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Documentary on Williams sisters could use more tennis

Venus and Serena, Maikan Baird and Michelle Major's documentary about the Williams sisters, has an exciting, improbable tale to tell.

Venus and Serena, Maikan Baird and Michelle Major's documentary about the Williams sisters, has an exciting, improbable tale to tell.

It's about two African American sisters who grew up poor in Compton, Calif., with a father who believed that with obsessive determination he could raise his daughters to be millionaire tennis champions.

"My parents told me I'd be No. 1 in the world," Venus says now, looking back. "I was brainwashed." And for Richard Williams, one was not enough. When a coach told him that in preteen Venus he saw a potential Michael Jordan, Richard corrected him: "No, I have two."

The ghetto-to-glory saga about race, class, and family is put in perspective nicely by Chris Rock, who reminds us that the Williams' beginnings "weren't country club black. They were black black."

It's a fascinating story, but also a familiar one. The Williamses, after all, have been media sensations since well before Serena won the family's first Grand Slam trophy in 1999.

So how much new does Venus and Serena have to tell us? Not enough.

Like a music movie that doesn't show full-song performances, this is a tennis movie that's not all that interested in tennis. Generally, on-court highlights are limited to pre-celebration match points or controversies, such as Serena's notorious blowup at a foot-fault-calling line judge in the 2009 U.S. Open final.

Not bothering to get inside the game, the filmmakers instead attempt to get inside the sisters' heads. That could be a fruitful approach, but the sisters guard their privacy, and the film is guilty of the usual sports hagiography pitfalls.

To make the sisters' impressive longevity seem even more so, we're told that "no sport tears your body up worse than tennis." Really? Tell that to a quarterback with a 350-pound lineman sitting on his chest.

After working for years to get the sisters to cooperate, Baird and Major were granted access in 2011, just as both players were sidelined with injuries for much of the year (before Serena came back and was dominant again in 2012).

During the downtime, the sisters are seen singing karaoke at home, which is more musically pleasurable than the dreadful tennis-inspired Wyclef Jean music that runs through the movie.

Along with commentary from John McEnroe, Bill Clinton, and Anna Wintour, the sisters grant semi-revealing interviews, with Serena talking about how she hates to lose more than she likes to win, and adding, "the biggest challenge for me when I play is choosing what color to wear." (She's not lying.)

There is some entertaining gossip - the sisters' mother, Oracene Price, when asked what advice she would give Richard's new wife, says, "The only advice I'd say to her was to run."

But those who've followed the sisters' career will find little in Venus and Serena that they don't already know.

Venus and Serena ** (out of four stars)

Directed by Maiken Baird and Michelle Major. With Venus and Serena Williams, Bill Clinton, John McEnroe, Billie Jean King. Distributed by Magnolia Pictures.

Running time: 1 hour, 39 mins.

Parent's guide: PG-13 (profanity).

Playing at: Ritz Bourse.