Sisters' influence in full effect

Taylor Townsend remembers watching Venus Williams play her younger sister, Serena, from her television set. Townsend was little, just beginning to play herself, but she noticed the drama of the points, the outfits they wore. With a shoot-for-the-moon confidence that a young child can have, Townsend told her uncle she was going to be better than the Williams sisters.

If Townsend had been born a decade earlier instead of in 1996, she would have had more difficulty finding two women she could identify with quite so strongly. When she watched them play, she saw women who looked like her and who she wanted to emulate.

"It is a legacy," Townsend said. "They paved the way for a lot of female athletes in general and broke down barriers for African-American athletes."

By 2012, Townsend was the top-ranked junior girl in the world; now, at age 17, she's about to embark on her first full year on the WTA Tour.

Venus and Serena may have had no idea they were having such an effect on girls like Townsend. By the time Townsend picked up a racket, she didn't care about the weeds springing up through the baseline cracks of her public courts in Chicago. She just wanted to play.

So did Sachia Vickery and Victoria Duval, two other young African-American women among the top American juniors on the rise who have pointed to the Williams sisters as inspirations.

"The lesson of the Williams sisters: anything is possible," Townsend's mother, Sheila, said. "It's not unattainable just because of your social or economic background or where you grew up. These things don't have to hold you back."

In the 16 years since a 17-year-old Venus reached her first U.S. Open final in 1997, the demographics of the top American juniors have changed.

"It's beginning to look a lot more like America," said former pro player and current ESPN analyst Patrick McEnroe, who also works as the USTA's general manager of player development.

It's an interesting moment in the women's game. Serena Williams and Sloane Stephens are ranked within the top 20 heading into the Australian Open, which begins Monday. With so many other talented women in the mix (Jamie Hampton and Madison Keys, to name a few), it's like the orchestra is starting to tune up on the opening night of the next great era of American women's tennis.

"There's no question that the Williams sisters have had a profound effect on bringing women into the game, especially African-American women," USTA executive director Gordon Smith said.

Not only are more women of color playing tennis at an elite level, but there also are women from a wider variety of backgrounds playing. There are daughters of immigrants and daughters of privilege -- all with the same opportunities to play.

And the USTA has been a conduit for this new crop of players. Last summer, the organization released a brochure to introduce the next generation to the public. If you looked at the cover's collage of headshots, you'd notice quickly that the faces of American women's tennis have changed in the nearly two decades since the Williams sisters started playing. And it's not just at the top of the rankings; participation rates of minority players continued to rise in 2012, according to USTA data.

There are tremendous stories here. Christina McHale learned to speak fluent Spanish from her mother, who is from Cuba, and lived in Asia as a child. Duval is the daughter of a Haitian doctor, who returned to the country after the 2010 earthquake to help the injured and was nearly killed when a building collapsed.

"It goes way beyond black and white, I think," said Nefertiti A. Walker, an assistant professor at UMass' Isenberg School of Management. "It goes to socio-economic status. They came from humble beginnings, with lessons from their father because they couldn't afford private lessons."

Role models are one thing, but Walker points out that you also need access to a sport to create a truly level playing field. She remembers that tennis became part of the physical education curriculum at her own neighborhood school in Atlanta after the Williams sisters reached prominence.

"Definitely the powers that be saw that this was an opportunity for them," Walker said.

That outreach continues, as the USTA puts money into grassroots programs held at public courts, or provides money for rent time on indoor courts across the country.

"We're working very hard to increase the opportunities and to succeed we've got to get more young kids into the game," Smith said. "Our Manhattan Project is growing the participation of young kids before they turn to baseball and other sports."

Venus has influenced those plans as she has become more active in the politics of tennis.

"Venus has been a great ambassador for the game," Smith said. "She's worked for us on several appearances. She's consulted with us so we understand better how to find talent, how to develop talent."

The Williams sisters may motivate some of the kids (and just as likely their parents) to pick up a racket and play, but USTA also has evolved, coming up with new ways to keep the newcomers engaged.

Loretta Van Raalte heads the Mount Vernon, N.Y.-based Jerry Alleyne Memorial Foundation, which has a 6:30 a.m. court on Sunday mornings at New Rochelle Racquet Club, where 56 young kids from a variety of backgrounds come out to learn the game. She said that even though the kids know the Williams sisters, it's the parents who come to the lessons with books about the sisters tucked under their arms.

"They know who [the Williams sisters] are and, in some ways, they try to emulate them," Van Raalte said.

Usually, that means trying to whack the heck out of a tennis ball. But Van Raalte emphasizes the work ethic the Williams sisters have -- Venus playing through Sjogren's syndrome, and Serena playing better as she gets older. That's a good message, but the game is more fun for kids because of some recent adjustments in the way it's taught. (Rackets and balls have been reworked to slow the game down, and there is a $100 set that turns a 78-foot court into a 60-foot one. It's the tennis equivalent of being able to see over the steering wheel.)

The Williams sisters, along with their peers, took endorsement deals, landing on Forbes' list of the top-earning athletes for many years. McEnroe said they made the sport appealing because they showed it could be a lucrative career, more so than many other women's professional sports.

"For women in general, tennis is a sport where they can get into it and have a real profession," McEnroe said. "In male sports, there are more opportunities [beyond tennis] for young boys."

It's a generation Venus and Serena have inspired, but they are still playing. The 31-year-old Serena is the No. 1 player in the world, while Venus is still competitive despite health issues. Townsend hopes some day soon she can play against one of them.