Serena Williams just saved the U.S. Open.
Williams, a 23-time Grand Slam champion and the most influential tennis player of all time became the first superstar to commit to playing in this year’s tournament, which will be played in its regular time period without fans.
Williams announced via a video shown during a U.S. Tennis Association Zoom news conference that she “cannot wait” to return to New York to play in the major championship that she has won six times. Though her announcement comprised less than a minute of the nearly hour-long news conference, it was by far the most important minute.
While top male players Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal have expressed concerns about attending the tournament, Williams is all in. And her presence gives some legitimizing heft to the USTA’s decision to go ahead with the tournament despite the challenges presented by holding it during a worldwide pandemic in a city whose resources already have been stretched thin.
It’s not just that Williams is a superstar. It’s that she’s the ultimate American success story, given that she started her journey on a public court in Compton, California, and is now the richest and most recognizable female athlete in the world.
She is an African-American who has inspired a whole generation of young athletes who might not have considered playing tennis to pick up rackets. And she’s never shied away from speaking her mind when it came to issues of gender, race, motherhood or basically anything else.
“We're extremely excited and appreciative she's committed this early to play the tournament,” said Mike Dowse, USTA CEO and executive director. “As we all know, she transcends tennis, she's so much bigger than our sport.”
He then added: “We’re extremely excited that she’s going to be part of our U.S. Open tennis tournament.”
You can bet they are. Because let’s face it. Williams just saved them from looking like a bunch of elitists. The optics of having a bunch of millionaires fly in on chartered planes from around the world to play a country club sport behind a wall with no fans in attendance is not a pretty one, especially now after the pandemic and the gruesome death of George Floyd have forced us to face the gross inequalities in this country.
A number of athletes in the NBA and WNBA have questioned whether their league should resume play when there are both coronavirus and social justice concerns. For a visible African-American athlete to step forward and make returning to competition part of her platform makes the USTA look good, not out of touch.
Williams, who has been to the finals the past two years, also provides the U.S. Open with an incredible storyline. At age 39, she is attempting once again to win a record-tying 24th Grand Slam title and her first since becoming a mother.
There has been a lot made about the healing power of sports and I have gone on record saying that I think that myth is overrated. But I want to enter this with an open mind. Williams, an American, winning the U.S. Open after everything we have gone through in New York would be one heck of a story.
“This is good for society,” Dowse said.. “It shows our country is opening up again. We’re getting back to some level of normalcy.”
OK, it won't be exactly normal to be competing in an empty stadium and holding postmatch news conferences via Zoom. Williams seems to know this, but she also seems to know that it is important to get back on the court.
“It’s going to be exciting. It’s been over six months since a lot of us have played professional tennis,” she said in her video. “I’ll certainly miss the fans. Don’t get me wrong. Just being out there in the New York crowd, hearing everyone cheer, I’ll miss that getting me through some tough matches. This is crazy.”
It sure is.