Why Serena Williams' Impact on Tennis Trumps Tiger Woods' Impact on Golf

Merlisa Lawrence Corbett@@merlisaFeatured ColumnistAugust 19, 2013

Serena Williams sits among children at 2003 tennis event.
Serena Williams sits among children at 2003 tennis event.Jeff Gross/Getty Images

Nearly two decades after Serena Williams and Tiger Woods first turned pro, they are both ranked No. 1 in their sports.

Already in the "Greatest of All Time" conversations, each is chasing more major championships to solidify their legacies.

Yet, only Serena appears to have made the type of impact on her sport, that many believed Tiger would.  

Next week, when Serena to takes the court at the U.S. Open, she will be among six African American women competing in singles. 

Meanwhile, Tiger is the only African American on the PGA Tour. 

Why did a flock of black females follow in Serena's footsteps, while Tiger still stands alone?

One reason is the dynamic duo created when Serena joined big sister Venus Williams on the tour. A future Hall of Famer herself, Venus is credited as the reason teen sensation Madison Keys got into tennis.

In the last five years, however, Serena has distanced herself from her sister in titles, prize money and star power.

Serena's career now resembles Tiger's more than that of her sister's.

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Tiger has earned more than $108 million in prize money. That's more than anyone in the history of golf. 

Serena has earned just over $47 million, more prize money than any woman in the history of sports. She has also earned more prize money than any American tennis player, male or female.

They both drive up television ratings. When they drop out of contention, ratings tank. No matter how they are struggling, they mostly enter tournaments as the favorite. 

Both have dominated a sport largely played by white athletes. Yet, as they approach the final years of their careers, their legacies appear headed in completely different directions. 

Serena is experiencing a surge late in her career. Tiger is mired in a relative slump compared to earlier in his career.

His influence over golf is waning. Serena's prominence in tennis is growing. This includes her impact on aspiring African American tennis players.

When Woods burst onto the golf scene, people assumed more African American kids would take up golf. We expected to see a new wave of Tigers teeing off.

Still waiting. In fact, there were more blacks on the PGA Tour in the 1960s than there are today.

Meanwhile, there appears to be an uptick in African-American women playing tennis. Four of the top six American players on the WTA tour are African American. 

When the U.S. played against Sweden in Fed Cup competition earlier this year, three of the four players representing this country, were African American. 

Taylor Townsend, who finished last year as the No. 1 juniors player in the world, is African American. Sachia Vickery, who recently won the USTA Girls National Championship, is also African American. She received a wild card to play at the U.S. Open. 

So why the disparity?

Perhaps young black females view Serena as more accessible; and therefore her success more attainable.

How relatable is a guy who classifies himself as "Cablinasian?" 

Woods famously coined that phrase on the Oprah Winfrey Show. By putting his distant Caucasian ancestry in front of his obvious black and Asian heritage, Woods appeared more comfortable checking that "other" box , rather than African American.

Worse, he came across as simply confused.

His desire to be all things to all people perhaps made him more marketable. However, Tiger left you wondering, who is this guy?

Williams is the opposite. She pouts. Erupts on court. Notorious for drama, Serena still manages to endear herself to her fans.

She tweets and posts pics on Instagram. She shares her ups and downs, from triumphs to the ridiculous. She takes her fans along for the ride. Even those who dislike Serena, rarely challenge her authenticity. She keeps it real. 

Tiger, however, treats his fans like loyal subjects, throwing them crumbs of information when it suits him. His invite-only post scandal press conference confessional, screamed: This guy just doesn't get it. 

His detachment from reality may explain his "go-along to get-along" approach to race-related controversies. 

There have been several racially charged comments aimed at Woods throughout his career. First we got the Fuzzy Zoeller "fried chicken comment" at the 1997 Masters tournament.

In 2008, the Golf Channel's Kelly Tilghman joked about how up-and-coming golfers could stop Woods winning ways. She said they would have to  "lynch him in the back alley."

Tiger responded to Tilghman and Zoeller's comments with the same "they didn't mean any harm" attitude. 

It wasn't until recently, when Sergio Garcia made a fried chicken joke, that Woods expressed serious disappointment. 

In 2001, fans at Indian Wells uttered what Serena's father, Richard Williams, claimed were racial slurs. The Williams sisters boycotted the tournament. Even though Indian Wells is played in the state they grew up in and pays $1 million in prize money to the winner, the sisters refuse to return.

Can you imagine Serena putting up with the public scolding Woods took from the chairman of the Augusta National Golf Club? You had the chairman of a golf club, publicly rebuking a grown man about his marital misdeeds. Woods took it on the chin.  

It's not all Tiger's fault. The absence of more blacks on the PGA Tour may have more to do with economics.

According to a 2010 study by the National Golf Foundation, participation in golf correlated with income. This was regardless of ethnicity. 

Still, how does that explain that back in the 1960s and 1970s Calvin Peete, Jim Thorpe, Charlie Sifford and Lee Elder, where among a handful of blacks who played professional golf?

Surely the socio-economic status of African Americans is better today than it was in the 1960s. 

No, there's something else going on here.

It may have something to do with the difference between Tiger and Serena's attitude towards the establishment. Woods seems more eager to assimilate. His approach: Excel. Get yourself invited to the club. Then, prove to them you belong at the club.

Serena, however, knew from the get go, she wasn't welcomed at the club. Her attitude: Excel. If they invite me, fine; if not, I'll start my own damn club.  

That in-your-face, "straight-out-of Compton" attitude is the hallmark of anti-establishment.

Yes, that type of militant-like persona costs some endorsement opportunities.

But among young athletes, those who admire swagger, it connects. They find Serena believable. And believe is the spark needed to overcome the odds.

Young male golfers, black and white, want to play like Tiger. 

Young black female tennis players, want to be Serena.