By Owen Lewis and Scott Barclay
From the moment that Rick Macci pops up on our zoom call from the comfort of his office at the Rick Macci Academy over in Florida, USA, you can tell that he’s as passionate as he ever has been about the sport that’s brought us all here together.
”I was on the court six to three straight, drove home, grabbed an apple, and you’re here.” As hectic as his day has been, he sounds excited to get into the interview rather than put-upon.
His enthusiasm shines through his words, his body language forever eager and intrigued from the get-go. Any nerves that we had prior to this interview dissipate as Rick soothes us into a conversational rhythm by telling us about his childhood and how he first found tennis.
“I grew up in a small town called Greenville, Ohio. It’s about twenty-miles south-west of Dayton, Ohio, right next to Union City, Indiana. It’s a small town of 10,000 people and I played all kinds of sports, y’know? Football, baseball, basketball, hockey, golf and I was actually very, very good at golf.”
The Macci family were all particularly active, both his parents leading the way as golf county champions with his sister excelling at swimming. However, the death of his father when Rick was twelve years old meant that he could no-longer play golf regularly because the country club where the family practiced only permitted members. None of the rest of the family were and so that meant finding another sporting outlet.
“We lived a half-mile from the park and there was tennis courts. And so I went down there at 12 years old and I picked up a racket. You gotta’ remember though, I’m 67 now, just had a birthday last month and so I guess that was, what, the late 60s? Before you guys were on this Earth and I just grabbed a racket and a ball. The courts, they were all chipped up and the nets were steel. Steel nets! And so I just hit the ball against the wall and I really liked the sound of the ball. But the one thing I really liked was that it always came back to me!”
Rick tells this story of his upbringing with an almost child-like nostalgia but he switches gears quickly as he talks us into his teenage years, recalling his rise to becoming the number 1 ranked player in Ohio Valley. At that point, he found himself jumping from sport to sport again, taking his racket with him everywhere and making the most of any opportunity to play that came his way, an enthusiasm that sticks with him all the way until this day.
“Sometimes I would shovel snow and I had a path and I’d just hit groundstrokes because I couldn’t play indoors because it was like thirty miles away. So I got real good real fast because I was athletic and mentally strong. So I grew up a half-mile from the park and taught myself how to play. Fast-forward through my whole career, I live a half-mile from the park. I’m here at Rick Macci Tennis Centre at South County Regional Park. It’s the crown jewel of Palm Beach County. And so I live a half-mile from the park, I started a half-mile from the park, my whole career has come full-circle.” There’s a brief pause before he rounds us out. “But probably the biggest thing is that I feel the exact same way and have the same passion as I did when I was 22 years old and I first got into teaching.”
Out of everything that he’d told us so far, this last sentence was by far the least surprising.
Macci plays a big role in the recent film King Richard, which has gotten a great reception. He has been flooded with interviews since its premiere. The film depicts Richard Williams’ intense drive to help his daughters (you may have heard of them), Venus and Serena, to tennis superstardom. Macci was their coach from around 1991 to 1995, and he embraced the entire family, somehow putting up with even Richard’s more difficult traits.
Macci has seen the movie three times, loving it more each time. “It’s not a highlight reel of them [Venus and Serena] playing tennis,” he says. “It’s about inspiration, dedication, perspiration, education, motivation…there’s a lot of stuff about the real world. It’s about life lessons…they [viewers] saw a father protecting and on a mission.” Venus and Serena’s on-court accomplishments are the stuff of well-known legend, but Macci emphasizes how King Richard depicts their upbringing, the why before the how.
“It’s going to go down, in my opinion, as the best sports movie ever…if you don’t laugh, and you don’t cry, you’re not human. I was right there in the nitty-gritty…and I’m sitting there with tears in my eyes…Venus and Serena cried!”
“Every parent should take their kid to it,” he says. “I think every kid should see this.”
Macci has been blown away by the overwhelmingly positive response to King Richard. What he is happiest about is that the movie communicates love, support, and determination. “What I liked about the movie itself,” he says, “it showed how much I cared about the girls. I pushed all the chips into the table.” He trusts his coaching instincts unconditionally, then and now.
As Macci fondly recounts his memories of the film, he tells us that he called Venus “VW,” and Serena “Mek,” short for her middle name, Jameka. “She [Serena] told me at the after-party at the red carpet thing, ‘Rick, you’re the only guy I let call me Mek, other than my dad.’”
His favorite scene is one of the most pivotal in the film and in the early stages of Venus Williams’ tennis career.
