Work in Sports
Changing the game
Williams' unique celebration may be first of many
WIMBLEDON, England (CNN/SI) - It was a celebration never before seen on Centre Court at Wimbledon. After winning her first Grand Slam on tennis' most hallowed ground, Venus Williams jumped up and down, hardly able to control the excitement she felt.
All of tennis had reason to join in the jubilation.
Even the player Williams defeated, defending champion Lindsay Davenport, graciously admitted that Venus and her sister Serena are changing the game for the better. They combine power, athleticism and charisma in a way that has electrified the sport and increased its popularity.
"Venus and Serena certainly have grabbed the imagination and hearts of people in a way that crosses all color barriers," six-time Wimbledon champion Billie Jean King said.
Or, as Venus put it, "People are turning on their TV and suddenly they see this black girl playing tennis: `What is this?!'"
Williams is only the second black woman to win Wimbledon. Althea Gibson, 72, who lives in East Orange, N.J., was a pioneering champion in 1957-58. Efforts to reach her for comment were unsuccessful.
"It had to be hard because people were unable to see past color," Williams said. "Still, these days it's hardly any different because you have to realize it has only been 40 years. How can you change years and centuries of being biased in 40 years? So realistically, not too much has changed."
While racial barriers can be stubborn, King and three-time Wimbledon champion Chris Evert predict the sisters will broaden the appeal of tennis in the same way Tiger Woods helped golf.
"Hopefully for children of color in particular, it would interest them and light a fire in their belly," King said.
Venus and Serena have already won the two biggest tournaments, Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. If they keep dominating those events, they may achieve the kind of superstar status that transcends their sport, like Woods and Michael Jordan.
The sisters aren't done at Wimbledon. Venus, 20, and Serena, 18, are best friends and doubles partners, and they'll play together for the doubles title Sunday.
Serena became the first Williams to earn a major singles title when she won the U.S. Open last September, but Venus beat her sister in a sloppy, emotional semifinal Thursday and leads the sibling rivalry 4-1.
"You could ask 100 people, and 50 would think Venus is going to be better, and 50 would think Serena," Hall of Famer John McEnroe said.
"The amazing thing is that, technically, they've got a lot of flaws in their game," nine-time Wimbledon champion Martina Navratilova said. "There's still a lot of room for improvement."
The sisters play with contrasting styles. Venus, built like her father, is 6-foot-1 and long-limbed, which is why she runs faster and serves harder than anyone else on the women's tour. Serena, built like her mother, is 5-10 with broad, muscular shoulders, which makes her strong enough to overpower opponents from the baseline.
Grunting on almost every stroke, both women swing with an aggressiveness unimaginable when King started her professional career in 1961.
"It's the continuum -- my generation, then Martina's generation, then Steffi Graf, and now there's more power than ever," King said. "The women are bigger than ever. It's like every sport, men or women."
Fans love it. At the All England Club, where change comes slowly and players still curtsy to royalty, crowds gasp at the sisters' thunderous shots and applaud their flair and exuberance.
Even their fashion sense is cutting edge. The sisters annoyed traditionalists at first by playing with their hair full of colorful beads, and Venus performed Saturday in the most revealing outfit worn by a Wimbledon women's champion -- a dress she designed with a scooped-out back.
The wild card in forecasting the sisters' future is their unpredictable coach and father, Richard, who some regard as a sage prophet and others consider just another bizarre tennis parent.
Against all odds, and with little outside help, Williams raised two daughters from the mean streets of Compton, Calif., into tennis champions. But in recent months, he has said Venus and Serena should give up the sport to focus on their education and other careers.
"Tennis and boxers are the dumbest athletes I've ever met in my life because neither one of them have to get an education," he said. "Venus has enough money right now, and I told her she should go into television broadcasting. But it looks like they're going to be around another five years."
King, a vocal advocate for racial and gender equality, hopes the sisters keep playing a long time and "fighting the good fight." Venus' victory Saturday was a sweet triumph in the battle, King said.
"Althea Gibson couldn't even play in a sanctioned tournament until 1950," she said. "The first thing I thought when Venus won was, `Althea would have loved to be here today.' It would have been great."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.