Before I get to U.S. Open champion Serena Williams's disconcerting cover photo on the new Sports Illustrated, I must point something out:

There are people on earth who sincerely find Sarah Jessica Parker beautiful.

Maybe that doesn't surprise you. After all, the vivacious actress, a recent best-actress Emmy nominee for HBO's "Sex in the City," is blond, slim and possesses ample upper-body upholstery. The fact that her face is unremarkable seems hardly to matter. Parker is, I've heard repeatedly, beautiful.

Ditto for the versatile actress who defeated Parker for the Emmy. Physically, Helen Hunt is much like Parker: blond, thin, busty for her small frame.

So she, too, is beautiful.

So is the wraithlike Gwyneth Pallid--I mean Paltrow, whom some have dared to compare to Grace Kelly. So are dozens of women on TV and onscreen whom I, and others, find merely pretty or profoundly average.

But to begrudge folks their opinion of these women is useless. Beauty is entirely subjective, a matter truly in the eye of the beholder.

So let us behold Serena Williams. A guy I know who did recently said this:

"I don't watch tennis, but was channel-flipping and got the championship," said the man, who asked not to be identified. "I saw Serena and said "Damn. . . . She was fine in a way that I almost never see on the airwaves."

I, too, watched Williams wrest the tournament from Martina Hingis in an excruciating battle. As impressed as I was with Williams's speed, thunderous serve and body-hugging outfits, they weren't the reasons I couldn't stop staring.

Williams's physical presence is what struck me--and the fact that it's of a type I rarely see beamed from my TV set.

Serena is no light-and-lovely Halle Berry-Vanessa Williams type, nor a fine-featured brown vision in the vein of Angela Bassett or Whitney Houston--recognized beauties who've all had some difficulty getting parts equal their looks.

Serena's beauty is a motherland thing. She is, with her satin skin, cornrows and powerhouse voluptuousness, the female embodiment of Africa, unmistakable and undiluted. She is also, as my son used to say, "the bomb-diggity."

Now some may grouse at my bringing a subject as unworthy as appearance into the pristine arena of sports. They'd suggest that considering Williams's many gifts, attractiveness hardly matters. To which I respectfully respond:

Bull. Who really believes Michael Jordan's unprecedented popularity has nothing to do with his handsomeness? Or that soccer star Mia Hamm's wholesome prettiness doesn't help endear her to fans, or that hardbodied Gabrielle Reece, a men's mag fave, is the nation's best-known female volleyball player because of her serve?

For athletes, there's as much money to be made in looks as talent. But something more important than a paycheck is at stake with Serena.

In the video for TLC's hit single, "Unpretty," several young women struggle with being judged by standards of beauty that reject full-figured and flat-chested women and those with unfashionable features. I love the video's self-love message.

And that it shows how much looks still matter to most women and girls.

It's a credit to Williams's upbringing that she doesn't feel "unpretty" in a culture that long ignored and rejected beauty like hers. Some find Serena and sister Venus--who's also striking--confident to the point of intimidation. My son, 14, says Serena is "cute for a girl who looks like she could kick my butt."

Maybe Serena's muscularity explains why much of the media has yet to note her beauty. But buffness hasn't marred Lucy Lawless's sex-symbol status as TV's Xena. Her rippling bod still graces men's magazine covers. Could Williams's youth be the issue? Not if you consider how often the prettiness of Hingis, 18, is noted, as is 18-year-old Anna Kournikova's Kewpie-doll appeal.

The new Sports Illustrated clinched it. From hundreds of possible photos, SI chose one of Serena during play, her face contorted in a grimace. The shot highlights her athleticism, which I love, but diminishes her attractiveness. Oddly, the mag that invented swimsuit issues modestly obscures Serena's breasts with a strip of type.

Some, I suspect, don't know what to think of the Williams sisters' special glamour.

Serena may be just the girl to help them. As smart, bubbly and open as she is attractive, she has everything that our most beloved sports heroes possess.

My hope is that America is smart and open enough to embrace Serena's "unique" beauty, which in fact can be found on vivid display all over the world. That would mean enfolding her as it does its Parkers and Hamms and more recently its Jennifer Lopezes, though that once-bountiful Latina seems blonder and thinner every day.

America should wrap its arms around Serena's beauty as well as her talent--not just for her sake, but for all the beautiful dark girls who never got their due.

CAPTION: Tennis star Serena Williams graces the Sept. 20 cover of Sports Illustrated.