‘Venus and Serena,” a new documentary by Maiken Baird and Michelle Major, focuses on 2011, when the Williams sisters era of women’s tennis seemed to be coming to an end.
Flashing back to earlier moments of glory, the film follows Venus and Serena through injuries and other health problems. Venus, the older sister and the first to rise to prominence, seems to be fading quietly from the scene, while Serena, always more dramatic and more controversial, struggles with frustration and disappointment.
Of course — nonspoiler alert — the very next year the sisters would win their third Olympic gold medal in women’s doubles, and Serena would dispatch Agnieszka Radwanska in a Wimbledon final that will long be remembered as a singularly ferocious feat of athletic domination. Those victories (and a Wimbledon doubles title) provide an odd, off-key coda to a movie that is already more than a little muddled.
The access the filmmakers were granted to their subjects is somewhat illusory, as is often the case in behind-the-scenes documentaries authorized by celebrities. The audience will gain a vague, gratifying frisson of intimacy but no real insights or revelations.
This means that tennis fans will find much to enjoy but very little that they haven’t already seen or heard.
The story of how Venus and Serena changed tennis — pushed, coached and nurtured by their father, Richard, and their less talkative but no less determined mother, Oracene — is a remarkable chapter in the history of race and sports in America. The version told here is detailed but also superficial, since Baird’s and Major’s intentions and methods are more promotional than journalistic.
Billie Jean King, John McEnroe, Bill Clinton and Chris Rock offer their mostly laudatory thoughts about Venus and Serena, who share their mostly approving thoughts about themselves.
And who can argue? They have broadened the appeal of a game that took much too long to shed its exclusive, lily-white associations, and helped to make it part of contemporary popular culture.
They are also tremendously exciting on the court. So think of this movie as a greatest-hits package, with some good stuff to show but nothing new to say.