'Outside' at the Toronto Film Festival: The Williams Sisters

In Venus & Serena, filmmakers Maiken Baird and Michelle Major provide a glimpse into the lives of tennis' most dominant siblings

Venus and Serena Williams.     Photo: Courtesy of the Toronto Film Festival

Top pro athletes make fascinating case studies not just for their athleticism but also for their personalities: What kind of person has the tenacity to make it to the very top? This is the underlying question in Venus & Serena, a documentary that follows Venus and Serena Williams over the course of 2011. Capitalizing on some terrific access, filmmakers Maiken Baird and Michelle Major draw a refreshingly candid portrait of the wunder sisters of tennis.

The film starts with the sisters’ childhood in Compton, California, where their father Richard was the driving force behind their entry into the sport. With single-minded, eccentric determination, he collected used tennis balls from private tennis clubs and conducted his own drills on run-down public courts. (Venus and Serena’s devotion to Richard is evident from their decision last week to withdraw support from the film, reportedly, in response to how it portrays their father.)

The mechanics of their rise to the pro circuit is of less interest here than the cult of the sisters’ personalities, which emerge over the course of the year that Baird and Major spend with them. More specifically, we’re talking the cult of Serena’s personality. She is, after all, the bigger prize-winner as well as the one with a temper—and you know you’ve got a temper when John McEnroe is pulling you aside with post-tantrum advice. As Serena admits, “I hate losing more than I like winning.”

Venus & Serena offers few insights about the game, but it does present a fascinating, voyeuristic glimpse into the lives of two of the sport’s biggest female icons. What do they discuss when they’re not talking tennis? How do they honestly feel about playing against each other? How does Serena’s hitting partner handle her in her more abrasive moments? You get answers to these questions and more. (The camera even makes its way into the operating room when Serena undergoes surgery.)

If the film does leave you with one singular impression, it’s that Venus and Serena’s overwhelming drive to succeed is matched only by their fear of growing too old to play. It’s a feeling that any athlete, pro or otherwise, knows all too well.

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