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When you see a based on a true story movie like King Richard—which follows Richard Williams's journey raising his daughters, Venus and Serena, from Compton, California to tennis superstardom—you usually assume the character portrayals are a little hyperbolised. A few extra quips, more tears, the Hollywood of it all. At least I do. So when I talked to Rick Macci, the tennis coach who helped prep Venus and Serena for the pros, I expected him to be a bit more muted than his fictional counterpart, played by Jon Bernthal—who wears short shorts and wails "BANG!" whenever he can. Not exactly.
"I'm on the court all day today—I have 10 hours of lessons," the 66-year-old Macci says over Zoom. "But it actually rained, so it worked out good."
Macci, by my immediate estimation, is going stronger than his bowl-cutted Hollywoodisation. He gets up at 3:30 a.m. every morning. More often than not, the man refers to himself in the third person. Not only is 10 hours of lessons an average day for Macci, but he pulls those hours seven days a week. It's worked: If you're keeping track at home, Macci has coached the likes of Andy Roddick, Maria Sharapova, and Jennifer Capriati. An average tweet nowadays from @RickMacci reads, "Little Venus. Macci Magic. That little kid is amazing on and off the screen! BANG!" And 30 years after Macci met the Williams sisters? He has a razor-sharp memory spanning every prank from Serena, to the night Richard Williams called and said someone was outside his house, waiting to kill him.
With King Richard out in cinemas, Macci ran us through what he thought of the film, how it felt to reunite with Venus and Serena at the premiere, and all the family stories that King Richard left out.
ESQUIRE: I have to know why you wake up at 3:30 a.m. every morning.
Rick Macci: I've done it for the last 25 years. I've always got up at that hour, run a half mile before I get on the tennis court at six. If you love what you do and you have passion, you just get locked in. When I went out for the red carpet [for the King Richard premiere], there was a three-hour time change. I was still in Florida time when I was there. But I survived because of the adrenaline, spending time with Venus and Serena and everybody.
ESQ: How did it feel to see everyone at the premiere?
RM: It was almost surreal because I haven't seen Venus and Serena in a long time. Just the memories, the laughs, the jokes, the stories, the tears. You got to understand: Back in 1991 to '94, it was really me and Richard against the world. He was my best friend, and Venus and Serena were like family. They were like my daughters. And when you're with someone every day, four, five hours a day, six days a week for four years, that's a long time.
When I got to talk to Will Smith, I told him how much spot-on [he was as Richard Williams]. No one had a better front-row seat in this movie than Rick Macci, other than maybe the wife—because I know Richard's nuances, subtleties, his one-liners, how stubborn he was, and how to deal with him. So I'm watching this movie, and I'm actually laughing and no one else is just because of the things that he's saying. Will Smith was Richard Williams times 10. The guy's going to win an Oscar. I wish I had a vote. Everybody in the movie—the little girls playing Venus and Serena, or seeing [Jon] Bernthal playing me, even though it was hard for me to look and see how I am. I didn't know I was that hyped up all the time.
ESQ: When you first met Venus and Serena, you said that Venus would be the next Michael Jordan, which is in the movie. Can you tell me more about what you felt at that moment?
RM: When I flew out there that night, they came to my hotel. Richard sat down, and Venus was on one leg, and Serena was on the other leg, and they had their arms around each other. Richard asked me 50 questions. If he was going to let someone in this circle, he wanted a role model, a father figure, a mentor. So I respected it. He said the next day, "I'll pick you up at 7:00. We're going to go to East Compton Hills Country Club to practice," so I could look at the girls. They picked me up in that van you're going to see in the movie. I get in there and I get harpooned in the buttock by a spring. I look back in the back. There's about four months' worth of McDonald's wrappers, towels, clothes, tennis balls.
So we are driving to East Compton Hills Country Club. And I'm looking around. I'm going, This is a strange place for a country club. We pull up to a park, and there's like 25 guys playing basketball. A few of the guys go, "Hey Richard. Hey, King Richard." Now this was '91. They're calling this guy King. We go to the court. The court was terrible. No one would ever play on it. So I'm looking at these two girls. There's arms and hair and beads falling off on the court. I said, "Let's play some competitive points." It was me and Serena against Venus, because Serena wasn't at Venus's level yet. After 10 minutes, the whole landscape changed. The footwork got better. The preparation was better. The burning desire to get to the ball—I never saw this in two little girls, ever. And now I'm thinking, Wait a minute. They're going to be 5'10", 6 feet tall. They're going to have power, size, strength, and quickness. But the wild card—how they competed, and when the fans were in the stands—it's like it changed. It freaked me out. I went up to Richard. I said, "Richard, let me tell you something. You got the next female Michael Jordan on your hand." And he put his arm around me and he said, "No, brother man, I got the next two."
