One of the most astonishing moments in King Richard arrives early in the film when Richard Williams (Will Smith) gatecrashes some tennis courts in Los Angeles’ elite Brentwood neighborhood to introduce his young daughters, Venus and Serena Williams, to tennis coach Paul Cohen — interrupting a game between tennis greats John McEnroe and Pete Sampras.
Did four tennis legends — McEnroe, Sampras, and Serena and Venus Williams — really cross paths on Paul Cohen’s Brentwood courts when the sisters were just children?
Not exactly as it happened in the movie.
As King Richard illustrates, Richard Williams would go to any length to give his girls (Demi Singleton plays Serena Williams and Saniyya Sidney plays Venus Williams) the best possible shot at success. That included reaching out to Cohen, who is played in King Richard by Tony Goldwyn.
But as Martin Baldridge wrote in his 2011 book So You Want to Win Wimbledon?, Williams didn’t surprise Cohen mid-practice, as Will Smith’s version of Richard Williams does in the movie.
Also: Watch Richard Williams Check a Reporter for Questioning 14-Year-Old Venus Williams’ Confidence (Video)
In fact, Baldridge wrote, Richard Williams contacted Cohen to ask if he would consider coaching the girls — Venus was seven and Serena was six at the time — and Cohen agreed. When Richard Williams drove his daughters from Compton to Brentwood, Cohen was “astounded by their phenomenal athletic abilities,” and said, “I had never seen a six-year-old as strong as Serena and I’d never seen a potential woman champion as athletic and as graceful as Venus,” according to Baldridge’s book, which is excerpted here.
Cohen agreed to coach them, and a year later invited McEnroe and Sampras, both of whom had been his pupils, to visit Brentwood and watch Venus hit balls with him.
“Venus later got to hit with both pros and told reporters afterwards that she felt she could have beaten McEnroe if the bounces had gone her way!” Baldridge wrote.
Years later, McEnroe said he could beat not only Venus, but Serena, too — even if he was playing them both at the same time. And McEnroe and Serena Williams later engaged in a back-and-forth in which she respectfully asked him to please just give her some space.
Dear John, I adore and respect you but please please keep me out of your statements that are not factually based.
— Serena Williams (@serenawilliams) June 26, 2017
The McEnroe-Sampras is one of several ways King Richard dramatizes the rise of Venus and Serena, while staying essentially true to the facts about their brilliant rise to the top of tennis. You can read our interview with director Reinaldo Marcus Green and editor Pamela Martin here.
And you can read our interview with Demi Singleton, who plays young Serena Williams, here.
King Richard is now in theaters and available on HBO Max.