Passions for the game

YOU can thank Serena and Venus Williams for the longest-running tennis character on televison — the teenage champion Whitney Russell on the NBC soap opera Passions.

"The Williams sisters were definitely the inspiration for Whitney," says James E. Reilly, Passions' Emmy-winning creator. "When I was laying out the show, they were making news. I fed off of that. And Richard Williams was an inspiration for TC (Whitney's dad), a loving but hard-driven father who devotes his life to seeing his daughter achieve her dream."

Brook Kerr, 29, who's played Whitney for four years, hopes Passions inspires more African-American women to take up tennis. A beginning player, Kerr is pleased with the direction of her character. "I think if you give her a couple more years, she'll be ready to win a major tournament."

Whitney may have to bulk up first. "She's probably too skinny to be a dominating player," says Kimberly Po-Messerli, the 2000 Wimbledon mixed-doubles champion who played herself on a November episode in which she beat Whitney. But Po-Messerli, who hadn't seen the show before, says that she didn't win because she was the better player. "I probably had more to do with the fact that Whitney had some relationship issues, about her sister's boyfriend, and the fact that her sister's friend drugged Whitney the night before a big match." — Kevin O'Keefe