“It was a scene where I was there with Venus — and this happened, by the way, true — she wanted to play the pro tournament, okay?” Richard Williams, wary of burnout, was adamant that his daughters avoid the stress of junior tournaments and turning pro until they were sure tennis was what they wanted to commit to. “She was begging Bernthal, who played me,” Macci continues. “And I just said, ‘listen, you’re preaching to the choir!’… And [she said] ‘please Rick, please Rick, please,’ ‘Vee, I can’t! He doesn’t listen, your dad.’ And she’s just like ‘please Rick, please Rick, please,’ and she’s smiling at me, and she goes ‘does that mean yes, does that mean yes?’ And I go ‘all right, yes.’ And then she comes and hugs me and I go ‘ah, Jesus, all right.’ That’s exactly what happened. I think that shows how much I was a part of the family… And by the way, she did play the tournament, and I did get the wild card, and she did beat 57 in the world, and she almost beat #1, and she did get twelve million dollars eight months later. So if I wouldn’t have pushed for that and got the wild card, we probably wouldn’t have been here like this today. Who knows how this plays out?”
There are people who have made great differences in tennis but downplay their achievements — it’s all credit to my support team, I couldn’t have done it without their help. Macci is not one of them. He knows the impact he has made and isn’t afraid to talk about it unabashedly. It’s this kind of confidence that makes it easy to see why he’s one of the best prospects to coach a promising junior. He believes in his strengths and his ability to transform raw talent into a refined champion a great deal. When he talks about his days of playing tennis, at one point he simply says “I was mentally strong,” but his evident confidence gives the cliche some material weight. It’s easy to envision him on the court, down break point, utterly certain that his bread-and-butter play will get him out of the jam.
As much as Macci loved King Richard, he does have a couple small critiques. The first is the movie’s portrayal of Jennifer Capriati, another of Rick’s former pupils. In the film, Capriati is portrayed as a bright young talent who burst onto the scene astonishingly early only to be leveled by burnout. Drug problems are mentioned, a mugshot is shown. “When they used Capriati,” Macci says, “and you saw that mugshot come up, which is brutal in itself…they portrayed it as that’s what happens [when a junior player encounters burnout].” What is not shown is that Capriati managed to work through her issues and make a comeback, winning two additional major titles and returning to #1 in the world. Macci feels that this was a notable omission.
“At the end of the movie, when they did the credits and you saw the video and stuff, and you saw some writing, they should have put by the way — and they should have shown her picture — Jennifer Capriati disappeared from pro tennis, came all the way back, became #1 in the world, won two grand slams, a gold medal in the summer Olympics, got a multi, multi million dollar contract from FILA and other companies. Now, you talk about the American dream…getting knocked down and disappearing, and not just coming back, coming all the way back to #1. That’s a movie in itself! So that’s the only thing, if I was involved, I wish they’d have done that. Because the movie was over, they got what they had to, what could happen, burnout, drugs…but she came back!”
The second is the fact that outside of conversations with Jon Bernthal, who played Macci in King Richard, Macci largely was not consulted to help put together the film. “I was a little surprised…no, I wasn’t consulted…they didn’t even talk to Richard about the movie!”
“I even told the people at Warner Brothers this after I told Jon [Bernthal]. I said ‘it’s just kind of weird, because I not only was there every day, and had a better front-row seat than anybody, other than maybe the wife [Oracene], and the stories I have are beyond epic. I woulda had stories where people would have been on the floor laughing,” he says.
On form, Macci talks a big game, but has the substance to back it up. He delivers a fantastic anecdote of a young Serena Williams training session that captivates us both.
During a hot July day of practice when Serena was eleven and had already played for three hours in the morning, Macci tells us, she was having trouble finding the motivation to move her feet.
“What do I have to do to get you to move your feet?” Macci asked her. Her response, relayed to us by Macci, paints a vivid picture of a young Serena Williams.
“She goes, ‘Rick, I’m really hungry. Can you get Scott to go to the snack machine? I want some hot curly fries, I want a Snickers bar, I want a Pepsi, and on the way to work today, on Linton Boulevard’ — we were in Delray Beach — she goes ‘Daddy drove by a stand and they were selling Green Day T-shirts. If you get me the curly fries, the Snickers bar, the Pepsi, and you have Scott get me that Green Day T-shirt, you see that tall skinny girl over there?’ She was pointing at Venus, because Venus was all arms and legs…’I’ll make her look slower than molasses.’”
