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Brainwashed into becoming No.1: Serena Williams’ childhood coach Rick Macci traces her journey from nine-years old to World No.1

I could see the burning desire, a rage' - Childhood coach Rick Macci recalls watching Serena play with dirty old balls on public courts of her violent neighbourhood.

Serena Williams and her childhood coach Rick Macci.

It was 1991 and I got a call from Richard Williams. ‘I have two daughters who play tennis Venus and Serena and I would like you to take a look at them,’ he said. “Could you come to Compton?’”.

I had heard of Venus about four months earlier from a New York Times article. She was undefeated in her age group. Venus was 10, Serena was 9. I didn’t know anything about Compton. This was the early 90’s and all I had heard was riots and that type of stuff and Richard goes, “Hey hey Rick, I promise you, you won’t get shot!”

He was a funny guy and we had a great conversation. I don’t know why I did it, why I went there – I usually see kids in my academy or see them at some junior tournament – but for some reason I decided that I was going to get on a plane and go have a look. How crazy is that?! I have never done that in my life, and never done that since.

Serena’s power game is raved around the world but her serve toss is something else.

I remember the first sighting of the sisters that night I landed. Richard with Venus on one leg and Serena on other, hugging, kissing – they are a very close-knit family. He pulled out a piece of paper and started grilling me as if I was in a deposition. I kind of respected it as he wasn’t going to let someone into the circle just like that. He wanted someone who has been there, done that, a father figure, a role model. Venus was already No.1 in her age-group, and I kind of respected that. So at the end, he tells me they will pick me up next morning at 7 o’ clock.

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Next day, at 7, a bus arrives. I get in the passenger side, and there is a spring sticking out and I get a hard poke! The seat belt doesn’t work. I look in the back and there is VW and Meek. I don’t call her Serena, Meek is from her middle name Jameeka. Beyond them there are dirty clothes, McDonalds wrappers, ball hoppers, racquets, mess … It was crazy. I can’t make it up. We were going to East Compton country club, I am told. So, we start driving and 10 minutes into the drive, I am looking at the street and wondering if this is the place for the country club.

We pull up at a public park. I can see in the distance people playing basketball. There were people smoking, drinking, and passed out in the grass. And when we walk in, the guys go, ‘Hey King Richard!’ And I am going, ‘this is crazy stuff’. And they go, ‘hey VW, hey Meek’. I learned that because of the NYT article four months back, the family is popular. Some of the people there were very protective of them.

Now, we go across the basketball court and it parts like the Red Sea. We go to the court. I had a box of brand new Wilson balls shipped there. And Richard goes, “We don’t use new balls. I have old balls. Dirty balls.” I got it but it was a little different. Even the court was different. The cart of balls is chained onto the nets and Richard goes, “I have to secure it; else it won’t be here in the morning!”. He puts the dirty old balls in the basket and I start hitting to Venus and Serena.

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Serena and Venus were brainwashed into becoming No.1.

Remember, I had Jennifer Capriati for three years. She had won the u-18 championships in the United States, the youngest ever to do it. Think about it. Jennifer was the greatest junior player of all time and so my blueprint for greatness was better than anybody in the world. Jennifer had a great low centre of gravity, the works; she was amazing.

Now I see the young Venus and Serena – all legs, arms, hair, feet, pieces flying off their beaded heads. And I am going, what the hell am I doing in Compton?! It was a train wreck. I didn’t see anything special in them, apart from athletics – they could run.

Then I go, ‘lets play some competitive points’. That’s when the whole landscape changed. Me and Serena played Venus, who was the more mature player. We started playing competitive tennis – they started popping the popcorn with extra butter! The feet were amazing, the preparation was a lot better and I could see the burning desire, a rage in fact, in these two little girls. I saw two little kids try so hard to get to the ball. It was brutal. I had lots of kids trying hard. I have seen Capriati, Sharapova but this was different. They ran so hard that they almost fell down, their noses touching the court. Now, I start thinking how they are going to be when they are big and stronger.

