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Gravitational pull of Venus brings in another new tennis fan

I watched tennis last week.

That may not sound like much to you, but for me, that's a lot to admit. I'm having trouble coming to grips with the fact that I actually sat down in front of the TV and watched a good chunk of last week's U.S. Open.

As a native son of Boston, I grew up on the Celtics, Patriots, Bruins and most of all, the sad legacy of the Red Sox. New England isn't exactly a hotbed of tennis fanatics. Even when I added soccer to my sporting lexicon three years ago, I still refused to devote any time to professional tennis, a sport I considered the athletic domain of teenage girls and overbearing mothers.

My exposure to even the best players in the game had been limited to occasional SportsCenter highlights. However, when my three tennis-playing roommates flipped on the U.S. Open last week, I pulled up a chair for the same reason I've tuned in more than once this week to the Weather Channel's 2 a.m. Hurricane Floyd update: academic procrastination.

Starting with a Barbara Schett/Elena Likhovtseva matchup might have crushed what little tennis-watching willpower I possessed, but fortunately I saw Venus Williams take on Mary Joe Fernandez. The 19-year-old superstar came back to beat an injured Fernandez in what might have been the first tennis match I had seen in its entirety.

It wasn't a bad match, but what captivated me was Venus herself.

Venus and younger sister Serena, who vanquished spoiled Swiss princess Martina Hingis in the final to become the first black woman in 41 years to win a Grand Slam, bring power, speed and exuberance to a sport whose most famous tournament has an all-white dress code.

The commentators raved about the Williams sisters' 115 m.p.h. serves and phenomenal baseline coverage, but for someone like me -- who needed an explanation of the concept of "break point" -- the attraction boiled down to one thing: they make it look like fun.

I've had enough of Hingis, the top-ranked tennis brat with the icy demeanor and the stereotypically maniacal mother/manager/coach. And I was never much of a fan of Steffi Graf or Monica Seles, who between them dominated women's tennis for most of the last two decades. Both are great players, but neither one has the spark that the Williams sisters have.

When Hingis eliminated Venus in the semifinals, I was not pleased. But Serena avenged her sister's loss and my betrayal with a fantastic, pressure-cooked performance in the final.

The Andre Agassi/Todd Martin men's final was still to come, but the prevalence of unhittable serves and the general absence of rallies in the men's game did not pique my interest. Yet the presence of Agassi, whom I had always liked back in his "image is everything" days, and the fun I had watching the women play made me want to tune in.

Agassi has about as much brashness as hair nowadays and Martin is as wooden as a Jeffersonian column, but they played some hard-hitting, precise tennis with even a bit of genuine emotion. The former Mr. Brooke Shields pulled out his second Grand Slam win of the summer with an epic five-set victory that was arguably the most exciting men's final Flushing Meadow has seen in a decade.

So some of my tennis prejudices have been overcome.

I didn't like the women because they were basket cases and the game was too slow. I didn't like the men because they were Sampras-ly dull and the game was too overpowering.

At this point, I don't know that I can apply for membership as a "Tennis Aficionado," but I did learn the meaning of break point. I even figured out how many birds are nesting in the finger-in-a-light-socket Afro Hingis' mother was sporting, even if I couldn't quite reconcile the eerie resemblance between Agassi's bodyguard and Tony Orlando.

And just think how closely I would have watched if Anna Kournikova hadn't been injured.