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Serena Completes Glam Slam

Once overshadowed by Venus, the younger Williams has emerged as a winner on the court and in the lucrative world of endorsements.

January 29, 2003|Ralph Frammolino | Times Staff Writer

She was the chosen one, the African American prodigy with the celestial name. She rose from humble beginnings in Compton to win two Olympic gold medals, take Wimbledon by storm and sign a shoe deal making her one of the highest-paid athletes of all time.

Venus Williams, 22, was unquestionably the world's best female tennis player. Kid sister Serena seemed to tag along -- good enough to give chase on the court, but mostly adding novelty to the most famous sister act in sports.

No more. Serena has grown up. She has beaten Venus in four straight Grand Slam finals, including their hardest-fought battle at last week's Australian Open. Along the way, she has dealt a wicked backhand to the marketing world's notion of who is the most bankable sister.

Ranked No. 1, the increasingly flamboyant Serena could soon eclipse Venus in both celebrity firepower and endorsement muscle, a glam slam that is expected to lead to a record-setting shoe deal of her own.

"As Serena has matured on the court and become more successful, her personality has emerged," said business manager Stephanie Tolleson, who represents both sisters. "It changed her marketability because companies got a better understanding of Serena as a person."

Case in point: Toothpaste.

Serena, 21, has been pushing her agents for years to find a way to capitalize on her neon smile. After she became the top-ranked women's player in July, she inked a $500,000 deal to star in a Close-Up commercial. During a special summer promotion, she will be featured on the box, replacing the smiling couples that traditionally have been used.

Indeed, both Venus and Serena long ago entered the marketing lexicon as the rarest of properties: athletes who transcend their sport and are on a first-name basis with the public. Tiger, Michael, Kobe, Shaq -- showcased in major media markets or the world stage, these "marquee" sports celebrities continue to draw big promotional deals even as cost-conscious firms have stopped spending on second-tier athletes.

The appeal of Venus and Serena goes beyond set points and 120-mph serves. Advertisers love their shared story of hitting flat tennis balls on the public courts of Compton, only to overcome barriers of race and class to rule a white country-club sport.

"Both of these gals, I think, are seen as winners," said Phil Dusenberry, recently retired as chairman of the New York-based BBDO advertising agency, known for using celebrities in commercials. That's why they've been signed as a package deal by McDonald's Corp., Wilson tennis racquets, Avon cosmetics and chewing gum giant Wm. Wrigley Jr. Co., which broke its ban on celebrity ads by hiring them to represent the Doublemint brand.

But the reality is that Serena's game and marketability have moved beyond doubles.

On Oprah in November, with her sister looking on, Serena talked about finally breaking free of Venus' gravitational pull.

"There were two Venus Williams in the Williams family," she said, describing how she grew up copying her sister in dress, moods, even ordering the same restaurant food. That changed about two years ago. "It was really tough for me to finally stop being Venus and become the person who I am -- Serena."

Although Serena shares a mansion with Venus in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., she recently purchased a $1.4-million Los Angeles condo of her own. During the U.S. Open last summer, she set tongues wagging with her bleached blond hair and a black, skintight "catsuit." Venus may have won ESPN sports awards last year for Best Female Tennis Player and Athlete of the Year, but it was a buff Serena who showed up to collect the hardware for her sister and steal the show in a lilac Versace dress with plunging neckline.

As Venus, who has fallen to the No. 2 spot, quietly busies herself with an interior design business, Serena is taking acting lessons, meeting with entertainment honchos and hanging with the likes of rapper Jay-Z. Once teamed with Venus for an appearance on the "Hollywood Squares" game show, Serena appeared solo in a recent episode of ABC's "My Wife and Kids."

Her agent says Serena is looking for parts that will broaden her appeal beyond sports.

"She would like to play a victim. She would like to go on a police show. She would like to be in a thriller or a mystery," said Jill Smoller, her agent at the William Morris Agency. "She's crossed the line of exposure where the people who don't know tennis know who she is."

Inventory shipments at Play Along Toys tell the story. The Florida company, which made millions on a Britney Spears doll, paid the Williams sisters $125,000 each for a license to make Venus and Serena figures.

The first batch, shipped in fall 2001, gave retailers four Venuses for every two Serenas, a nod to the older sister's status at that time as the better player.

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