Macci obeyed, arranging for Serena’s snack to be brought. The Green Day shirt was promised to be delivered the following day. “Serena has her snack for 15 minutes,” he tells us. “And you’ll like this — she’s in the corner with the hitting partner: crosscourt, down the line, one hour straight, no water…sweat is coming off this little girl like Niagara Falls. It got to be fifteen after three, I’m now on the other court, helping Venus, and she [Serena] goes ‘Rick, Rick!’ And I turn around. ‘We’re done, and you better have that Green Day T-shirt in the morning.’”
Though at eleven, Serena’s maturity wasn’t quite there, he continues, her feistiness was ever-present. “That’s an epic story,” Macci concludes. “Can you imagine that in the movie? That would have been amazing, people would have been laughing, crying.”
Macci emphasizes just how hard the Williams sisters would work — six hours a day, five days a week, draining a shopping cart of tennis balls every night. He recalls how when Richard wasn’t looking, Serena would toss a few balls out of the cart.
“She was like a little prankster. But I loved that feistiness, because it meant that she wasn’t going to take crap from people. And that’s probably why eventually, Richard would always start saying when they got to about thirteen, he thinks Serena will be better. She was kind of like a pit bull, in a nice way. They get a hold of you, you’re history. They don’t let go. Venus is like that, but she might let go.”
Macci did consult frequently with Jon Bernthal, who played him in King Richard.
“…Jon Bernthal called me, we talked many times, he read my book…he talked to hundreds of people who I coached…and I think he got a real snapshot of who I am as a person: the passion, the energy, how much I love the game, and how I felt about the girls. Remember, it’s easy to feel good about something if someone’s won ten grand slams when you start coaching them. When they’re nothing, and you gotta build the house or put Humpty Dumpty together, and you go all in? That’s a whole different animal.”
“It’s hard for me to look at someone that’s playing me, because I know I was that energetic all the time, but I think it captured how much I cared…and I was there for one reason: I was on a mission to make these girls number one. It wasn’t anything other than that. I think people saw the inside character of Rick Macci being able to deal with Richard, so they captured the most important thing, and that’s what I was most pleased about.”
“If I’d have been involved, it would have been even better…but the way they did the whole movie was great.” The only thing that was different about Bernthal’s performance from Macci’s actual performance, the coach tells us, was his mustache.
Macci has noticed a new dimension of King Richard each time he has watched it, so plentiful are the layers of the film.
“When I saw the movie the first time…I didn’t know what to expect, and it happened so quickly that I didn’t catch a lot of it, even though I was laughing, because Will Smith was so much like Richard that it blew me away. The subtleties, the nuances, the walk, the talk, the one-liners, just the facial stuff he had to put on, the toothpick in the mouth, and no one knew Richard better than Rick Macci…I was laughing in the movie, and no one was laughing! I was just sitting there laughing about the way he was. But I didn’t catch a lot of the movie. Then the second time, when I saw it at the red carpet, I enjoyed it more, because I saw more stuff. Then the third time I saw it…it made me feel even better the third time, because people now are giving feedback and their perception is how much I did for this family. And how I took a chance. And even a lot of people in the African-American community are saying how I went in there and I took a chance! This could have catastrophically blown up. I’ve been wrong before, but that’s why I’m usually right, more than most.”
“I’m just glad I’m still on this planet Earth, because a lot of the time when people play you [in a movie], you’re in the ground already. It was amazing, and to be able to have it come full circle, to have the story come out on a big screen…”
It is easy to let motivation drop after an especially successful or cathartic endeavor, but Macci’s passion for tennis is immune to roadblocks. As astonishingly, unprecedentedly good as the Williams sisters were, Macci didn’t let his drive dip after they parted ways. “The way I’ve handled everything since 1995 — never an axe to grind, always complimentary of everything — a lot of people aren’t like that. I just reload and build other players, or coach other players,” he says.
Macci emphasizes how established he was as a coach prior to meeting the Williams sisters. “I had Tommy Ho, who was the youngest player at age 15 to win the boys’ national 18. I had him in 1988, along with Jennifer [Capriati]. I had the youngest ever to win the boys’ 18 and the youngest ever to win the girls’ 18 in the same year. And they were twelve and fifteen in 1988. Records that still stand today.”
“My blueprint or baseline for greatness — in my opinion — was better than anybody in the world.”
“Richard calls me up, as you see in the movie. He wanted me to come to Compton, California. And I said that I either see people at a junior tournament or they come to the academy. I’ve never in my life — even to this day — got on a plane or drove somewhere to see a kid play, unless it was a tournament.”
