At the U.S. Open tennis tournament in New York last weekend, former D.C. mayor Marion Barry and his wife, Cora, were guests of Richard and Brandy Williams. The two also got to spend some time with the Williamses' sensational daughters, Venus and Serena.

Now the Barrys have a close-up view of what they want to come out of their proposed Southeast Tennis and Learning Center: beautiful African American children who are smart and love themselves--and can play some tennis.

"What struck me most about Venus and Serena is how well grounded they are and what a strong sense of self they possess," Cora Masters Barry said. "That comes from a tremendous support system, not just having a good tennis coach, but great parents and friends. But everybody doesn't have a Richard or a Brandy for a parent, so that's where the community steps in, and that's what our tennis center is all about."

To help fund construction of the $3 million project, Cora Barry and the Recreation Wish List Committee of Washington she founded in 1995 are sponsoring a unique tennis tournament this week. Local players--including her husband and the current mayor, Anthony A. Williams--will be teamed up with younger players from various inner-city tennis programs.

"I'm especially pleased that the new mayor is supporting us and that we're getting good support from several corporations," Barry said. She expects ground to be broken for the center by the end of the month.

The competition will be friendly and fun. Prizes will be awarded. But the greatest reward will no doubt come from meeting and playing with children from the Washington Tennis Foundation, the Tennis at Shiloh Baptist Church program, Totally Tennis and the Ward 8 Tennis Council.

"You can expect to be teamed up with a fine young person who will make you look good," Cora Barry said. "Supporting the tennis center is great, but the best part is exposing our children to caring adults. The event is designed to showcase the talents of the children, but my hope is that relationships will be also formed and that a child ends up not just with a tennis partner but maybe a mentor and a friend."

The event, called the Heart to Hart Tennis Experience, will be from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday at the Hart Middle School tennis courts at Seventh Street and Mississippi Avenue SE. The registration fee is $50, with funds going toward the maintenance of the Hart tennis courts and construction of the tennis and learning center.

Cora Barry's organization, the Recreation Wish List Committee, is a nonprofit group that works to ensure that every youth in the city has easy access to safe and decent recreation facilities, equipment and programs.

Thanks to her vision and determination, there could be a first-class, state-of-the-art education and recreation model for the new millennium right in the heart of Southeast Washington.

The planned tennis and learning center is really quite spectacular. The recreation part of the complex will feature six outdoor and four covered tennis courts, a walking and fitness trail through Oxon Run Park, a golf driving range, a tot lot, a wellness center and locker rooms with showers. You'd have to go far out into the suburbs to some of the better country clubs to find anything close to this.

And there is more. The learning component of the center, where children will receive academic tutoring and mentoring, will include a computer lab, a communications and multimedia facility, four classrooms and a multipurpose room that will be available for use by the community.

"To me, the tennis part is a means to an end," Cora Barry said. "You start with the children's passion for the game and then move them into the learning center, where a passion for knowledge gets developed. We want great tennis players, but we also want to develop other parts of their lives that are even more important."

That's what had struck her most about the Williams sisters, Venus, 19, and Serena, 17. Both players did exceptionally well in this year's U.S. Open. Venus advanced to the semifinals, and Serena made it to yesterday's finals, where she beat the world's top-ranked female player, Martina Hingis, in straight sets.

"Venus had such a strong sense of her self, and she was so balanced," Barry said. "She had everything in perspective at such a young age. That's highly unusual even for most adults. Then there is Serena, who is younger and has a more playful spirit but still just loves herself, and I don't mean in an egotistical way but a healthy, mentally stable way. If we could just raise our children to love themselves and to know who they are."

Getting a fancy tennis and learning center built in one of the poorest parts of the city is no easy task, especially now that Barry's husband is no longer mayor. But she has remained undaunted, dedicated to helping the city's children.

"The most important thing we can do is let our children know that we care about them by paying attention to them," Barry said. "It's about being interconnected, passing on our principles, values and wisdom. Whenever I get discouraged, I just look at the Williams sisters and I am reminded that we have thousands of them right here in our community. I know. I've seen them."

To get in on the experience, call the Heart to Hart tournament organizers at 202-783-5500. Or visit the Barry organization's Web site at www.recreationwishlist.org for more information.