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Warning: The following post contains spoilers for “King Richard.”
“King Richard” is a touching and inspiring movie about family, belief and overcoming obstacles in order to follow a dream. But it’s also a compelling sports movie and naturally ends with a face-off in which the audience is left guessing — will the underdog Venus Williams beat the champion?
“King Richard” ends on a real-life match from 1994 between Venus Williams, then just 14 and competing in her first pro tournament and second pro match, and Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario, a Spanish player who at the time was the No. 2 tennis player in the world and had just won the U.S. Open.
Tennis fans may already know the ending but have forgotten the details. The short answer is, Williams loses the match, and “King Richard” suggests that part of the reason Williams lost is because she was “iced” when her opponent took a bathroom break to get inside Williams’ head, halting her momentum.
And yes, Williams really did lose that match. But was she really iced? Zach Baylin, the film’s screenwriter, said “that event is truthful,” and he said in his research that people watching that match truly felt it was a controversial moment.
“That was a real jumping off point for me of what the movie would be framed around,” Baylin told TheWrap. “If she had won that match, the movie would’ve lost some of that dramatic tension of what we had been building towards.”
“King Richard” depicts Williams truly looking the part of a future champion against Sanchez-Vicario, taking the first set of the match 6-2. But her momentum comes to a screeching halt when Sanchez-Vicario yells in frustration and then proceeds to head inside the locker room. The line judge tells Venus that she’s just going to the bathroom, but Williams’ coach Rick Macci in the crowd reacts as though it’s a dirty trick with little that can be done about it. We even see Will Smith as Venus’ father Richard Williams looking toward the locker room suspiciously. And the nail seems to be driven in the moment Venus takes a seat as she waits. Williams in real life then loses the next two sets 3-6 and 0-6.
“That 10-minute bathroom break at that point in the match, which I read about, she came back out and Venus didn’t win a game for the rest of the match,” Baylin said, adding that though he didn’t want to put words in the mouths of anyone involved about whether it was controversial, “the people who were writing about it at the time certainly looked at it in that way.”
“Bathroom breaks in tennis are a very controversial rule,” he continued. “There are several current players who are constantly accused of using bathroom breaks to break the momentum of their opponents, because tennis is such a mental sport, and you’re out there all by yourself, and having time to sit with your thoughts and analyze your game is not always beneficial. Players will take the opportunities they can to rattle the mental state of their opponents. It seemed to me that was a potential tactic of what was going on in that moment.”
The New York Times in its coverage from 1994 described Sanchez-Vicario as looking “rusty” in her initial set but sensed that Williams was tiring out and needed to “get her own game into overdrive,” ultimately leaving Williams “bewildered” as Williams became more exhausted.
“At 3-1 I thought she was a little tired, and I knew that was the moment to start playing my game if I wanted to win,” Sanchez-Vicario was quoted.
Macci even described to the Times that he hoped the match would be a good teaching tool and a “barometer” for his young pupil, and Richard Williams too was relieved that by losing the match, Venus could still hang on to her youth and resist the pressure to immediately sign a sponsorship deal. And the movie earlier even shows that Venus had turned down an impressive offer from Nike.
“I want her to be a little girl,” Richard Williams told the New York Times in 1994, “and you can’t do that when you’ve got a dozen corporate sponsorships to answer to.”
Venus Williams though as part of the press tour for “King Richard” reflected on that match and recently called it “the match I should’ve won.”
“[I remember] not knowing what I was doing. I mean, I had a huge lead. She took a bathroom break and I fell apart,” Venus told USA Today. “I just remember distinctly thinking, ‘Gosh, I should have won that match. I shouldn’t be going home.’ And I knew I had to improve myself…I think that’s what I took out of it. It wasn’t anything I ever said to anyone, but inside, I knew that I should have won. So I guess I was hard on myself at the time.”
Baylin’s script for “King Richard” initially landed on the Black List, and he worked hard to ultimately get it in front of the Williams family and earn their blessing on the story. Baylin acknowledged that Richard Williams was incredibly public facing at that time and had a reputation as a publicist and marketer for his daughters, never being shy about explaining to the media his master plan for Venus and Serena. But with the film he aimed to show a different side to Williams that the cameras didn’t see.
“We wanted the film to be honest about some of the more challenging aspects of Richard’s personality while also showcasing that he was an incredibly loving parent and incredibly encouraging coach,” Baylin said. “While outwardly Richard did have this contentious personality, and had really sharp elbows with people, when he was on the court with his daughters, he was incredibly encouraging and enthusiastic. That discrepancy made him a really compelling character for me.”
“King Richard” is in theaters and streaming on HBO Max through Dec. 19.