At the height of her game, Venus tops them all

Jul 10, 2007 8:14 AM

I’m sorry. Would you repeat that, please?

The story in the Sacramento Bee began, "Glamorous Anna Kournikova, still arguably the most famous female athlete in the world four years after retiring from regular competition ”¦"

That’s how the Bee’s assistant sports editor Paul Bauman sees her, and Paul is a lot closer to Anna than I am, since she shows up regularly in Sacramento to play for the Capitals of World Team Tennis. Regardless, I’ll take him up on the "arguably" point.

Anna may be the most glamorous, as hype and publicity and PR are concerned, but the world is a big place, and it takes a big woman to be the "most famous female athlete" in it. Anna Kournikova, while grabbing headlines and hullaballoo, never won a major singles tennis championship in her career.

How about a vote for Venus Williams, big in size at 6 feet 1, big in indominable spirit, big in talent, and known wherever women (and men) play tennis, which pretty much covers the globe.

She owned the title of "most famous female athlete" before last Saturday, when she won Wimbledon for the fourth time. Before that, she lost the gold twice to her younger sister Serena. And game and curvy Marion Bartoli, whom she defeated last Saturday, was totally correct when she called Venus "number one in the world on grass."

I was rooting hard for Venus last week and before that, because I learned from a lifetime around horses, fillies and colts, that heart and determination, not hype and hysteria, are what makes champions.

Venus went to Wimbledon last week ranked 23rd in the world but not in her mind, nor in the minds of most of the others ranked before her, or of the British bookies, who ignored the arcane rating system of women’s tennis. It is an absurdity that after Wimbledon Williams is now rated 17th in the world and Bartoli, whom she destroyed with her 120-mile-an-hour service blasts, is rated 11th.

Venus Williams now rests her damaged left leg in lofty company. Only three other women tennis players — Martina Navratilova, Steffi Graf and Billie Jean King — have won four or more times at Wimbledon. Navratilova leads that parade of greatness with nine wins, Graf won seven times, and King, the woman who made the modern era the world stage it now is for women tennis players, won six times at Wimbledon.

Venus Williams saluted Billie Jean King, verbally and physically, last Saturday, saying correctly that Billie Jean was the one "who made this possible."

But Venus resembles King in more ways than greatness. She is a leader, as King always has been, and it was her efforts and prodding and goading that led Wimbledon and tennis Grand Slam officials to make the women’s payoff the same as men’s this year: $1.4 million.

This did not placate the stormy petrel of the family, Richard Williams. He was convinced 20 years or so ago that he could develop his two athletic daughters into the best women tennis players in the world.

He always has been touchy about race, and winning Wimbledon for the fourth time did not appease him.

Reporters reminded him that it was just 50 years ago that Althea Gibson became the first black tennis player to win at Wimbledon, and asked him if there was special significance for him or for Venus in last week’s accomplishment on the anniversary of Ms. Gibson’s trailblazing victory.

If they expected a progress report, they did not get it.

"Blacks are treated the same way as when she came along," he said.

There is significance, of course. Venus Williams, and her sister Serena, are doing for women’s tennis exactly what Tiger Woods has done, and is doing, for golf.

They are inspiring a whole host of youngsters — black and otherwise — to play the game, and they are teaching them not only how to play it but how to play the game of life with it.

They have been up — as high up as it is possible to go in their game — and they have been down, and they have handled both with poise and pride that is inspiring in a world of sport where examples of those qualities have in large measure been replaced by despicable conduct, boorishness, and violence.

The most famous female athlete in the world? We’ll give you Anna Kournikova and three superstar fashion models. We’ll take Venus Williams.