Madison Keys and Sloane Stephens squaring off in the US Open women’s final was a landmark moment, made possible due to the struggles of the likes of Althea Gibson, Arthur Ashe and the Williams sisters.
On Friday night, the United States Tennis Association took a moment to recognise a historic breakthrough. This year marks the 60th anniversary of Althea Gibson’s first triumph at the US Open. In 1957, Gibson became the first African-American to win the championship in New York.
The following night, Madison Keys and Sloane Stephens squared off in the US Open women’s final. It was not the first time that two African-American women had met at this stage. But it was a landmark moment nonetheless; an endearing one too. After Stephens posted a comfortable win, the two friends held each other in a long embrace at the net. Words of support were exchanged and it was a genuinely high point for tennis. The friendship aside, the final marked the promise of a future where African American athletes will continue to set themselves apart.
For a couple of generations, Serena and Venus Williams have flown the flag high for black athletes. This time around, though, Serena was absent owing to her pregnancy. But African-American women made their presence felt nevertheless.
All four semifinalists came from the US for the first time in New York since 1981, with only being a white American – CoCo Vandeweghe. The fact was not lost on the current crop of players. Stephens discussed Gibson’s legacy after her semifinal win over Venus. “We are following in her footsteps. She’s been here. She’s represented the game so well as an African-American woman. Maddie (Keys) and I are here to join her and represent just as well as Venus has in the past, and honoured to be here.”
Until the age of 23, Gibson did not even enjoy the opportunity to play against white opponents. But her activism won the rights for which tennis players have been grateful ever since. Stephens is 24 and Keys just 22. Their run to the final confirmed the centrality of African-American players in the country’s tennis scene.
Both Keys and Stephens have overcome not just injury problems but have also matured as tennis players. This was not the first time they made it to the deep end of a Grand Slam tournament but their second coming suggests they are better placed to tackle what lies ahead. Not to forget, Venus was the only player to play two Slam finals this year. Her sister, Serena, will be expected to return next year.
But it’s not just the country’s present which seems set to be dominated by African-American athletes. Arguably, its future too as highly-touted teenagers Dalayna Hewitt and Cori Gauff are expected to break through on the senior circuit in the coming years.
But more importantly, it is the legacy of the Williams sisters which seems set to be carried forward. Keys and Stephens have not arrived out of the blue. They had long been expected to make the breakthrough that they did. They looked up to the sisters against whom they compete now. Keys has repeatedly said that Venus was the inspiration behind her picking up a racket. Stephens also spoke about her admiration for the older Williams after defeating her in the semifinal earlier this week.
But the warm reception afforded to both of them in New York is a remarkable contrast to how the Williams sisters were received back in the late ‘90s. After Venus made her first Slam final at home in 1997, Sports Illustrated recognised the racial politics which engulfed her rise by calling her the ‘Party Crasher’. US’s difficult relationship with black athletes has surfaced time and again during the course of the Williams’ careers.
It took 15 years for Venus to feel accepted at her home Slam. After her exit from the 2012 US Open, the two-time champion spoke about the cheery support she received at the Arthur Ashe Stadium. “There were a lot of people shouting out. I know this is not proper tennis etiquette, but this is the first time that I’ve ever played here that the crowd was behind me like that. Today I felt American, you know, for the first time at the US Open. So I’ve waited my whole career to have this moment, and here it is.”
The Williams sisters’ outspoken ways did not endear them to everybody. They were judged by different standards and they did not always “feel” American. But gradually, through the dint of their achievements, they were able to garner widespread approval without ever seeming to covet it. They reveled in the perception that they were breaking unsaid conventions. They needed to, because the existing conventions were loaded against them.
But the gendered and racial anxieties around them and other African-American athletes exist to this day. The Williams’ success, however, ensured that the likes of Stephens didn’t have to fight for public support like they did. Just like Gibson and Arthur Ashe had made it acceptable for African-American players to enter and win tournaments, the Williams sisters made it possible that their black compatriots could compete and dominate without being labelled ‘party crashers’.
