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Posted on Sun, May. 25, 2003

Serena should sway French
By Tim Kawakami
Mercury News Staff Columnist

Six picks and assorted bric-a-brac and blurbs for the new sports week and beyond:

1. TENNIS CAN BRING ALMOST EVERYONE TOGETHER, young and Andre Agassi, muscled and Gustavo Kuerten, spoiled and bratty, rich and pampered . . .

But can Serena Williams and her so very American, unapologetically kick-rear-end persona win over those mysterious, finicky fans of the French Open? Does it matter?

Well, for the purposes of this item, I'm going to argue that Williams' matches in Paris -- the tournament begins Monday -- will be the highest-octane American presence in France since that diplomatic squabble a few months back.

As always, I can mush any geopolitical issue into a narrow sports debate: Will Roland Garros embrace Williams, whose dominant run of four consecutive Grand Slam titles began at last year's French Open, in the wake of U.S.-French contretemps?

French hackles were raised -- and you know how painful that can be -- a few months ago when Williams, in a joke French accent perhaps learned from Homer Simpson, ridiculed France's opposition to the war in Iraq.

If the Parisians boo, Williams, 21, has been through it before: She faced a hostile, allegedly cursing crowd in the Indian Wells final in 2001 a day after her sister Venus pulled out of the scheduled Venus-Serena semifinal match.

Serena beat Kim Clijsters in the match and has silently sworn off Indian Wells ever since, to that event's monumental dismay.

Let's face it, unless you go kooky for Felix Mantilla or Justine Henin-Hardenne or monitoring Pete Sampras' 401 (k) strategy, Serena is the only big thing going on in tennis these days.

She is tennis. Until she decides to pull an Annika Sorenstam and take on the men, blasting the other ladies is all we've got.

Serena being unpopular at a major is like Tiger Woods being unpopular at a major: Unthinkable, but devastating for the sport, if it's reality.

Which is why she will win the French. And it's why she'll win over the French fans, too, unless she rips Jerry Lewis or decides to enter the stadium for the final via F-14 fly-by.

Because everybody loves a winner, especially Americans, and even the French.

2. APPARENTLY, THERE IS SOMETHING CALLED THE TENNIS CHANNEL. Apparently, it is launching a show featuring big stars at home, at play, in a relaxed mode, and it will debut with a look at Sampras today.

``Apparently'' is the operative word here, because I'm not sure if the Tennis Channel really exists, except in some publicists' minds, because I can't get it on my cable system, or my DirecTV, or by tuning my fillings in to the AM frequencies.

Also: The Tennis Channel . . . why? To fill that great void in Bud Collins' life? Because, darn it, the Davis Cup relegation rounds have been ignored for far too long?

Sampras, the almost-retired champion, behind the scenes? Doesn't your feature subject need to have action scenes in order to go behind them?
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