Williams sisters are expanding the racket set

On the last day of his summer vacation, Anthony Golodner sweeps up the glistening shards of glass from the tennis courts where he has played for years. It's a common routine, since loiterers like to throw bottles over the fence at night.

Anthony's a seventh-grader from Manhattan, but he comes to these courts in the Bronx to learn tennis with dozens of other students who are as passionate about tennis as some of their inner-city peers are about basketball.

"I love hitting the ball hard," Anthony says. Indeed, when he takes to the court, he pops his topspin forehand with a wince and a grunt.

Across the country, hundreds of thousands of inner-city youths are taking up a sport once known more for its V-neck sweaters and country club cachet than its place alongside net-less hoops in urban concrete yards. Though much of this is due to a decades-long effort to bring tennis to places like Compton and the Bronx, the recent rise of Venus and Serena Williams to the top of the sport's rankings has also given many minority children models to emulate.

"I watch Venus play every time she's on TV," says Daisy Rivera, a 10th-grader who lives in one of the housing projects that tower over the glass-strewn courts. "I love the way she hits her forehand, and the way she serves."

On the court next to Anthony, Daisy scampers about, wielding a two-fisted backhand. Both Anthony and Daisy have participated for years in the New York Junior Tennis League (NYJTL), a nonprofit organization that is part of nationwide network of inner-city tennis associations.

The league has brought the game to more than 170,000 students in the city, and many organizers credit the Williams sisters with their ever-growing rosters.

"Their presence has made a big difference," says Bob Bynum, a tennis pro who directs the New Jersey chapter of the National Junior Tennis League (NJTL). "Kids in the city are now much more eager to play. Before, we went to the kids to get them to come out, but now we have both parents and the kids coming to us, asking for lessons."

More than 250,000 new players came on board in 1999, 25 percent of them African-American, according to the United States Tennis Association. And there's been a 20 percent to 25 percent increase in the number of African-Americans ranked nationally among the top 50 of their age group.

Tennis officials aren't sure how much of that is due to the Williamses' dynamic blend of power, enthusiasm, and flashy fashion sense.

"It's difficult to measure how much they're bringing new faces to the sport," says Rick Ferman, executive director of the USTA.

"But they bring excellence to the game not only with the way they play, but with how they handle themselves on and off the court," Mr. Ferman adds. "There's a sense of joy - they draw you into the fun they're having - and their laughter, fun, excitement it's contagious."

Despite the current influence of the Williams sisters, many are quick to point out that tennis in the inner city had been growing for years before Serena and Venus burst onto the scene with their beaded hair and mighty forehands. And they were not the first great US tennis players who happened to be from a minority community.

Althea Gibson was the first black athlete, male or female, to be allowed to play in United States Lawn Tennis Association tournaments, beginning in 1950. She won nearly 100 professional titles during the course of her career and took home five Grand Slam crowns, including the US Open and Wimbledon.

It was Arthur Ashe, the first black man to win Wimbledon, and his former college roommate - Charlie Pasarell, a top-ranked player and a native of Puerto Rico - who wanted to put rackets in the hands of inner-city children.

Along with others, they founded the National Junior Tennis League in 1969. But Ashe and Pasarell both envisioned the organization as more than a way to expand the demographic base of the sport. During an era of racial tumult and social unrest, the two men hoped their tennis organization could bring character development and educational opportunities.

Former Mayor David Dinkins, an avid tennis player and member of the NYJTL's board of directors, becomes animated when he talks about the benefits of the sport. "We believe tennis ... can be a useful social development tool," he says.

"Some of the youngsters might become world-class players, but what's more important to me are the millions that can stay out of trouble and even get some of the educational benefits that the [NYJTL] offers."

Even so, for Daisy, Venus Williams has been the sport's biggest draw. "I started liking tennis when she first started playing in the US Open," she says.

"She just has all this confidence. Like she said yesterday, even if I have a bad day, they're going to have to take 2-1/2 hours to beat me - I like that."

Serena is Anthony's favorite. "I love that Serena won [last year's US Open].... She's so young, she worked so hard," says Anthony. He finds the Williamses' success in a traditionally upper-class sport particularly sweet.

"Other players have gone through hard problems, I guess," says Anthony, of the Williams sisters' Compton upbringing. "But not like them."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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