Williams' father has the last laugh

To create one tennis champion may be regarded as good fortune, to create two? Richard Williams might be many things (take your…

To create one tennis champion may be regarded as good fortune, to create two? Richard Williams might be many things (take your pick - "crackpot pushy parent and manipulative control freak" or the "world's greatest father" and "a mastermind", (as he describes himself), but when it comes to the business of Raising Tennis Aces (Channel 4, Thursday) he is peerless.

You know the story by now. Sitting watching television back in the 1980s he caught a glimpse, while channel hopping, of tennis player Virginia Ruzici being beaten in the fourth round of a tournament and heard she would pick up a cheque for $40,000 for her troubles.

Impressed, the silver-tongued devil turned to his wife and said: "We need to make two more kids." They did and two decades later Venus and Serena Williams have a fistful of Grand Slam victories between them and more money than a medium sized multinational. Easy.

To think, there are countries out there that invest millions of pounds in state-of-the-art centres of tennis excellence, employ the best coaches money and then put their services at the disposal of the talent they've cherry-picked from around the nation.


Britain, for example, has tried it. How many Grand Slam tournament winners have they produced in recent times? Divil a one.

Richard Williams? He picked up the tennis coaching manuals and decided they'd make terrific door stops, then asked Venus and Serena to beat up punch bags (while dancing in sand pits - it taught them how to stay light on their feet), introduced them to martial arts (flexibility and poise), the art of hurling racquets through the air (increased strength and power of serve) and whacking tennis balls with baseball bats (swing, precision and timing training).

"Chortle," said the world of tennis. Who's laughing now?

The hardest-to-explain aspect of the Williams' story (one of modern sport's truly great stories), though, is that Venus and Serena appear to be . . . happy. Radiantly so. Happy? Now there's a word that rarely appears in the same sentence as "teenage tennis prodigy who spent formative years hitting balls on court under watchful gaze of crazed over-ambitious parent".

"All I remember is having fun," said Venus of her childhood, and she appeared to mean it.

Compare and contrast with the pushy-parent-produced sullen faces of the past (Andrea Jaegar, Tracey Austin and pre-renaissance Jennifer Capriati) or some of today's pictures of misery (Martina Hingis, Jelena Dokic). Richard Williams' greatest triumph is not that he raised two tennis aces, it's that he raised two tennis ace daughters who smile and laugh, incessantly.

True, they don't have much respect for their opponents (which makes them almost as popular on the circuit as Jelena's father) but that's something else they learned from their father, whose upbringing in segregated Louisiana taught him that if you don't look after number one there's not a chance in hell that anyone else will. Respect for opponents, one assumes, would be regarded by him as a weakness.

Granted, neither Venus nor Serena was probed too much on the issue of their strange childhoods because, evidently, their father had a tight grip on the documentary's editorial control - if you want access to the Williams' sisters you do it Richard's way or you don't do it at all. Channel 4 agreed to do it Richard's way.

But, despite all the bad press, there would appear to be worse ways than Richard's. While the discovery that there was a world outside tennis proved to be a shock to Jaegar, Capriati and co, it appears to have been a source of considerable joy to the Williams' sisters who, refreshingly, spoke with cheerful relish of their lives after tennis and all the things they wanted to do. "This isn't my life, it's just the first part of it," said Venus.

The test for her father will be if he agrees to relinquish control of the post-tennis phase of her and Serena's life. If he doesn't then he is a manipulative control freak, if he does then maybe he is the "world's greatest father" after all, if a slightly eccentric one.

During Wimbledon Williams told British tennis to start looking in the "ghettos" for future champions, not in private, elitist clubs. A few years ago they'd have dismissed his advice - now? They're probably driving around Toxteth and Wandsworth as we speak, shouting "yoo hoo - anyone for tennis?"

He might be a wacky man, but there's method to his wackiness.

If you'd watched Raising Tennis Aces and then tuned in to the third and fourth rounds of the British Open on the BBC the same thought would have struck you - why doesn't Colin Montgomerie hire Richard Williams as his coach? (Richard: "Just imagine that punch bag to be a reporter asking you 'does it frustrate you that you have never won a major?' and hurl that putter through the air to relieve your anger when you miss one of those two footers." "Mmm, feeling better already," Monty would purr).

This house was right behind Monty from promising start to stuttering finish, if only because, like Monty, we couldn't take much more of that "greatest golfer never to win a major" angle. A bit like Jimmy White and the World snooker championship - we know he's never won it, enough already.

Anyway, by Saturday afternoon this house had given up on Monty and had switched its affections to Billy Mayfair largely because of his zanily unorthodox putting action which, Laura Davies observed, made it look like he was "chopping vegetables".

Gary Lineker - BBC golf's new boy, now that they've lost most of the footie to ITV - was impressed by Billy, too, as he pottered about Lytham desperately seeking interviewees to fill his nightly highlights package.

"Look who we have here," he phewed when he found two sporting legends watching the golfing lads do their thing. John Parrott and Davo Leary. John knew his golf (we know this because he used terminology we couldn't understand) but Davo professed to being a mere baby at the game, not very good at it ("I have a quicker swing than some of Eddie Jordan's cars") and lucky to even be allowed mix in company of this quality. Dum de dum.

It was good to see Davo, though, if only because it reminded us all that the football season is almost upon us. Just as well too. So intense have been the withdrawal symptoms some of us resorted on Thursday to watching Eurosport's live coverage from Hohenstein-Ernstthal of a charity football game between Moto GP Stars (motorcyclists to you and me) and a German All-Star sports team (featuring trampolinists and tobogganists). No, the game wasn't beautiful (although the tobogganist was a bit handy in the hole behind the front eight) but damn it, rubbish football is a whole lot better than no football at all. Hail Eurosport.

Mary Hannigan

Mary Hannigan

Mary Hannigan is a sports writer with The Irish Times