2 Sports Changing for Posterity
By WILLIAM C. RHODEN
In four days, Tiger Woods goes to the British Open in his pursuit of posterity. At 26, he is attempting to become the first player in the history of golf to win all four professional majors in one year.
This month, Venus and Serena Williams played each other at Wimbledon, the third time they have faced each other in a major final. Venus defeated Serena to win the 2001 United States Open; Serena defeated her older sister to win the French Open and Wimbledon this year.
Last month, they became the first sisters in tennis history to be ranked 1-2 in the world.
Woods won the Masters in April, then was never seriously threatened in a meticulous United States Open performance that left his closest competitors intimidated. Some, perhaps permanently.
These are phenomenal developments in a pair of sports where change is rare and slow. The rapid movement of time, along with the way times and events fly through our lives, has prevented us from completely appreciating the magnitude of what Venus, Serena and Tiger have accomplished.
One thing we can comprehend is the stunning juxtaposition of race and privilege. In one case, two sisters from the inner city of Compton, Calif., go the independent route and rise to make a shambles of the competition. In the other, a young man whose father is African-American and whose mother is Thai takes the golf world by storm.
The term we hear a lot and use a lot is "raising the bar." Tiger and the Williams sisters have raised the bar in their sports.
Exactly what do we mean by raising the bar?
In this case it means elevating the status of athleticism in two sports where physical prowess has been devalued and undersold. No more. After two years of watching Venus and Serena cover ground and return previously unreturnable shots, anyone who aspires to play at a championship level had better have a package of athleticism. And if they don't, they had better get it.
Using physical strength to supplement acquired knowledge of the game is the essence of sports. Tennis and golf players should spend less time fretting and more time in the weight room and more time in accelerated conditioning.
The Williams sisters are only getting better. They are gobbling up the nuances of a complex game and moving toward mastery. What they need — what the sport needs — is a rival for them, and one will emerge. Venus and Serena will eventually be beaten by young girls who may be even bigger and stronger, who grew up watching them play each other. And the sport will be better for it. Tiger Woods will eventually meet his Jack Nicklaus — a player unintimidated by his power, his range and his relentless commitment to winning.
There has been a lot of talk about a minority explosion in golf and tennis because of Tiger and the Williams sisters. Will there be added interest? Of course. There already is. I'm not so sure, however, about inundation.
The country-club world of unabashed wealth and privilege may not readily welcome, or value, would-be Venuses and Serenas and Tigers. This remains a significant psychological hurdle for minority athletes to clear. The Williams sisters and Woods cleared the hurdle because they had parents as determined to beat the system as the system was to resist them.
Earl Woods had established from the time Tiger was 5 that golf would be Tiger's calling. Venus and Serena were each other's safety net and security blanket. Zina Garrison, who reached the 1990 Wimbledon final, traveled alone. Althea Gibson, who won Wimbledon in 1957 and 1958, traveled alone. Arthur Ashe traveled alone.
How many Venuses and Serenas will have the support system to go from the inner city to Wimbledon? I suspect that the next Venus or Serena may well come from a background where the county club is a normal part of her lifestyle.
The sisters are embarking on a whole new world outside the parental embrace. A world of independence. This may be more challenging than facing each other.
In the past the enemy — the resentment, fear and jealousy — provided the fire, and mom and dad were the firewall. Richard was out front with the crazy-like-a-fox diatribe. Now their mother, Oracene, wants her daughters to use their popularity to spread the word of tennis to Africa.
The racial part of the story is compelling because race-based exclusion is such an integral part of our nation's past and present. In fact, Venus, Serena and Tiger represent a tremendous story about family — about parents and children. What parent wouldn't be proud of two daughters taking turns winning championships and winning with grace? Who wouldn't be proud to raise daughters who apparently love each other so much they would rather not play each other and who resist a clamoring throng that wants them to go for each other's jugular? That's not how they were raised.
Who wouldn't be proud of a son who, with grace and charm, shattered the model of a country club sport? Tiger Woods said his mission is to go down as the greatest golfer in the history of the sport. With victories at the British Open and at the P.G.A. Championship next month, Woods will have taken a step toward immortality. Posterity is a long way off.
Let's enjoy this moment in time. We get caught up in comparisons and criticism and fail to grasp the fact that we are seeing two sports evolve before our eyes. The future will take care of itself. This is an incredible time to be a fan of golf and tennis, and we had better enjoy it while we can.