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I never saw two players – particularly Serena, with that kind of athleticism. But all that doesn’t mean anything, mere athleticism.

I go to Richard – and this is in the movie King Richard about him and the daughters – and I say (this was more about Venus as she was more mature), “Hey Richard, let me tell you something. You got the next female Michael Jordan on your hand!” And he puts his hand around me and goes, “No, brother man! I got the next two!”

Then Venus goes after hugging and kissing, “Daddy, can I go to the bathroom?” Venus walks out of the gate, doing backward cartwheels for five feet, on her hands for five feet, and I am going, whoa, not only can these two girls be the No. 1 in the world but can transcend sport. Because in the 90’s if you were big and strong, you weren’t nimble. They were going to bring a whole different athleticism to the game.

I go not only coaching but funding the entire project. [The deal was Rick would take a cut on their success years later after they turned pro]. I took a big risk, it could have blown up. An agent told me even if you are No 1 in 10-and-under, it didn’t mean anything. But I took the gamble because I saw something which I never saw. I had to pay $92,000 for a motor home, pay Richard $54000 salary, pay for taekwondo, ballet classes, a van and other stuff. I was with them every day for four years.

Venus and Serena are like my daughters. Richard is stubborn but at the end of the day I just wanted to make them the two best players in the world.

I never saw two players – particularly Serena, with that kind of athleticism. But all that doesn’t mean anything, mere athleticism. We were just lucky that they took to tennis as I think they could have been great at any sport. As they say the rest is history.

In the movie, they show how I debate with Richard about his decision not to put them through the junior professional circuit, and how I tell him to take a deal offered by Nike but he doesn’t. I tell everybody that I should be in the Hall of Fame for putting up with that guy!. Just a joke!. I know how to deal with him as he was my best friend.

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Venus and Serena are like my daughters. Richard is stubborn but at the end of the day I just wanted to make them the two best players in the world – that was my mission. And I understood Richard’s decision not to play in the junior tournament. It didn’t bother me. It was kind of over-exaggerated in the movie. It turned out just right. Richard is my best friend, and they are like my daughters. When you are with someone 6 hours, five days a week, four hours on Saturday, 365 days a year, it’s a long time.

Not many people in the world can say their best vacation ever was to Compton, California!

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Serena and Venus would tell me recently after the red carpet that ‘we were brainwashed into becoming No.1. When they were young, Richard and I would not talk about other kids of similar age. No. We were talking about Martina Navrotilova, Steffi Graf, the greats and how they were going to be like them. The art of coaching is how to say it, when to say it, who to say it to … there is an art to it. We left no stone unturned and 30 years later, nothing surprises me about their success. Richard and I knew Serena was going to be the greatest ever, and Venus a great player. I am only surprised by how long they have continued to play. Serena, in particular, was a total package even as a kid but it had to be all put together.

When Serena got mad, she got more determined.

Memories spring up. some funny. The first time we played the game Tag for example. Where a kid chases another kid, touches or tags. It improves agility, mobility, and fitness. The first time Serena played it, she tagged the person with a closed fist. Where you are supposed to touch, she was punching! I go, ‘Meek! Whoa whoa whoa, you need to open your hands, not fist them’. That was the Compton street fighting spirit in her.

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There was another hilarious incident that I recalled to her recently. I remember it like it was yesterday. It was mid-July, 95 degrees and she had already played for hours and she wasn’t moving. She was 11.

I go, ‘Serena, you got to move your feet’. She goes, “WHY?” I replied, “You say you want to be No. 1 right?”. And she goes, “I will be No.1” And she gave me that Serena look, which everyone knows by now. She had that even when she was 11. ‘What have I got to give to you to move?’ And she goes, “Rick, I am really hungry. Can you get me out of the snap machine, some curly fries, some snicker bars, Pepsi and on our way here, Daddy drove by a stand where they were selling ‘Green Day’ T-shirts. [Green Day are an American punk rock group formed in late ’80’s, starring the vocalist and guitarist Billie Joe]. Give me the shirt.’ I say, ‘will you move your feet, then?’

