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How the rise of the Williams sisters made way for young women of color in elite tennis

Naomi Osaka, right, embraces Coco Gauff during a

Naomi Osaka, right, embraces Coco Gauff during a courtside interview after she defeats her in the third round of the US Open tennis tournament at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center on Saturday, Aug. 31, 2019. Photo Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

The bigger names among them are gone from the U.S. Open now, but the wave of young women of color in elite tennis is becoming increasingly obvious. Naomi Osaka. Coco Gauff. Sloane Stephens. Madison Keys. Taylor Townsend.

And here is the thought experiment: Roughly a generation past the original impact of the Williams sisters, is this a see-it-and-be-it phenomenon? A culmination of the realization of possibilities, when Venus and Serena Williams began to dominate, not only by little black girls but also by their parents?

Also, with the Open this year unveiling a sculpture of Althea Gibson for having broken the sport’s color line in the early 1950s, what took so long? And, at a tournament which named its show stadium after Arthur Ashe, who in 1968 became the first black man to win a Grand Slam tournament, why not more black men making a mark at the Open?

“I can’t speak for other people,” said Townsend, the world’s top-ranked junior in 2012 who just reached her first Slam fourth round at 23 this past weekend. “But, yeah, when you see people that look like you in a sport and you have representation, it gives you hope that it can be you.”

Keys has told how she first was drawn by Venus Williams’ tennis outfits. The “blueprint” for Osaka, the Florida-raised 21-year-old who represents Japan, her mother’s country, came from her Haitian father’s fascination with the Williams sisters — and with Richard Williams’ plan to turn his daughters into champions.

Gauff, born in the tennis hotbed of Delray Beach, Florida, often trained at that city’s park where Venus and Serena practiced as children. Gauff called the sisters her idols.

“The demonstration effect is really powerful,” said Martin Blackman, the U.S. Tennis Association’s manager of player development. Blackman, himself black and a former professional player, recalls that Ashe’s success did cause an influx — though smaller and less obvious — of black men in the 1980s, as many as 10 in the Top 100.

What’s different about the growing diversity in the women’s game, Blackman said, is how the Venus-and-Serena influence “coordinated with the proliferation of tennis on TV, media, the Internet. It was just so easy for [young black girls] to connect with what they were doing and to see themselves in the game.”

Such visibility didn’t exist during Althea Gibson’s time, and not even as a handful of black women — Leslie Allen, Lori McNeil, Zina Garrison, Chanda Rubin — began to make some noise at major tournaments in the 1970s, ‘80s and ‘90s.

Clearly, now, there is “definitely way more diversity on the girls side,” Blackman said. “Definitely because of the popularity of basketball and football” among boys. Their model is far more likely to be LeBron James. Blackman also noted the “opportunity in college tennis” for women and the fact that “tennis is the most lucrative professional sport for women.”

Perhaps if MaliVai Washington, who rose as high as No. 11 on the men’s tour in the 1990s, had won his only Slam final, against Richard Krajicek at Wimbledon in 1996, it would have influenced young black boys toward tennis. Though Blackman noted how important the sustained brilliance of the Williams sisters has been — and the fact that tennis’ exposure wasn’t as great then.

Now, look: The young women of color keep coming. In juniors play on Tuesday were 18-year-olds Abigail Forbes and Katrina Scott. Both winners.

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