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Neither venus nor Serena Williams has won a Grand Slam singles title in more than a year, and if both falter at the U.S. Open this week, we can administer last rites to the era of their dominance. Even so, you could argue that the sisters' impact on tennis will continue to be profound. No one knows whether the "Tiger effect" will spawn a generation of minority golfers, but the path blazed by the Williams sisters in American tennis--a sport once perceived as being whiter than a Duluth winter--is already heavily trodden.
At last month's prestigious USTA National Championships in Kalamazoo, Mich., Scoville Jenkins blitzed to the boys' 18s title, dropping just one set. In doing so, he became the first African-American singles champion in the tournament's 89year history. The previous day another African-American, Phillip Simmonds, was half of the winning doubles team. A third black phenom, Donald Young, had been the most hyped player in the Kalamazoo field before he was upset in the fourth round of the singles. Young, a 15year-old lefty who was born in Chicago and lives in Atlanta, won the boys' 18s singles title at the Easter Bowl earlier this year, beat two top 200 pros at a July ATP event in Los Angeles and is being hailed as the brightest U.S. tennis hope since Andy Roddick.
"Among junior boys I'd say five of our top 10 prospects are black, and it's probably seven or eight of the top 20," says Rodney Harmon, director of men's tennis and former director of multicultural development for the USTA. "What's really exciting is that they are spread out between 14 and 18 years old."
And it's not just the boys. Jamea Jackson, a 17year-old Floridian, is the top-ranked American junior on the WTA Tour, at No. 198, and received a wild card into the main draw of the U.S. Open (where she was slated to face veteran pro Cara Black of Zimbabwe). What's more, three of the top five players in the 2004 NCAA women's rankings are black: Alexis Gordon of Florida (No. 2), Raquel Kops-Jones of Cal (No. 3) and Megan Bradley of Miami (No. 5).
What accounts for this tectonic shift? Under current president Alan Schwartz the USTA has made "multicultural participation" a top priority and has helped players of modest means--such as Jenkins, the son of a freelance television producer and a hairdresser--pay coaching and travel bills, which can exceed $25,000 a year. On the other hand, the growing African-American middle class has both the means to play tennis and access to top facilities. Many African-American prodigies, including Bradley, whose father, Phil, played for the Seattle Mariners, burnish their games at private clubs.
"That's another reason to be encouraged," says Harmon, a former top 50 pro and himself an African-American. "These kids all come from different backgrounds, and they got to this point in different ways."
However they got there, it's impossible to discount the effect of the Williams sisters, who have smashed stereotypes about tennis as if they were so many low-flying lobs. "I think every African-American has been inspired by them," says Jenkins, who turned pro last April. "We all grew up seeing how well they did, and we wanted to be like them."
The Williamses also gave tennis at least a patina of street cred. Growing up outside Atlanta, Jenkins played basketball and soccer. He took up tennis at age seven, following his parents to their rec league matches, but he hid this from his friends. Eventually his talent became apparent, and he gave up other sports to focus on tennis. By then the Williams sisters had pierced the public consciousness, and Jenkins says, "I didn't have to sell my friends on anything."
In the past quarter century no African-American has cracked the ATP's top 10. It remains to be seen whether any of the new black prospects, for all their success in the juniors, can make a deep imprint on the pro circuit.
"I'm excited to go out and see how I match up," says Jenkins, who got a wild card into the U.S. Open and was matched up with Roddick in the first round. After that, Jenkins will compete in low-level events throughout the fall to boost his ranking. "Everything has been put in place," he says. "It's just up to me to win matches."