Work in Sports
A new beginning
Wimbledon could be the start of a new era in tennis
WIMBLEDON, England (CNN/SI) -- Venus and Serena Williams closed the show at Wimbledon 2000 in smashing fashion on Monday, playing an impressive game and having fun all the time, delighting the crowd.
The Williams sisters and Pete Sampras made this year's tournament truly one for the ages: the dawning of one era and the twilight of another.
As the sisters exited the Centre Court stage Monday, carrying away the women's doubles title to go with the singles trophy Venus won, they left behind signs of change in the sport.
"Tennis has always been a rich man or woman's sport," three-time Wimbledon champion Chris Evert said, "but now Venus and Serena can change tennis, just like Tiger Woods has done in golf.
"They've shown that no matter what the color of your skin or how rich you are you can become a success."
Wimbledon opened up Centre Court to ticket holders from Sunday and anyone else willing to pay $7.50 for a seat to the rain-delayed doubles championship. About 1,000 of the 12,000 fans who arrived on the final chilly, soggy day were black.
In few other venues of major sports would that be notable, but Centre Court rarely has had more than a few black faces in the crowd. The message of the moment was clear: Black champions have arrived, and black fans want to see them.
"It's something for a white elite sport like this to have a black champion," said one of the black fans, 25-year-old Michelle Williams of Birmingham.
John Crowther, head of the Lawn Tennis Association, and some in the British press have suggested that the Williams sisters tour the country to spur minority athletes to take up tennis.
"We should ask them to stay on, go round the schools, pack the local courts and catch the wave of post-Wimbledon euphoria to drum up new fascination in the game and skewer forever the notion that only the [wealthy] and the white can play," columnist Sue Mott wrote in The Daily Telegraph.
The Williams sisters said they would gladly go on such a tour, and would love to promote tennis in the inner cities of the United States and Africa.
It is too soon to tell whether their success at this grandest of Grand Slam tournaments will reshape the sport, whether they will develop into superstars like Woods or Michael Jordan, and whether other black players will follow in their footsteps.
The winds of change were thought to be blowing when Althea Gibson won Wimbledon in 1957 and 1958, but it took 32 years before another black woman, Zina Garrison, reached the final, and 10 years more before Venus Williams emerged as a champion.
Arthur Ashe's victory here in 1975 also was believed to herald a new day in tennis, but no other black man reached the final until MaliVai Washington in 1996, and there hasn't been another black champion.
Gibson never got rich from her triumphs, and she lives modestly at 72 in East Orange, N.J. Ashe, who died in 1993, found financial success playing in the first decade of open tennis, wrote several books, and served as an articulate advocate for programs to develop minority players.
Yet he never achieved the fame of some of his contemporaries -- the brasher, more theatrical Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe, and the sublimely talented and silent Bjorn Borg.
Fame is a funny commodity, and success on the courts alone does not ensure it. Sampras, for all his 13 Grand Slams and seven Wimbledon titles, still is less popular than Andre Agassi with his six majors and single Wimbledon win.
At 28, Sampras is nearing the end of his career, as Agassi is at 30, and there is no soaring men's talent ready to take their place.
The Williams sisters, though, might have the full package of charisma and talent to follow Woods and Jordan in a kind of superstardom that boosts their sport while transcending it.
To achieve that, Venus and Serena will have to do what Woods and Jordan have done -- blow away their rivals by winning Wimbledon and the U.S. Open, the two biggest events, over and over.
They're already on their way to doing that with one of those titles apiece, and seven doubles or mixed doubles Grand Slam titles each. Within a year, they believe, they will be ranked No. 1 and 2.
"Our goal is not just to win the Grand Slams but to see our names next to the No. 1 ranking," said Serena, who won the U.S. Open last year. "We're able to beat all the players out there."
Venus said, "We're on our way."
"We believe in ourselves. I don't think I'll be able to attain No. 1 this year. But next year I definitely have the opportunity, starting at the Australian Open," she said.
If they can dominate, the Williams sisters might also inspire a generation of black players to follow them in way that didn't happen when Gibson and Ashe played.
Tennis has become more accessible in cities, and the opportunities to play in high schools and colleges are greater than ever. The fact that the Williams sisters learned to play tennis on public courts in Compton, Calif., makes them all the more accessible as role models for inner-city children.
"It will take a few years to happen, but the Williams sisters have already proved you do not need to be a member of a rich country club to learn to play tennis," Evert said. "I'm sure what they've done will encourage the kids and I hope more kids take it up in the public parks, hopefully with free equipment."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.