Two Wondrous Wimbledon finals fuel wider tennis interest

Tennis fans – no, make that sports fans – throughout the world were treated to two remarkable Wimbledon finals over the fourth of July weekend.

Sustained brilliance is something rarely seen in a five-set match, but that’s what champion Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer delivered Sunday in the Wimbledon men’s final. I’ve never seen anything better in more than 35 years as a sports journalist, and I didn’t see the final set because we (my wife and I) had to leave home. We left the house after the fourth set, with me muttering, “I wish I had gone to Wimbledon as planned”.

Three-time Wimbledon champion and NBC analyst John McEnroe, who tangled with Bjorn Borg in several spectacular duels called it the “The best match I’ve ever seen.” Tennis historian Bud Collins dubbed it “No. 1,” of his career. Indeed, the artistry is worthy of display and preservation at the Louvre and the other major museums, not just the International Tennis Hall of Fame.

Nadal prevailed 6-4, 6-4, 6-7 (5), 6-7 (8), 9-7 in a four hour, 48-minute thriller, the longest match in Wimbledon history. The 22-year-old Spaniard, a four-time French Open champion, became the first male since Borg (1980) to win the French Open and Wimbledon in the same year. Finally, the men’s game has a rivalry that’s sure to appeal to sports fans everywhere. Will they recreate the magic by meeting in the final of the U.S. Open, which begins Aug. 25 in New York?

The Venus vs. Serena Williams women’s final held Saturday lagged behind the men in quality and drama, but the re-emergence of the African American sisters as the dynamic duo of the women’s game is in itself an extraordinary achievement. In the early 2000s, no other siblings in pro sports history dominated a professional sport the way they did. They met in four consecutive Grand Slam finals, with little sis Serena defeating big sis Venus each time.

It didn’t surprise me that their father, Richard, the person most responsible for their success then and their much-ballyhooed return to the top, saw no reason to hang around to watch the show. His job of getting them there had been done. Venus captured her fifth Wimbledon title, defeating little sis Serena, 6-4, 7-5 in the final. Venus, 28, now has seven Grand Slam titles; Serena, 26, has eight.

I began tracking the sisters’ development when Venus was 11 and Serena 9. It was clear to me then, as it is now, that Richard Williams, not the U.S. Tennis Association or any tennis academy where they trained, was the primary force behind their success. He prepared his daughters to face all obstacles, including racism, and made sure that they maintained the highest levels of self-confidence and inner-pride needed to trump any doubts that they might experience in an environment that he knew wouldn’t always been friendly, understanding or helpful.

Richard Williams made sure that his daughters would not be surprised by the double standards he knew awaited them. Today, white America continues to be oblivious to the institutional racially biased barriers that blacks must routinely circumvent. For example, the public didn’t make patriotism an issue for Sen. Hillary Clinton or Sen. John McCain; neither wears flag pins. Why force Sen. Barack Obama to feel obliged to sport one in his lapel? Indeed, how does loyalty become an issue for anyone serving his or her country as an U. S. Senator?

As USA Today’s tennis writer during the rise of the Williams sisters, I was often troubled by several of my colleagues’ inability to acknowledge the father’s role in developing – not just two of the tour’s greatest players, but two bright, courteous and respectful young women who any father should be proud to have.

Here’s another reason why I admire and respect Richard Williams: Once his daughters became adults, he made the break that parents should make at that time. Having guided them to millionaire and superstar status, he looked forward to chasing his own dreams. Their careers faltered in his absence and the sisters knew why. Months ago, they asked their dad not just to be there coach again, but to travel abroad with them, to provide the support, discipline, and motivation that propelled them to the top several years ago. Like any father who yearns to see only good and better days for his children, Richard Williams set aside his own plans and responded to their needs. They’re now focused on doing it again at the U.S. Open in September – i.e. sisters shaking hands at the net after match point of a Grand Slam final.

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