Macci’s trip to Compton was sparked not just by the promise of watching two immense talents, but by the allure of Richard Williams’ personality. “He goes ‘Rick,’ — he was laughing and joking, sounded like a really funny guy — ‘I promise, if you come to Compton, I promise I won’t let you get shot.’ And I just said, ‘I gotta meet this guy!’”
“Went to the hotel that night. Whole family comes to the hotel…Venus is sitting on one leg, Serena is sitting on the other leg, arms around the dad. Hugging, kissing, very close-knit family. I was very impressed. Oracene was there too. He asked me thirty questions. I think he had them on a piece of paper. I thought I was in a deposition. The guy was grilling me! But I got it. Because I think if he was going to let someone in their circle — they had acquaintances, probably, but no friends.”
“So we talked for two and a half hours.” The rest, much of which he gets into during the interview, is history.
Macci vividly recalls the first time he watched Venus and Serena practice. “We pull up to some park, there’s about 20 guys playing basketball, there’s people drinking, passed out in the grass. The whole place smells like pot.”
“We get out of the bus. I definitely stood out in the crowd. We get out, and they go, ‘hey, Richard!’ Listen to this. ‘Hey, King Richard!’…’Hey, VW! Hey, Mek!’ They know who they [the Williamses] were.”
“I had a brand new box of Wilson balls shipped there earlier. Richard goes ‘Rick, we don’t use new balls. We only use old balls that don’t bounce. I want their butt digging them out, bending their knees.’”
“Little different,” Macci says, “but I got it.”
Macci animatedly describes the conditions of the court — chipped surface, steel nets, the shopping cart that Richard wrapped seven chains around to prevent from being stolen.
“We get the old balls, and I start doing drills with Venus and Serena…it was a mess. Arms going one way, legs going another way, beads flying off their heads…it was Improvise City! That means they were winging it.”
“Remember,” Macci reminds us, “I had Capriati! She had her knees bent…the racket back, center of gravity, she could have a cup of water on each shoulder and her head, and I’m looking at this, and I’m going it was all over the map.”
“But it’s a great lesson for every parent coach, or even Rick Macci. You don’t judge a book by its cover. The cover could be amazing and the book terrible, the cover terrible and the book amazing. So then, I said ‘let’s play some competitive points.’”
Then everything changed.
“So we started playing points, and right there, guys, it blew my socks off. After another five minutes, I go, this is crazy stuff. The footwork got a little better, the shoulder turn got quicker, the preparation was better.”
When Macci first watched Venus and Serena play, it wasn’t their serves or backhands that captivated him. It was their determination.
“But here’s what I never saw, and I haven’t in my whole life: the burning desire — the burning desire — to get to the ball; they almost fell down. And I think both of them did a couple times. It wasn’t because they were uncoordinated, they just ran so hard and tried to get to the ball when it was low that they fell down! There was a rage… a rage inside these two little kids.”
At this, Macci’s mind started racing. “So I’m sitting there going, whoa, whoa, whoa. Six feet tall, 160, five-ten, 145 — I’m projecting as a coach where this can be at 17, 18…the technical part, that can be done. The financial part, that can be done.”
Macci cites a conversation he had with Richard thereafter where he told him that he had the next Michael Jordan on his hands. “Nah brother-man,” Richard responded, according to Macci. “I got the next two.”
From then on, Macci was all in. Money and time were irrelevant to him, he tells us. No matter the cost or timeline, he knew he could help mold Venus and Serena into champions.
Macci goes on to tell a story about Venus, as well. He reminds us of Richard’s insistence that his daughters not play tournaments during their developmental years, so adamant he was that they avoid burnout. Richard did allow them to play an exhibition, though — “forget the hamburger, I’ll go for the filet!” Macci laughs. The exhibition was played in front of 5,000 people, he continues. Venus and Serena played doubles against the legendary Billie Jean King and Rosie Casals.
The Williams sisters were returning so far inside the baseline that a confused Billie Jean King was wondering if she should tell them where to stand, Macci tells us. But their return position wasn’t born out of cluelessness, it was an aggressive mindset taught in practice.
“So here’s these two little girls from Compton, California…Billie Jean’s ready to serve, Serena’s ready to return. She’s standing closer to the service line than the baseline! And Billie Jean was like should we tell them where to stand? They thought they were in the wrong place!” But their aggressive return position, Macci says, was part of the way the Williams sisters were training, as was the strategy of hitting right at the net player. They knew little about doubles strategy, but their will to win made the atmosphere intense. “It was a Compton street fight,” Macci says twice.
