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Toronto International Film Festival

Toronto: Venus and Serena Williams withdraw support for tennis doc

September 11, 2012|By Steven Zeitchik
  • A scene from "Venus and Serena."
A scene from "Venus and Serena." (Clive Brunskill )

TORONTO -- In an about-face, Venus and Serena Williams have chosen not to attend Tuesday's Toronto world premiere of the documentary "Venus and Serena," which they authorized and participated in for the past 20 months, because they are reportedly unhappy with the finished product.

As recently as several days ago, the tennis superstars had planned to come to the Toronto International Film Festival to support the movie made by veteran broadcast journalists Maiken Baird and Michelle Major, according to a person familiar with the Williamses’ plans who asked not to be identified because the person had not been authorized to speak on their behalf.

But a disagreement between the sisters and the filmmakers over the movie's content -- particularly the portrayal of the sisters' father, Richard Williams -- has led to a reversal, the person said. The movie is at Toronto seeking distribution.

PHOTOS: Toronto International Film Festival 2012

Festival organizers and the filmmakers confirmed that the sisters would not be attending. "It's disappointing to us," Major said. "We have a lot of respect for them and think their story is very inspiring." She declined to elaborate on the reasons for the Williamses' change of heart.

Venus Williams' manager Carlos Fleming and Serena Williams' agent Jill Smoller would not comment on their clients' decision.

The news comes just two days after Serena Williams won her fourth U.S. Open singles title, which was expected to give the premiere a celebratory air; indeed, Serena Williams has been making press appearances in the wake of the tournament, on Monday appearing on NBC’s “Late Night With Jimmy Fallon.”

Festival organizers had scheduled the premiere after the tournament to allow the sisters to attend.

The movie has been a watershed event for the Williamses, who are famously guarded about their private lives. Baird and Major, who met while working for ABC News during Peter Jennings' tenure, have long been fascinated by the Williamses as tennis and public personalities.

After being wooed by the Baird and Major for nearly four years, the sisters agreed to participate in the documentary. In January 2011, the filmmakers began following the sisters around the world, having been granted intimate access to the cloistered stars as well as to their friends and family members; they shot more than 450 hours of footage. Major said that neither sister asked for any preconditions before filming began.

The finished film looks at the rise of the two Compton natives to the pinnacle of their sport, their lives behind-the-scenes and the colorful personalities who have guided them or been part of their rise. It is largely complimentary to the sisters, showing their work ethic and their humor.

But it does explore some of Richard Williams’ foibles, from his out-of-wedlock children to a 78-page manifesto he had plotting out his daughters' success at a very young age. That angered the sisters, particularly Venus, according to the person with knowledge of the disagreement.

After viewing the film in August, Venus Williams had an extensive conversation with filmmakers raising her objections over how her father was portrayed. Though some small tweaks were made, they were not sufficient to change her mind.

The filmmakers said they were saddened by the Williamses' response and could only hope for a change of heart down the road. “We think this is an important story, and we can only hope Venus and Serena come to see it that way too,” Baird said.

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