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Local tennis player has small role in 'King Richard'

While focusing on her serve during training in 2019, filmmakers served local tennis player Sophia Sanders a unique opportunity: auditioning for a background role in the upcoming “King Richard.”

When audiences head out to theaters Friday, they’ll be able to spot Sophia in the movie about Richard Williams (played by Will Smith), father and coach to tennis greats Venus and Serena Williams.

Now 13, Sophia said the journey from auditions to filming to seeing herself on the big screen at a preview has been a whirlwind.

It started that first day at a tennis academy in Burbank.

“The director went to the head coach and said they were looking for elite background tennis players for the movie.”

More than 4,000 girls auditioned over six days for those background spots, Sophia said.

“It was really cool,” she said of the process. “They hit me a couple of tennis balls and asked about my tennis background.”

A week later, she got an email that said she had been selected.

“We were stoked about it,” she said of her family including mom Beatris Espericueta Sanders, president of Adventist Health Bakersfield’s Philanthropy Foundation. “At the time we didn’t know Will Smith was going to be in the movie. We thought it was going to be a documentary.”

Filming was set for March 10, 2020, but three days prior COVID concerns halted all production.

The Sanders family didn’t hear anything until seven months later when they were asked if Sophia wanted to audition for a speaking role.

Unlike the previous cattle call, this audition came down to Sophia and 10 other girls.

Her look may have been what cinched the role for her, Sophia said.

“The only thing they told me was that Isha Price, her (Venus’) stepsister, said I reminded her of one of the girls Venus was playing at 12 years old.”

Sophia’s scene takes place during the first tennis tournament Venus (played by Saniyya Sidney) competed in at age 12.

Since no one had heard of Venus, Sophia’s character, a “typical spoiled tennis brat,” is expected to win.

“When she starts beating me, I get frustrated. She plays a really great point and I bang my racquet on the floor. ‘You are so freaking stupid’! — I say that to myself.”

Although the shoot involved a grueling two days on set, which started with a 4 a.m. COVID test, Sophia was excited by the experience and the chance to interact with Smith and Demi Singleton, who plays Serena.

“They’re such great, genuine, nice people. They went over my expectations. I thought they were going to be big movie stars but they were down-to-earth people.”

Sophia is excited for friends and family to see the film but she’s also staying busy. A student of online school Georgia Connections Academy, she’s either training or traveling for tennis tournaments, which she heads to every other weekend.

Currently ranked 300th in the nation for players 14 and under, Sophia said she’s keeping her eye on the ball, not the big screen.

“Tennis is my overall goal. I’m not trying to be an aspiring actress. My goal is to play tennis at Stanford for the women’s team. That would be amazing if I could get there.”

“King Richard” opens in theaters and will be on HBO Max starting Friday.

Stefani Dias can be reached at 661-395-7488. Follow her on Twitter at @realstefanidias.