Hamlet's old man may have set the standard for stage parents when he swore his son to a career of revenge, and screwed up the boy's life royally. Until recently, the definition of a stage parent was he or she who attempted to satisfy personal ambitions by directing the course of one's progeny, usually toward hell. Red Sox outfielder Jimmy Piersall was driven mad by his father's desire to play vicarious baseball. For Gypsy Rose Lee's obsessed mother, everything was coming up roses "for you and for me," but mostly "for me, me!"
Tales of these twisted relationships run from the tasteless to the tragic--from Brooke Shields' mother, who pushed her daughter around Hollywood like an ice-cream wagon, to Steffi Graf's crook of a father, who broke her heart. Tennis offers an especially good stage for watching these parents in action. There they sit in the best courtside seats, often functioning as "coaches," glaring stone-faced in fury or some other psychotic mood at their investment offspring, who are incidentally their children.
But lately, Richard Williams, the goofy and irrepressible father of tennis' most powerful sister act, Venus and Serena, has proved a delightful exception to all that. Williams has redefined the figure of the stage parent by being wildly ambitious for his two girls and yet at the same time wildly loving. The history of paternal nonsense has never seen his like. Before the U.S. Open started, he told the press that his daughters would definitely play each other in the finals. (He turned out to be half right.) "It's not that there aren't talented players here," said Williams in reference to the likes of Monica Seles, Martina Hingis and Wimbledon champion Lindsay Davenport. "It's just that my girls are better than they are." Yet when both girls made the semis, he smiled without gloating.
What makes him a special piece of work, though, is that he openly boasts that he deliberately engineered the production of his two daughters to make the family rich. Giving new zest to the phrase refreshing candor, he told the Today show's Matt Lauer last Friday that the original idea for the manufacture of Venus and Serena came to him when he happened to see a woman win "$30 or $40 thousand" in a tennis tournament, "and she played four days!" Not Thomas Edison, not Alexander Graham Bell, not Bill Gates could have been more enthusiastically inspired.
"I went to my wife and I said, 'We have to make two more kids,' and she didn't want to do it. So I used to take her out on dates, and I'd hide her birth-control pills. That's how Venus came. With Serena, what I'd do with my wife when I'd take her out is make sure that she had her birth-control pills. I'd tell my buddy, 'You know we're from the ghetto, right? You just act like the worst Crip, and take her purse.' And I'd calm her down, and that's how Serena came."
Lauer, who was knocked off his chair while remaining in it, nicely observed that he'd heard that in any interview with Williams, "you get more than you bargained for. And we certainly just did."