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New set, 1st serve

Serena Williams tries to break into show-biz with a role on 'My Wife and Kids.'

October 30, 2002|Lisa Dillman | Times Staff Writer

Not only did Serena Williams play her way to the No. 1 ranking on the women's tennis tour, but she got there by beating her older sister Venus four times this year, including three Grand Slam tournaments.

That was the easy part. Now Williams wants to break into show biz.

Which is what brought the spotlight-seeking 21-year-old to a soundstage on the Disney Studios lot in Burbank two weeks ago. Away from center court, and trading in the straightforward one-on-one matchup of professional tennis for the collaborative, sometimes chaotic nature of network TV, she was filming a scene in ABC's comedy "My Wife and Kids."

Williams plays a kindergarten teacher on the "Crouching Mother, Hidden Father" episode airing tonight, in which she verbally spars with series co-star Tisha Campbell-Martin's character, accusing her of being too strict with children in a school play. The show's star, Damon Wayans, plays the man in the middle, trying to keep the peace.

The novice actress even showed off a bit of the improvisation skill that she developed as a tennis player. As she delivered her line, "I'm not looking for a fight," Williams did something that wasn't in the script: She started to remove her earrings and high heels.

Of course. What sane woman is going to enter a battle wearing earrings?

"It was something she threw in there," Campbell-Martin said, "[She] threw a little realism into it. I liked it. I liked working with her."

Williams will need all the breaks and all the support she can get. Athletes who try to break into show business nearly always find excelling at a sport is one thing, making it in Hollywood is something else altogether.

Sure, some make the transition, such as Los Angeles Rams defensive end Fred Dryer who went on to star in the "Hunter" TV series and movies. But for the most part the entertainment industry is littered with the dashed hopes of aspiring actors who've tried to transfer success on the playing field to the movie or TV screen. Think basketball stars Shaquille O'Neal ("Kazaam") and Michael Jordan ("Space Jam"); think swimmer Mark Spitz (as a TV announcer in the 1985 TV movie "Challenge of a Lifetime"), think football players like Jim Brown ("The Dirty Dozen") or Fred "The Hammer" Williamson ("MASH"). Better yet, don't think of them.

Still, Williams insists her interest in acting is more than a passing whim. She says she's been acting since she and her equally acclaimed sister were young girls, making noise in the tennis world, and starring in mini plays that Venus wrote.

"I've never considered tennis as my only outlet," she said. "I've always liked doing different things when I was younger. I just never really liked focusing on tennis. I do see myself as a crossover."

She has been working with a couple of acting coaches, signed with agent Jill Smoller at the William Morris Agency, which also represents Wayans, had a meeting with a network president (CBS' Les Moonves) and found a place to live part-time in Southern California, since the Williams family pulled up stakes from Compton more than a decade ago and moved to Florida.

And there's her attraction to the limelight. Consider the media frenzy she generated at the U.S. Open in September, when she showed up in a body-hugging black cat suit. At least for a moment, cameras shifted off of cover girls like Anna Kournikova.

This isn't to say tennis is being pushed away. Williams is still trying to win a final title of 2002, the season-ending WTA Championships, which starts next week at Staples Center. After that, comes the pursuit of the Grand Slam, which would be winning all four major tournaments -- the Australian Open, the French Open, Wimbledon and the U.S. Open -- in the same calendar year.

"I've had lots of opportunities. It's just that other career that I have, that other small career that's putting a hindrance on my acting," she said, smiling.

That's typical of Williams' trademark sense of humor. Call it ego with a wink.

She once came to a tournament and joked that her new home was going to have plenty of mirrors so she could look at herself. "Just trying to get my daily dose of me," she said.

Then there's her shot at tennis star and failed game-show host John McEnroe ("The Chair"), who has not always had the kindest words for the Williams sisters. She was once at a lounge in Staples Center and told the story of how she and Venus had years earlier played the warmup for a Jimmy Connors-McEnroe match at the Forum. It was mentioned that it was somehow poetic that McEnroe-Boris Becker was the preliminary for her final against Venus at the U.S. Open in September.

"Who?" Williams said.

She couldn't help herself and started laughing. After all, who is McEnroe, anyway, when you've been hanging out on the set with Damon Wayans all day? The cast and crew were supportive of the newcomer and the on-set acting coach Richard Lyons said Serena was so natural in rehearsals that she was given more lines.

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