Interestingly, this year also marks the 20th anniversary of the Arthur Ashe Stadium’s opening. While questions remain over the venue’s aesthetic dimensions, it was an iconic moment in tennis history to name it after him. Just four years after Ashe lost his battle with AIDS, the biggest stadium in tennis carried his name. It was a testament to the conversations he guided around the issues of AIDS and race during his lifetime, in addition to his accomplishments as a tennis player.
Although it would be impossible to go into the details of Ashe’s life here, it must be remembered that he chose an integrationist path. Unlike Muhammad Ali, the Richmond-born tennis player identified himself as a moderate and he was deeply moved by Martin Luther King Jr.’s ideas.
However, his belief in the role that sport could play in activism was shaped by Ali. “He was largely responsible for it becoming an expected part of a black athlete’s responsibility to get involved,” Ashe once said of the boxer. In fact, the year the Arthur Ashe Stadium was opened in New York, Ali was the recipient of the Arthur Ashe Award for Courage at the ESPY awards in the same city.
It is important to recall the discussions around race, and also gender, engineered by the likes of Gibson, Ashe, Ali and the Williams sisters because they continue to divide American society. As Ta-Nehisi Coates powerfully wrote in a recent essay, Donald Trump is America’s first white president. Trump’s “entire political existence hinges on the fact of a black president”, on the negation of Barack Obama’s politics. The racism which has defined his administration has left many disturbed about what it means to be African-American in a divided country.
The white nationalist, neo-Nazi riots in Ashe’s home state, Virginia, last month made its presence felt at this year’s US Open too. On the day Gibson was remembered, Dutchman Jean-Julien Rojer wore a shirt printed with the image of Statue of Liberty for the men’s doubles final. Rojer has lived in Florida since the age of 12 and he wanted to send a message of freedom and peace in light of the violence in Virginia.
“The idea came after the tragic incident in Charlottesville, and we (Rojer and his friend) came up with this line, promoting peace and freedom and liberty. Hopefully we’re moving in that direction. I’ve been here since I’m 12 years old and I’m happy they let me in and I got to do my job here. So hopefully we will create those opportunities for everybody.”
In Ashe’s hometown, Richmond (Virginia), his statue stands out on Monument Avenue. Not just because he is an iconic figure. Ashe is the only black man there, among statues commemorating figures from the Confederacy. It’s a measure of Ashe’s standing in American society that, despite widespread opposition, his statue was installed there three years after he passed away.
In today’s troubled times where white nationalists are looking to reiterate their nauseating supremacy, the success of Stephens, Keys and Venus and the support they have received from the crowd in New York is gratifying. All the American semifinalists mentioned during the tournament that home support carried them through tough moments. All of them flirted with defeat but the raucous fans were right behind them.
It is a legacy in which one can find the shining contributions of all the African American players who pushed the conversation on race. Stephens and Keys know they belong to this special tradition, even though neither of them is overtly political in the mould of Serena.
Earlier this year, the USTA decided to do its bit for the refurbishment of a tennis court in Lynchburg (Virginia). It was the training ground for Dr Robert Walter Johnson who mentored the likes of Ashe and Gibson there. The court, though, was lying in poor condition for years after Dr Johnson’s demise but a campaign by his family finally caught the USTA’s attention this year.
Katrina Adams, who became the first African-American USTA president two years ago, deserves credit for responding to the request. It is not expected to be long before the premises in Lynchburg can function as a museum and tennis court. The 60th anniversary of Gibson’s victory made it an appropriate time to return Dr Johnson to his rightful place in tennis history.
Such contributions by the USTA and players ensure that African-Americans can continue to identify themselves in the world of tennis. In times when the presidency of the US is guided by the ideas of white supremacy, there was a joy in watching African-American athletes stand out over the past fortnight. Even before Stephens played Keys in the final, little victories had been gained. It was a glory worth aspiring for.