Williams' calling couldn't come at a better time

In a manner pleasing to Lincoln-Kennedy assassination conspiracy buffs, Martina Hingis and Venus Williams have been linked since conception.

Consider these past seven days yet another continuation of their parallel journey. Each 27-year-old former world No. 1 was the star of a major press conference that had strong implications for each player's legacy. But each press conference had little to do with either's on-court presence.

Last week saw Hingis announce her retirement under a cloud of accusation, the result of her allegedly having tested positive for cocaine during a drug test she took at Wimbledon.

On Wednesday, Williams, the woman Hingis beat 10 years ago in the 1997 U.S. Open final, appeared at a press conference in Madrid to discuss her hands-on involvement in a joint effort between the WTA Tour and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization to pursue gender equality.

"Creating opportunities for women and girls to succeed and lead requires programs that will touch the lives of real people," Williams said in a news release. This program was originally announced a year ago. Wednesday's announcement was intended to share its progress, including a WTA Tour/UNESCO Fund for women and leadership which has already raised $350,000.

Along with fellow tour players Tatiana Golovin of France and Zheng Jie of China, Williams intends to become very involved in an effort to raise awareness of gender equality issues all over the world. In Liberia, for example, the project will create a new women-only night school program for 1,000 girls. In China, the focus is on raising the percentage of rural women involved in local affairs. In the Dominican Republic, 80 young women between the ages of 18-28 will receive training in participative leadership in civil rights and political organizations.

"It's a way for us to change lives, to carry on Billie Jean King's original mission to pursue equality," WTA Tour president Stacey Allaster said. "Our players want to get in on this, and do lots of work.

"Tatiana has been asking me constantly when she can get out there and start working. We know tennis players are great role models, inspirational figures for many women around the world. But they want to be more than figureheads -- they want to speak, be part of seminars, come in contact with these young women."

It was Williams' personal sense of outrage that triggered the WTA Tour's engagement with UNESCO. In sports like pro football, there's a leadership cadre in place that has created such civic-oriented public relations efforts as the NFL's longstanding relationship with the United Way. In tennis, it's the players -- not the suits -- who have the most leverage. For example, as much as the WTA Tour wants its Tier I event in Indian Wells, Calif., to boast a deep player field, Venus and younger sister Serena have refused to play it since 2001, when Serena was booed two days after Venus withdrew from a sister-versus-sister semifinal match. No matter how hard WTA Tour CEO Larry Scott tries to create various incentives and penalties, he is forced by their star power to tolerate the sisters' boycott.

So it was that Venus had her social consciousness raised while attending, of all events, the ESPY Awards -- precisely the kind of glitter-strewn function that's led many to question her fidelity to tennis. Professor Antonio Davila and Aarthi Rajaraman of Spain's IESE University Business School wrote in their case study on the joint effort that Williams was moved by the Arthur Ashe Award for Courage given to two Afghan females who started a soccer program in a post-Taliban Kabul. It was then Williams thought it was this type of program women's players could get involved in to make a difference.

It's fitting that Hingis and Williams are in the news within days of one another. After all, their plot lines were predetermined right down to the year. In September 1980 an accomplished Czech tennis player, Melanie Molitor, named her daughter in honor of Martina Navratilova -- with hopes that she too would reach the big time.

Three months earlier, in the Los Angeles suburb of Lynwood, Richard Williams saw his wife, Oracene, give birth to his own racket-toting dream: Venus.

"No question," Richard once said, "I wanted a daughter who would be a tennis champion."

Hingis and Venus Williams each turned pro at the age of 14 within a week of one another. Though Hingis rocketed forward most quickly -- snapping up five Grand Slam singles titles before Venus earned one -- it's Venus who's soared ahead, winning her sixth Slam singles crown this past summer at Wimbledon.

This isn't the first time a WTA Tour star has attached herself to a United Nations effort. Back in the '90s, the World Health Organization, the UN's public health arm, recognized that tennis was a great way to address various issues. A goodwill ambassador from the tennis world was brought on board, kindly visiting impoverished countries.

Her name was Martina Hingis.

Joel Drucker is based in Oakland, Calif., and writes for Tennis Magazine and Tennis Channel.