators, and fashion gladiators.” John McEnroe and Bill Clinton speak glowingly of their rivalry and closeness, of the sheer excitement of their play.
And the sisters themselves — the older Venus, Dad’s “guinea pig” in his quest to create a champion, and “copycat sister” Serena — come off as affectionate, close, poised and appreciative of what these lives they were groomed for have given them.
They struggle with injuries, and Venus seems accepting of the toll the years of play have taken and ready to step back. They admit to jealousy and the odd personal failing. Serena giggles in describing her many personas, at least one of whom, “TaKwanda,” has delivered some of the more memorable tantrums in the history of the women’s game.
It’s an overwhelmingly flattering biography, but one that at least hints at the reasons these two — physically bigger than virtually anyone they have ever had to face on the court — have been so polarizing.
The movie visits, then brushes over charges that the sisters — or their manipulative father — “fixed” matches against each other, feigning injury or giving less than their best so that the surviving sister would have a better chance in the finals. No filmmaker asks them directly if they did it.
Nor are there any blunt questions aimed at Richard Williams, who wouldn’t have answered anyway. Conspicuous by their absence are their various hated foes over the years, none of whom spoke on camera, and more skeptical journalists and analysts. “Venus and Serena” — the film and the sisters — refuse to acknowledge that any of the criticism aimed at their sportsmanship or their manners could not be about race or class.
But the results — 52 Grand Slam titles in singles, doubles and mixed doubles — capture their dominance in a number. And the fact that Serena is ranked No. 1 again this year — the oldest woman (31) ever so ranked — means that their story isn’t over, and that if a skeptic wants to finally appreciate their historic impact on the game, he or she still has time to come around.
VENUS AND SERENA
Cast: Venus Williams, Serena Williams, Richard Williams, Oracene Price, Billie Jean King, John McEnroe, Bill Clinton
Directed by Maiken Baird and Michelle Major. A Magnolia release.
Running time: 1:39
MPAA rating: PG-13 for some strong language