She points to the other court (Venus and Serena had courts next to each other), “You see the tall skinny girl out there?” It was Venus. “I will make her look slower than molasses.” So, we get the goodies, and tell her that a Green Day T-shirt will be given the next day at practice. Serena has her snacks. And she goes back on to the court; she is hitting cross court down the line. Her hitting partner was like 400 in the world, played Davis Cup for Congo, never misses a ball. Serena fired terrific groundstrokes, one hour straight. It got to about 3:15, I am on the other court, and she yells, “Hey coach, it’s 3:!5 I am done, you better have the Green Day T-shirt tomorrow morning”.

Serena’s power game is raved around the world but her serve toss is something else. Her throwing motion was quite natural as a nine-year old, she would keep her left-arm straight. Her throwing motion was better than Venus’s. But biomechanically, you have to get the kinetic energy flowing from ground up. So, for the toss, I would tell her pretend you have an egg in your hand, and you are laying the egg on a shell and you don’t want to break it. You want to toss it like that. She keeps that left-arm up there like poetry in motion, like a knife through butter; she is a role model for tossing the ball and how to keep the arm straight.

She had all the time in the world. She never seemed rushed. It was like a genetic quality. The other thing I saw her at a young age was she seemed to know where you were going to hit before you did!

But she was very immature, liked to mess around, happy-go-lucky. Venus was more serious. You don’t judge a book by the cover but when she started to mature, you could see she had muscle on muscle and that she was going to be big, strong, fast. She is going to have the best serve in the world; she had the x-factor. Richard hit a genetic jackpot with both girls. But nothing would have come without hard work and passion.

In my mind she is going to go down as the best female tennis player ever, and in my book, the best female athlete ever and she is going to be on Mount Rushmore. She is like a Pit Bull; the bigger the moment, she gets better. I saw how she was wired at a young age but to go on to win 23 Grand slams, 6 US Opens, 6 Australian Opens, 3 French, 14 Grand Slam in doubles with VW; they never lost, and four gold medals. They could have 50 grand slam doubles, 50 mixed doubles but hey, they had to eat and sleep. You just can’t keep playing!

When Serena got mad, she got more determined. Even as a kid. With others, it can make them worse. She got better. It was her unique quality. Venus didn’t show much emotion like that; I think she was a great player too. People don’t realise, and I can guarantee, you will never see sisters like this. To have one in the family, let alone two. At nine years old, they would hold hands and skip. Here they are over 40, they are still holding hands and skipping. Two peas in a pod. You think of all the jealousy and all that could have blown up but these two are special. You can’t make this up. Unbelievable love for each other.

I am not surprised Serena chose to retire. She has been injured and hasn’t played that many matches in the last couple of years. She is not someone to just play for playing sake. She likes to win. And she is 41, and has played for so long already. Her next act would be even greater. She would inspire people not just from African-American community but people from all walks of life. If I can do it from where I came from and do it, so can you. I wasn’t at the front row, I wasn’t even at the back row, I was not even in the building. Look where I came from. If I can do it, you can do it. What a story to inspire people.

Richard is an unbelievable dad, Orcene is a great mom and how well they raised them. Serena talks about Black being beautiful and she knows it is in her bones. It’s not a slogan for the sisters. The parents were teaching them life lessons. Every night after the lesson, whether the day went happy or sad, they would hug me and say, “hey Rick Thank you very much!” I don’t see that attitude today. They would bring books and study at my office. They never ignore that too. Two of the nicest kids I ever taught and even to this day, they are very giving, very caring, and nicest persons you want to meet. Both Serena and Venus.

When the movie about them came out, I visited Richard’s home with my daughter. He wasn’t in the best of his health. The first thing he told me that day is something that I would cherish for playing my part in their life story. He said, “Rick, Thanks for getting our family out of the Ghetto.”

(Coach Rick Macci spoke to Sriram Veera)

First published on: 03-09-2022 at 09:25:03 am
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