ESQ: You mentioned earlier how much time you spent with the family in that four-year stretch. In the movie, there’s a time jump that skips most of that period. What do you remember from that time?
RM: I got hundreds and hundreds of Venus and Serena stories. We were on the court—I think it was '92. It was the middle of July. Hundred degrees out. I told Serena, "You got to move your feet. You told me you want to be number one in the world. How can I get you to move your feet?" And she goes, "Rick, I'm really hungry. Can you have someone go to the snack machine, get me some hot curly fries, a Snickers bar, a Pepsi, and on the way to work today, Daddy drove by a stand on Linton Boulevard. They were selling Green Day T-shirts. So if you could have someone get me the curly fries, a Pepsi, the Snickers bar, and get me a Green Day T-shirt, you see that girl next to me?" She was pointing to Venus. She goes, "I'll make her look slower than molasses." Serena has her little snack. Then she starts for one hour. She starts popping the popcorn, extra butter. Her feet are nonstop. Sweat's pouring off this kid like Niagara Falls. She turns around to look at me, and goes, "Rick, you better have that Green Day T-shirt here in the morning."
ESQ: King Richard gets into this interesting place in youth sports, with burnout and how early is too early to start someone on a superstar path. In the movie, it’s a point of contention between you and Richard of when to turn them pro. Where do you stand in that conversation now?
RM: It's not one size fits all. And I think people need to know that. It's all individual. Every family dynamic is different. It's ironic because Venus probably wouldn't have turned pro, or I wouldn't have gotten her that wild card into the tournament. In 1994, they changed the age eligibility rule. This wasn't really in the movie. But they changed the age eligibility rule that you couldn't turn pro at 14. They called it the Capriati Rule. And so at that time, Martina Hingis and Venus were that age. And so I told Richard, "Either you got to turn pro. We got to go pro now. Or you're going to play three tournaments, three tournaments, three tournaments. Then at 18, they can set you free." Well, I knew he was going to let her turn pro. He had to because no one was going to dictate to Richard Williams what the timeframe was here.
ESQ: Did you feel like King Richard left out any kind of rougher edge in how you lived it, or is there anything that you found that wasn't as true to life?
RM: Not really. I mean, they nailed it… I think people are going to be blown away by how much Rick Macci put into this. Because everybody was coming up to me and said, "Why'd you do this? What did you see? You got to be crazy." First off, I told people, "Wait, I should be in the Hall of Fame just for dealing with Richard for four years!” But no, he was my best friend. And I understood him.
So I thought the movie was well told. Just to show you how Richard was—he knew how much I cared about the girls. So one night Richard, when they came to Greenleaf, he calls me up a 11:00 at night. He goes, "Rick, you got to get over here." I said, "Richard, you just woke me up. What's up?" He goes, "I think someone's going to kill me. There's a car out in front of our condo, and you got to come over here." I go, "Well, Richard, if I come over there, they're going to kill me, too." He started laughing. He goes, "No, Rick, you got to come over here right now. There's a car out in front of the house. The whole family's freaked out. You got to come over here. And I go, "All right, give me like 10 minutes. I'll get dressed and come over." You ready for this? He goes, "Hey Rick, I'm just kidding you. I just wanted to see how much you cared about our family. Love you, man. I'll see you in the morning."
ESQ: That would’ve fit right into the movie, too.
RM: Because it's about all that he does. And even when we got into these little arguments—we really didn't argue that much—he was just like, "You're not like that. Don't go there, Rick.” The reason why nothing matters to me is I saw how he treated those girls. And he's a world-class father. More than a coach because if they didn't want to play, they didn't play. He brought their books every day to the court. If it rained, he made them go up to my office and study. People don't know this. Every day after practice, whether it was a good day, bad day, happy day, sad day, after practice, both girls: "Thank you, Rick, very much. Thank you." That's his life lessons every day. And I think people need to know that about Richard Williams, because he was always controversial. He was always blowing smoke and creating all these problems. He wasn't like that. That was more of a protection. On the inside? A world-class father. I love the guy because of that. I saw it live and in colour. So I didn't get caught up in all the nonsense.
ESQ: I know that you're giving lessons all the time, so I really appreciate you taking the time.
RM: Nah, no problem. Got anything else? Because it's still raining.
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