*Flushing, NY – If you had zero knowledge of professional tennis and lived under a rock for the last 20 years, you’d likely have been wondering what all the hubbub was surrounding two tennis-old African American women playing a tennis match in New York. But if neither condition is the case, there’s no way you could miss the significance of the story of two women … black women … sisters even … coming through tremendous adversity – from poverty to racism – to “double-handedly” transforming a sport with “exclusive” traditions and attitudes as old as dirt.
Venus and Serena Williams – 16 years after the first and youngest sibling, Serena, in 1999 definitively announced her arrival as a professional women’s tennis champion by winning on the very stage the sisters took to on Tuesday night – found themselves still in the game – all their contemporaries put out to pasture, facing each other in the U.S. Open quarterfinals. And all eyes were on them, again.
The Compton born and raised sisters had very divergent paths in the way of results and experiences between when the first Grand Slam trophy was placed on their mantle at the family home and this year. But, with Venus at 35 and Serena at 33, those paths found a way to intersect on the sport’s biggest stage and – as a sure credit to destiny, when the family’s first Slam champion is poised to match the achievements of the open era record holder, Steffi Graf at 22.
Such a scenario would’ve seemed unimaginable all those years ago when their father and mother, Richard and Oracene, began grooming them, but there they were, the marquee match on Ashe in 2015.
To speak to the impact that these two enigmatic black girls as young athletes with nothing but motivated parents, two racquets and a bag of used tennis balls, coupled with a dream have made on tennis – still called a “country club” sport – would take more space and time than allowed. But the massive press generated not only from the prospect of Serena Williams winning her 22nd Slam title and first Calendar Slam, but also the prospect of the two meeting in the quarters once the draw was revealed is indicative of just how important the presence of “The Williams Sisters” has been in the sport.
“They’ve been the backbone of America tennis,” commentator Hannah Storm said before the match began on Tuesday night.
As a quick glimpse, and other results aside, they went to London as young girls and owned the most exclusive venue there was in tennis: The All England Lawn Tennis Club aka Wimbledon. And with their combined records there, they still do. That pretty much sums things up.
But back to the US Open and the match at hand.
The U.S. Open has always received international attention, being one of four prestigious Grand Slams and being the most attended sporting event in the world. But the stars that have aligned for this particular fortnight have exponentially increased its profile around the world. From global press coverage – tennis being one of the only truly international competitive sports – to fan attendance (the women’s final sold out before the men’s for the first time in history), Venus and Serena, being who they are and doing what they do – and well – made the 2015 U.S. Open a special one for the books.
But though they’ve meant and achieved so much, the private but often analyzed sisters haven’t always enjoyed the fruits of their contributions, at times being rejected by the establishment, tennis fans, as well as receiving criticism from within the black community as they made their way up through adolescence to adulthood playing their way into mature women. It was the price to pay for the fruit they HAVE enjoyed (over 95 million earned between them), but they could only hope that their sacrifices have not only made them money, but also made the way a little easier for their successors; and in a sense it has.
Sloane Stephens, Madison Keys, and other American players of color haven’t had to endure the challenges the Williams sisters fought their way through. But neither did Venus and Serena have to endure the challenges that Arthur Ashe and Althea Gibson had to endure. So, each round seems to go higher, but there was something peculiar about the period during which Venus and Serena were “made.”
Together and separately they exceeded by a long shot the achievements of their predecessors and certainly Serena, and maybe even Venus (still in the position of holding the second highest number of Slam trophies among active players) have likely set a bar that even those with an easier road can’t ever best. Adversity tends to propel if you process it productively.
With that, the world keeps turning and athletes will come and go long after the sisters leave the sport and even this life, but will the conditions ever be present to turn out an athlete – let alone from the same family – that can do what they have done? I’d venture to say no. It’s like that delicious recipe that was only in Grandma’s head and once she went her heavenly way she took it with her and none could ever experience its savor again.
The savor of the Williamses is likely only for now and will doubtedly ever be repeated.
The match they played in front of the captivated sold out Arthur Ashe Stadium crowd, which boasted guests the likes of Oprah Winfrey, Gayle King, Ana Wintor, Ben Stiller, Chris Tucker, Rick Fox, Kendrick Lamar, Nas, Laila Ali, Dr. Oz, Star Jones, Donald Trump, Candace Bergen and more – on tennis’ biggest stage had its highlights for sure. You had two of the most gifted and athletic women to ever play the sport battling it out (now for the 27th time) to earn the chance to once again claim the big trophy – for different personal reasons, and with the intrigue of them sharing DNA. But the real story was the irony of them doing it where it all started for the family and at ages that defy tennis logic:
“I think it’s the greatest story in tennis because we really — you know, with our how we started and how we grew up and how we were able to win Championships and be, you know, such inspirations for so many women across the globe, I mean, it doesn’t get better than that,” Serena said.
Serena won the match, 6-2, 1-6, 6-3, and lives to fight for number 22, but they both won hearts … and much overdue respect for enduring and dedicating themselves to a sport that they love but one that doesn’t always love them back.
Our entertainment has been both their struggles and their triumphs along their journey and regardless of what transpires beyond “Venus vs Serena, the 2015 U.S. Open Championships quarterfinal blockbuster” their sacrifices seemed to be captured in an unprecedented way on Tuesday night … the warm embraced they shared when the match ended – with two winners – will forever be etched in sports history:
“Well, I think my success is our success. You know, we all started together and we all are still together,” Serena said. “I think I will look back on it [the match] fondly. It means a lot to me. Obviously we are very, very tough competitors on the court, but once the match is over and the second it’s done, you know, we’re sisters, we’re roommates, and we’re all that.”
“…Serena is going for the Grand Slam and I think everybody is interested because she has to play her sister to get to that … so it definitely was a different moment,” Venus said. “…I’m still very excited to see Serena have an opportunity to win the four majors.”
— US Open Tennis (@usopen) September 9, 2015