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(Trail)blaze of glory for Venus

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© St. Petersburg Times, published July 9, 2000

WIMBLEDON, England -- Golf has Tiger Woods, history's most lopsided winner of the Masters and U.S. Open; now tennis doubles up with Venus and Serena Williams.

A heroic, socially powerful 21st century revolution of talent with color embraces two sports where erstwhile dominators almost exclusively had been white.

As the overpowering Woods sharpened weapons to take on his game's Scottish cradle at St. Andrews, eager to become the British Open's first black champion, on Saturday big Williams sister Venus emerged as Wimbledon's new monarch, backing up Serena's conquest last summer at the U.S. Open.

"We're racking them up now," said the 20-year-old Venus. "All of us Williamses are so aware of the special support black people give us, two African-American girls who've just won the world's two biggest tennis championships. Serena and I are getting feelings that Tiger knows well.

"Trailblazing is huge."

Williams beat defending champ Lindsay Davenport, becoming the only black woman to reign at Wimbledon since Althea Gibson (1957-58). "Several times during the tournament, I thought about Althea, for whom it must've been so difficult," Venus said. "I also thought of Arthur Ashe, the lone black man to win Wimbledon (1975) and Zina Garrison, who inspired me at age 10 when she made the 1990 women's final (losing to Martina Navratilova)."

Venus never has met Gibson, now 72 and infirmed in New Jersey, but they once conversed by phone. "I was star-struck, almost unable to say anything," Williams said. "It was like talking with history. Althea was watching on TV when Serena won the Open and I hope she felt well enough to see me at Wimbledon."

Venus said she felt a need to be a role model, "first for Serena and the (three) other Williams daughters. Also, on behalf of tennis, we all need to do more to expose people of all backgrounds to our sport.

"There has been progress, but unquestionably there is a lot of work left. It's been just over 40 years since Althea so wonderfully broke the Wimbledon color line, but really how much has changed after so many centuries of bias?"

How long has the Venus Williams clue been engraved at Wimbledon? For generations, women champions received a silver salver, an enormous and highly recognizable plate hoisted so often by Navratilova, Graf, King and Evert, and forever the prize has been quietly but officially identified as the "Venus Rosewater Dish."

Saturday, beneath typically gray British clouds, Venus Williams lifted the great platter to record altitudes, the 6-foot-1 American repeatedly leaping to celebrate on a Centre Court so globally famous and identifiable.

When the 6-3, 7-6 bouncing of Davenport was done, Williams jumped like a delirious frog, five two-footed bounds around the legendary grass before heading to the net for a handshake with Lindsay.

Soon, Venus would emulate 1987 men's champ Pat Cash, flying into the stands to share the victorious moment with loved ones, hugging the 18-year-old Serena and their nontraditional coach/guru, father Richard Williams.

"Serena was about to break emotionally," Venus said. "She knows how much I wanted this and how I had to beat the best to get my Wimbledon, knocking off No. 1 (Martina Hingis), No. 2 (Davenport) and a No. 8 that was the toughest challenge of all (baby sister Serena)."

During the match, the unpredictable Richard kept hoisting hand-scribbled signs. Warm, harmless stuff like "British Fans Are Best in the World" and a message to the family matriarch, Oracene, who was watching on TV in Florida: "Mrs. Williams I Love You and Miss You."

Still, like so many of King Richard's moves, there was controversy. "It's not right, allowing the kin of a player to hoist signs," said nine-time Wimbledon champion Navratilova, who was commenting for BBC television. "Such messages could get to be strong and players can easily see them."

I agree.

Venus shrugged when hearing of the mini furor. "Everybody has the right to their opinion," said the tournament's new queen. "I frankly couldn't see what Dad was writing. My long vision isn't the best."

Williams, the father, has hammered confidence into the tennis daughters since their courtly beginnings. "Venus was 4 years, 6 months and 1 day old when I first put a racket in her hands," he said.

"Before long, Serena was playing too. Oracene didn't want to have any more children after four daughters, but I hid her birth-control pills and the result was Serena. Good move, huh?"

Richard's preachings are evident. Said Venus:, "I see lots of Grand Slam trophies in my future, and when I don't win I'm expecting Serena to do it."

Both sisters made a hunch purchase back home in Florida before Wimbledon. "I was bummed by my bad French Open and all the wrist injuries that had held me back," Venus said, "I went to the mall and found a gorgeous gown for the Wimbledon ball.

"I know that only the champions get to go, but I felt confident. Daddy insists that we never be negative." Saturday's finalists grew up 15 miles apart, but really it was California light years from Davenport's ocean-side, BMW-dotted Palos Verdes to where Williams was raised on impoverished, crack-ridden streets of Compton. In the early '90s, they relocated to Palm Beach Gardens.

"If everybody in tennis was as fair and gracious as Lindsay, it would be an even smoother ride," Richard said. "Goes to prove that children from far different backgrounds can have much in common and also mutual respect."

It wasn't quite up to Martin Luther King Jr. standards, but Venus Williams would say, "I had a dream. I would be dancing around, celebrating a championship in my sleep, then I would wake up and realize it was a nightmare. But now it's for real. Pinch me. I won't wake up and it'll all be gone.

"It's great for many people."

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