LONDON — There’s been no shortage of anxiety over the future of American tennis over the last decade.
Andy Roddick’s abrupt retirement during the 2012 US Open left the United States without an active men’s grand slam champion for the first time in 129 years, since the inception of what then was called the US National Championships. And while Venus and Serena Williams have combined for 30 major singles championship, 121 WTA titles and 173 finals appearances – and counting – the hand-wringing over their successor on the women’s side persisted.
That concern was buried for good at 5.22pm on Saturday when Sloane Stephens stood frozen behind the baseline at Arthur Ashe Stadium after Madison Keys sent a forehand into the net on match point in the final. Stephens’ triumph was the climax of a women’s tournament where four Americans made it to the semi-finals for the first time at a grand slam in 32 years – and the first all-American final at Flushing Meadows since Serena defeated Venus in 2002.
When Monday’s rankings are released, the ageless Venus – still the oldest player in the top 300 – will be ranked in the top five for the first time in nearly seven years. Keys will be ranked No12. CoCo Vandeweghe will climb to a career-high No16, one spot above Stephens. Even Serena, on maternity leave and inactive since January, hangs on at No22 – lying in wait as the betting favorite to defend her title at the Australian Open. There will be 14 women from the United States in the top 100 – more than any other country – suggesting that women’s tennis in the United States is as strong and healthy as ever.
And for the first time, the demographics women reflect America as it truly is. That it was Stephens, who is black, defeated Keys, whose mother is white and whose father is black, is not insignificant in a sport predominantly owned, played and watched by affluent white people.
It’s not hyperbolic to say American tennis is in the suddenly vibrant state it’s in because of black women, who have been among the most oppressed and marginalized people in the country’s history.
Athletes of color are far more commonplace today than six decades ago, when Althea Gibson won the first of her two US Open titles shortly after becoming the first African American tennis player of either gender to break the sport’s color line. The Williams sisters fought their way onto the stage amid resistance, derision and criticism from all corners, weathering the double burdens of racism and sexism from the moment they burst on the scene as teenagers in the late 1990s.
It’s been said a legacy is planting seeds in a garden you never get to see, but it’s taken only one generation to behold the #BlackGirlMagic first teased in the 1950s and sown by a pair of sisters from Compton come into full blossom. Those fruits were on further display on Sunday as Cori ‘CoCo’ Gauff, a 13-year-old from Florida, became the youngest girl to play in the US Open girls’ final since the event began in 1974. Her favorite player? Serena.
Twelve-year-olds today don’t remember when Venus surged through the draw as a teenage debutante, a more enduring signal of the limitless promise ahead than Arthur Ashe Stadium, which also opened that year. They certainly don’t remember Gibson. But they will remember Stephens and Keys trading groundstrokes on the game’s biggest stage.
That so little was said of race in the aftermath of Stephens’ win can be viewed as a sign of progress. The 24-year-old champion offered little more than boilerplate responses to questions addressing the topic when it came up over the fortnight.
“Obviously, Venus, we are following in her footsteps,” Stephens said on the eve of the final. “She’s been here. She’s represented the game so well as an African American woman. Maddie and I are here to join her and represent just as well as Venus has in the past and honored to be here.”
But it does matter. As the list of black players to win major singles titles inevitably grows longer as barriers to entry continue to fall – Stephens is the sixth, joining Gibson, Arthur Ashe, Yannick Noah and the Williams sisters – each successive title will become less newsworthy. But let not the knee-jerk deluge of plaudits seduce us into slighting the struggles that made these victories possible.
The breakthrough of Stephens, 24, and Keys 22, augurs yet another era of promise for US tennis, one that will carry the domestic game forward when the Williams sisters finally decide to walk away. But that it’s a pair of black women leading the group who would make American tennis great again must not be lost in the confetti. — Guardian