Then, with Macci in the station wagon after the match with Richard, Oracene, Venus, and Serena, he heard someone ask “hey, Venus, how did you serve today?” More questions followed about the other parts of Venus’ game, and each time she responded positively. Macci looked around the station wagon and realized that Richard, Oracene, and Serena were all in his vision, and none of them were talking. “Venus is having a conversation with a doll,” he exclaims. “So the moral of the story…and Richard knew that I knew…is that they’re kids first, and tennis players second.”
Macci was and is close with the titular Richard Williams. “I never got upset with Richard, I really didn’t,” Macci says. “I loved the guy to death, because I saw how he was with those kids.”
He commends the way Richard raised his daughters: “look at these kids: educated, smart, look you in the eye, articulate…game, set, match Richard Williams.”
Macci also mentions that Richard’s extremely unorthodox method of keeping Venus out of junior matches only made sense because she was such a ferocious, talented competitor. He emphasizes that for essentially anyone besides the prodigious Williams sisters, juniors is the way to go.
Macci is still close with the Williams family. Asked what his relationship with them is like now, he immediately says “it’s unbelievable. Serena says she will probably bring her daughter to the park. Who knows, might do it all over again if she [Serena’s daughter Olympia] plays tennis!” He mentions that he no longer goes to pro tournaments, so doesn’t see them often. The memories remain warm, though, and he says reuniting with the family was “one of the best days of his life.” Frances Tiafoe and Reilly Opelka were there as well, and Macci says that on pure adrenaline, he stayed up longer than he had since he was our age.
“The icing on the icing was three weeks ago, when I went to West Palm Beach, and I reunited with Richard. We were telling stories, and we were both crying. His memory — there’s all these stories of not good health — guy’s in great health, seventy-nine, mind like a steel trap. He’s my best friend.”
“It was me and him against the world,” Macci recalls. “He was my best friend. We would joke all the time.”
Another striking scene from King Richard was Arantxa Sánchez Vicario turning the tables on Venus from a set and a break down after taking a momentum-killing bathroom break. As disappointing as the loss was for Venus, such painful losses are often vital learning experiences for young players. Macci agreed that the loss was an important building block, an especially valuable one at the early age of 14. “All our yesterdays make us what we are tomorrow,” he says eloquently.
Macci would regularly have Venus train with a male pro — a lefty with heavy topspin. “She was never gonna beat him,” he tells us. Ahead of the Oakland tournament in which Venus played the top-ranked Sánchez Vicario, Macci told Venus’ practice partner to lose on purpose in a close tiebreak set. After pulling out the tiebreak, Venus excitedly told Macci that she was peaking at the right time. Soon after, she beat the 59th best player in the world, Shaun Stafford. Venus was 14. It was her first professional match.
“That’s the art of coaching,” Macci says. He finally told Venus what he had done at the film’s after party, having kept the secret for 26 years. Professional athletes, to achieve an ideal mindset, often have to lie to themselves, an illustration being Novak Djokovic telling himself the Wimbledon crowd’s screams were for him rather than Roger Federer. As Macci demonstrates, a coach can help with that delusion.
As for American men’s tennis, Macci believes that one of the upcoming crop — Opelka, Tiafoe, Sebastian Korda — might have what it takes to win one major, but that staying at the top is another challenge altogether. “I don’t see it,” he says. “So, now what do we say? ‘We’ve got all these people in the top 100.’ Give me a break! We’ve pushed the goalposts so far back. We should have forty people in the top 100!” To produce a great champion, Macci continues, the USTA’s development of players needs a full overhaul.
The day after Macci met the Williams family in person for the first time, they picked him up at seven in the morning to head to practice. He recounts the experience. “So they pick me up in that bus — you see it in the movie, same color, wobbly, that Prince logo on the front. I get in the front seat, okay, there’s a harpoon — a spring — sticking out of the seat, and I get harpooned in the buttock. I sit on a spring! … And I look in the back, and there’s Venus and Serena, these two little kids. There’s about four months’ worth of McDonald’s wrappers. There’s dirty clothes. It smells. There’s ball hoppers, there’s rackets, it looks like a bomb went off in the back of this thing. I’m going, this is like a movie.”
Rick Macci is a seven-time USPTA Coach of the Year. He runs the Rick Macci Tennis Academy in Boca Raton, Florida. You can read more about him at rickmacci.com.
King Richard is available for rent or purchase on Amazon Prime Video.
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