Venus, Serena do it for themselves, but tennis benefits
NEW YORK (Reuters) - One look at the packed stadium awaiting Venus and Serena Williams and it was easy to believe Saturday's U.S. Open final had moved beyond sport to become a social phenomenon.
From the brigade of "A" list celebrities courtside to the ethnic diversity of the paying customers, the first Grand Slam final between African-Americans was the hottest ticket in town.
"This is exciting," said U.S. Open tournament director Jay Snyder. "Venus and Serena, they are bringing people into tennis that had not normally come to the games before.
"They have brought the non-traditional tennis fan to the U.S. Open and that is great because it spreads the word about tennis. If you look around the stadium, there are people representing all ethnic groups at all levels of the stadium, from the corporate suites to the top row."
The opinion of tennis officialdom is that the sisters, who started life in a Los Angeles inner-city community, are helping bring the sport to the masses.
Before the final, former champion Chris Evert said: "I don't think anyone really cares who wins the final. People want to see the match, they don't care about the outcome."
Evert's prediction was borne out. Fans cheered on both sisters as Venus won a second consecutive U.S. Open title with a 6-2 6-4 victory over her younger sister.
Venus is 21, and also the title-holder the past two years at Wimbledon, and Serena just 19, so it can be safely assumed the siblings will continue to win major titles and carry the game to a new level of recognition.
The Williams effect has definitely fired interest in tennis as Snyder discovered the night before the final.
"I stopped at a sports bar on my way home last night and people were talking about Venus and Serena, about the match," Snyder said. "I can assure you this is a bar where they normally talk about the Yankees."
Some question whether domination by Serena and Venus would be good for the game but they have won over most people in tennis.
American Lindsay Davenport, a fierce rival on court, has been lukewarm about the sisters in the past but is now more than willing to give the siblings due credit for popularising tennis.
"Obviously, the Williamses have had a huge impact on the women's game, just in the amount of attention that's been brought to all the players," Davenport said.
"I think the majority of the credit pretty much goes to the Williams sisters and probably (Anna) Kournikova.
"I think those three have really made the biggest difference in the amount of publicity, the amount of popularity in the sport."
The CBS ratings show the prime time women's final was a winner with the public -- an estimated 22.7 million viewers tuned in to watch at least a portion of the historic match.
It was the highest-rated women's final since 1985 when Martina Navratilova played Hana Mandlikova.
Corporate sponsorship, in particular in advertising non-sports products, has not been a big market for tennis players in the past. But the Williams's popularity has delivered a number of endorsement contracts to the sisters.
The recent five-year contract Venus signed with Reebok International for a reported $40 million is considered the largest contact in history for a professional female athlete.
The Williams' promote Wrigley's Doublemint gum and Venus is in commercials for the Avon cosmetic company. Wilson Leather Goods has also just launched the exclusive Venus Williams collection.
Evert has little doubt that Venus and Serena Williams are the future of the women's game.
But she admits to being disappointed that players who depend on strategy and mental strength, like world number one Martina Hingis, will be swept aside by the athleticism and power of the Williams sisters.
"They are great for women's tennis," said Evert. "It's not enough anymore to have mental toughness, to be crafty and to be accurate. You have to be able to overpower opponents."