Personal Ode to Black Tennis


Personal Ode to Black Tennis

Venus Williams.

Sloane Stephens.

Madison Keys.

Remember these names, for they have just made history. For the first time ever, at the 2017 US Open, three Black players—three African-American women at that—have made the semifinals of the same Grand Slam tournament. The history of Black players in tennis is long, but inconsistent. It is proud, but it is frustratingly fitful.

Personal Tennis History

I started playing tennis when I was nine years old, having been introduced to the sport by my Dad. Arthur Ashe’s breakthrough win at Wimbledon in 1975 electrified me, as it did the entire nation. I was so proud that day, as were Black Americans from coast-to-coast. It is a proud day when any American player wins, and I always support Davis Cup and Federation Cup teams, irrespective of the opponent. Predictably, I am beside myself with joy that Coco Vandeweghe joins the women listed above in the semifinals, guaranteeing that an American woman will win the 2017 US Open.

My father served his country as an officer in the U.S. Air Force for 20 years, and I grew up on Air Force bases throughout the continental United States. His patriotism should not be doubted, nor should mine. That said, mine was often a lonely existence, as an African-American youth tennis player and fan. I am exhilarated by the success of Black tennis professionals—irrespective of nationality—to this day, but I am doubly proud when an African-American pro accomplishes something great. To see three African-American women make the semifinals in the same tournament is an embarrassment of riches that I dared not hope to ever witness.

Personal Ode to Black Tennis

This historic accomplishment of these three African-American women is all the more impressive given that Serena Williams missed the tournament, as she gave birth to her first child just prior to her sister Venus’ third round match. While each of the ladies named above is accomplished in her own right, each owes a debt to the greats that came before, including Ms. Althea Gibson and Ms. Serena Williams, arguably the best to ever play the sport. Here’s how the semifinalists got to this point in the tournament.

The All-Time Great

Venus Williams has dealt with Sjogren’s Syndrome for several years now, and it seemed as if her days as a championship level singles player had passed. Her 2017 results have disproved that sentiment. Williams made the final in Melbourne and at the All-England Club, prior to her history-making run at Flushing Meadows. She won three three-set matches in the 2017 US Open, including her thrilling tiebreaker which clinched her win over fellow champion Petra Kvitova. She is the most accomplished player left in the field, and she stands to add to her Grand Slam total.

The Former Prodigy

Sloane Stephens has won four WTA titles in her career, but has yet to live up to the promise that she showed as a teenager, when she won Junior Grand Slam titles at the French Open, Wimbledon, and the US Open in 2010. Stephens withdrew from Wimbledon in 2016 due to a stress fracture in her foot, which required surgery and a lengthy rehabilitation. Stephens notched wins over three seeded players in her run to the US Open semis, winning a third-set tiebreaker to get past Anastasija Sevastova in the quarterfinals.

The Powerful Phenomenon

Madison Keys won her first WTA event as a teenager at Eastbourne (U.K.) in 2014, and remains one of the most physical players on the tour. She plays a streaky game, but she can beat anyone when she is on. Keys injured her left wrist in 2016, requiring surgery. At Flushing Meadows, Keys has played power tennis, using runs to win matches, as when she won the final four games of the match in the Round of 16 to defeat fourth seeded Elina Svitolina. She topped that by overpowering Kaia Kanepi to roll into the semifinals.

Black Tennis History

The humble beginnings of Black tennis history date to 1898 in Philadelphia. Thomas Jefferson (!) of Lincoln University won the first interstate tennis tournament arranged for Black players. While the first event was for male players, Black tennis history’s greatest achievements have been made by women. The first breakthrough, however, came when Althea Gibson won the French Open in 1956. She followed that up by winning the U.S. National Championships (now the US Open) in 1957. Of course, superwoman Serena Williams won her 23rd Grand Slam Championship at the 2017 Australian Open—while pregnant with her first child. Her sister, and Stephens and Keys, have greatly added to the distinguished legacy of the African-American tennis superstars who preceded them. God Bless each of these outstanding players for this historic accomplishment.

Thank you, Venus.

Thank you, Sloane.

Thank you, Madison.

Godspeed ladies, and best of luck to each of you during the rest of the 2017 U.S. Open.

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