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Williams sisters' success inspires wave of young black players

Serena Williams, left, congratulates her sister Venus after

Serena Williams, left, congratulates her sister Venus after winning the semifinal 6-7, 6-2, 6-3 at the Rogers Cup tennis tournament Saturday Aug. 9, 2014 in Montreal. Credit: AP / Paul Chiasson

This is a day to consider that "tennis whites" did not always refer to the players' clothes. Tournament favorite Serena Williams Thursday afternoon will play her second-round U.S. Open match. That, after her Tuesday night victory over 18-year-old Taylor Townsend, one in a new wave of young black players inspired by the success of Williams and her sister Venus.

The genesis of this change goes back exactly 64 years, to when Althea Gibson became the first black athlete, male or female, to play an international tennis match.

At the time, Aug. 28, 1950, sports editor Lester Rodney wrote in New York's Daily Worker that Gibson's appearance at Forest Hills in the U.S. Nationals, forerunner to the U.S. Open, "is even a tougher personal Jim Crow-busting assignment than was Jackie Robinson's when he first stepped out of the Brooklyn Dodgers dugout."

In six years, Gibson had become the first person of color to win a major tournament (the French Open) and added two Wimbledon and two U.S. titles by 1958.

So Townsend was asked not only about the impact of Williams, 14 years her senior, but also the historical influence of Gibson, who died at 76 in 2003.

"I feel like I know her through Zina's stories, but I really don't," said Townsend, referring to her coach, Zina Garrison. "I learned a lot about her because Zina practiced with her, and said it was the most intense thing she'd done."

Garrison played the pro tour for 15 years in the 1980s and '90s and was Wimbledon runner-up to Martina Navratilova in 1990. But it wasn't until Serena Williams' 1999 U.S. title that another black American woman won a Slam event.

Australia's Evonne Goolagong, of Aboriginal descent, won the first of her seven majors in 1971 and, among U.S. blacks, there was the occasional solid pro over the years: Leslie Allen, Garrison, Lori McNeil, Chandra Rubin.

But nothing like the current group of potential Top 10 contenders from diverse backgrounds: Townsend, 19-year-old Madison Keys, 21-year-old Sloane Stephens and Serena Williams' opponent Thursday, 25-year-old Taiwanese-American Vania King.

Nine of the top 14-ranked U.S. women are African-American, Asian, Latina or mixed race. "Who knows if they would have played tennis if Venus and I didn't," Serena Williams said. "But we feel like we had something to do with it."

Television, no factor during Gibson's heyday, clearly added to the Williams sisters' effect. Keys has said that her original hankering, in watching Venus play on TV, was not to acquire Venus' tennis acumen but her tennis dress.

And, while the sisters generally have insulated themselves from the tour at large, more models than mentors, Townsend noted the obvious identity factor: "African-Americans from Compton, California, winning Grand Slam titles. Like, who would have thought? Anything's possible.

"It's not only paved the way for African-American girls but girls in general, people in general. Just has changed the game of tennis."

That Gibson's pioneering did not quickly take root does not surprise Venus Williams, who has seven major titles to go with Serena's 17.

"Serena and I played in a different time, where you're able to have opportunities," she said. "And people love to be on the side of a winner. The things that everyone did -- women's rights, civil rights -- all those things are from a different time, thank God.

"I'm not saying it's a perfect time now, but it's a different time. So, yes, I think that Serena and I influenced lots of young people, lots of African-Americans."

Fashions change, in attire and otherwise. But imitation can be a powerful thing.

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