By:Mike Lupica:|Daily News
WIMBLEDON — It becomes important in the late innings, especially in the late innings, to step back and fully appreciate what a great American sports story, and great American story, Venus and Serena Williams, out of Compton, Cal., have been. No one knows how long Wimbledon will last, for either of them. The older sister, Venus, is 38. Serena will be 37 in September. But for now, they are still here, both getting ready to play third-round matches on Friday.
Before them at Wimbledon, there had been two other African-American champions. The great Althea Gibson won twice in the late 1950s. Arthur Ashe beat Jimmy Connors here in 1975. Then came the Williams sisters, off the courts on Compton Boulevard in their childhood, the courts at Tragniew Park on the west side of town and East Rancho Dominguez Park, in a city where their sister Yetunde would later become a victim to gun violence. Then came the Williams sisters to Wimbledon, famous tennis place that still famously dresses all in white, to win a dozen singles titles between them and six more in doubles.
Serena won her seventh Wimbledon in 2016, the last time she played here because last year she was pregnant with her first child, a daughter, who was born in September. In her absence her older sister made it to another Wimbledon final before losing to Garbine Muguruza in what was a tremendous final for a set, before Venus Williams faded badly at the end.
On Wednesday Venus played the first match on Court No. 1 against Alexandra Dulgheru, starting slowly, moving in slow motion in the early going, before finding her forehand and her form and only losing a single game the last two sets. Later Serena played the third match on Centre Court, easily beating Viktoriya Tomova. Each, in their own way, announced that they were back.
Once two American brothers, Peyton and Eli Manning, quarterbacked their football teams to back-to-back Super Bowls, each of them being voted MVP of those games. So nothing like that will likely ever happen again in their sport. Even that does not compare with what the Williams sisters have done in theirs, from their beginnings in Compton, where they were taught on public courts all over their city by their father Richard before the family moved to Florida. They have made the face of women’s tennis, for more than the past two decades, their faces, and continue to do that, even in an America where race is now as much the third rail as it has ever been, and diversity in our country, part of the foundation of who we are, is now viewed by slow thinkers and small minds.
After her match on Wednesday Venus was asked a question about her legacy.
“I haven’t thought about the pride level,” she said. “I think it’s just about being able to be a part of something bigger than yourself. ”
She has won five Wimbledon singles titles of her own. The only American-born women to ever win more than that were Helen Wills Moody, out of Fremont, Cal., who won eight in the 1920s and 30s and Billie Jean King, out of Long Beach, who won six. Of course Serena Williams, out of Compton like her sister, is seven looking for eight at the 2018 Wimbledon. Venus and Serena did not change the way tennis looked here. They changed the way it looks everywhere. Really they changed everything.
There were so many other American champions who were not country club kids, like Arthur and Billie Jean, who were born the same year, like Jimmy Connors, who came out of Belleville, Ill., and from the wrong side of the tennis tracks. But the Williams sisters came to this from Compton.
“It’s wonderful to see women rise,” Venus Williams said on the 4th of July at Wimbledon.
And later, when Serena was asked about her own extraordinary excellence, now looking for her 24th major singles title exactly 20 years after her first at the 1998 United States Open, she said this:
“I always want to continue to go forward. I don’t like to be satisfied with a great result. I want to continue and do more. For me, that’s just who I am.”
Serena was moving well on Wednesday, swinging away on the ground on both sides, showing you enough flashes of her old power on the serve not so terribly long after having to pull out of the French Open because of a pectoral injury. She could go all the way and win her eighth here, or lose to anybody before that. We will know a lot more about her form if she can make it to the second week. Her sister? Even at the age of 38, she can still give you a couple of sets the way she did on Wednesday, turning defense into offense as well as any woman who has ever played her game.
Venus and Serena. We are so used to them by now, they have been with us so long, it is too easy to lose sight of what they have done, the way they have done it, and from where. And what it has meant. We will never see anything like this, or them, ever again. We are still rightfully swept away by guys, by what Tiger Woods did in golf, and what LeBron keeps doing in basketball. Their journeys were something as well. Just not better, nor more important, than the journey that began for the Williams sister in Compton, Cal. Venus spoke of women rising. She and her sister ought to know.