Serena Williams’s legacy is sealed, whether or not she ever hits a tennis ball again. Of course it’s sad she didn’t beat Bianca Andreescu at the finals of the U.S. Open Championships and match Margaret Court’s record of 24 Grand Slam singles titles. But her contributions to the game are much bigger than reaching another Grand Slam final.
There is a new generation of young women who are modeling their style of play on that of Serena and her sister Venus, dominating with grit and panache. The newcomers represent various races and nationalities, but women of color have been especially inspired in a sport where finding their likeness used to be rare.
Since the mid 1990s when Serena and Venus made their debuts as professional tennis players, they have changed the way the game is played by embracing and pushing the limits of their physical prowess and mental acumen, uninhibited by the artificial limits that strictures of gender had previously imposed on women.
They have refused to be anyone but themselves, insisted on playing in their own style and by their own rules. They paced themselves for the long haul and became well-rounded people — on and off the court. They attended college and developed their own businesses, rejecting the advice of experts to adopt a single-minded approach to athletics. They outlasted the accomplished cohort they started out with, players like Martina Hingis and Jennifer Capriati, who took a more traditional, single-minded approach to tennis.
But let’s be honest. It wasn’t easy for African-American women like the Williams sisters to break through. They faced down hostility from many quarters before they became the beloved players that they are today. Some thought they were all hype, incapable of rising to the top. Many lacked empathy for the special dilemma of having not one, but two talented tennis players of the same gender, close in age, in one family, competing in the same events. There was even suspicion that their father and coach, Richard Williams, engaged in match-fixing when they played against each other, dictating which sister would win.
Of course, it all paled in comparison with what Althea Gibson, the first African-American woman to win a Grand Slam title, suffered in the 1950s. She was discriminated against by all-white country clubs; shunned by fellow players on and off the court; insulted by fans hurling the N-word; and denied accommodations when traveling to compete. So it’s heartening that a statute in her likeness was unveiled last week on the grounds of the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in Flushing.
Still, the struggles and slights that the Williams sisters have endured have made it much easier for the next generation of players, like Taylor Townsend, Sloane Stephens, Madison Keys, Naomi Osaka and now Coco Gauff, to find a place of favor in a white-dominated, elite sport. It’s unlikely that they would all be enjoying acclaim as among the best and most popular young players without Serena and Venus as trailblazers.
Before the much-anticipated showdown at the finals, the highlight of the tournament was the match between Gauff and Osaka under the marquee lights at Arthur Ashe Stadium last week.
Coco Gauff, 15, had her first breakout moment at the Wimbledon Championships at the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club in July. She was the youngest player to ever qualify for the main draw, and she reached the fourth round. Naomi Osaka, 21, was the No. 1 seed and defending U.S. Open champion. They lit up the stadium in the first set as Coco Gauff hung on and fought, despite being outplayed. True to form, the veteran won the third-round match resoundingly, 6-3, 6-0.
But consider what happened at the end of the contest, when the vanquished tends to slink off the stage as the victor preens to the applause of a congratulatory crowd. Instead, the winner and loser shared a touching moment atypical in the often cutthroat world of athletics.
Osaka initiated a sidebar conversation with Gauff, who was in tears. She offered words of praise and encouragement and invited Gauff to participate in the on-court interview usually reserved for the winner. Gauff was reluctant, admitting that she was in no emotional state to speak. Not to mention, this was not her time to shine. But Osaka gently nudged her saying, “These people are here for you.”
Osaka knew that her neophyte opponent had won the hearts of fans during and after her remarkable run at Wimbledon. Osaka’s grace and generosity overrode the conventions of the winner-take-all sports attitude to acknowledge that Coco Gauff had achieved something special by going as far as she did, even if her run ended in defeat.
This flash point of humanity shining through athletics has gone viral on social media as a novel event. But was it?
When Osaka spoke in the post-match interview about their similar routes to becoming professional tennis players, training hard in hopes of being exactly where they are now, it was a knowing recognition of a uniquely shared plight and a gesture of comfort. But it was a sisterly move we have seen before. Serena Williams and Venus Williams have provided many such examples of compassion in the face of competitiveness, and this is part of their legacy.
For much of their early careers, Serena and Venus were each other’s toughest competitors. They met each other in many finals. If only one of them made it to a final, that player had likely prevailed over her sister in the previous round.
They are the closest of siblings, a special indivisible twosome. Serena’s two-year old daughter, Olympia, has already discovered this. When Olympia sees Serena on TV, she points and says, “Mama.” When she recognizes her Aunt Venus, she points and says, “Mama.”
This tightness has created immense angst when they have faced each other in tournaments. It challenges their trademark instinct to crush an opponent’s shots, to catch her off-guard, to fight through to the last bounce of the neon ball, to win no matter what — because there stands a much-loved sister-challenger across the net. When their competition ends, they embrace, like Osaka and Gauff, concerned about how the other must be feeling, with the winner only gingerly hailing her victory, even though it is an enormous accomplishment.
We witnessed a similar gesture last year at the end of the controversial final between Serena Williams and Osaka at the U.S. Open. Serena tried to placate the crowd disturbed by her loss and to give due recognition to Osaka. She consoled Osaka through the ambivalent emotions of winning her first Grand Slam title against her idol under such strange circumstances.
Osaka did not experience the unadulterated joy that every player hopes for after such an epic win. It was not easy for Serena either as she reeled from the penalties she felt were unfairly imposed and the straight-set demise handed to her by an upstart. But there she was, playing the role of a big sister to a fellow competitor.
Venus’s acts of compassion have often occurred behind the scenes. When another woman on the tour needed a clothing sponsor, Venus signed her through EleVen, her own athletic wear line. Most significant to the sisterhood of tennis writ large, Venus has followed in Billie Jean King’s feminist footsteps, calling for gender equity. She was instrumental in persuading the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club, the last holdout against equal pay among the Grand Slams, to grant women and men the same prize money for the first time at Wimbledon in 2007.
Sisterhood, both figurative and biological, is complicated and fraught with all the positive and negative qualities that human relationships can express. It takes care and effort to nurture and sustain it through life’s ups and downs. It runs counter to the sports rivalries and bloodletting that many in the media and fandom often encourage. And yet, the desire for an imagined community bigger than oneself is real among women (especially for the small number of women of color) in mostly male arenas, even if its realization falters.
We should not romanticize the moment in the spotlight that Osaka and Gauff shared or hold them to unreasonable expectations about how they should regard each other (and their fellow players) from now on. If they live up to their full potential, they will embody the legacy of the Williams sisters, and we will see them on the biggest tennis platforms again and again.
Serena and Venus, the two veterans from Compton, Calif., deserve credit for inspiring young women who are moving up the ranks with grit, poise and gratitude. The sisters may continue to compete and win more Grand Slams. But what they have already accomplished is far more important than future titles and broken records. Because of them, we are living during a uniquely exciting era of tennis.
Tera W. Hunter (@TeraWHunter) is a professor of history and African-American studies at Princeton and the author of “Bound in Wedlock: Slave and Free Black Marriage in the Nineteenth Century.”
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