A week ago Friday, Serena Williams ended one of the most brilliant careers in sports history. Williams won her first two matches at the US Open. Then, with 24,000 fans roaring their support at Arthur Ashe Stadium, she lost in dramatic fashion to Australia’s Ajla Tomljanovic.
I watched Williams’ three matches with friends and family. We were riveted to a TV screen as I imagine our grandparents crowded around the radio listening to boxer Joe Louis’ fights, with all of the attendant screaming, yelling and moaning.
Williams’ emotional loss marked the end of an era and created a void that will not soon be filled: A Black American player — a Black female player — dominating the deeply entrenched whiteness of a country club sport.
At the beginning of Week 2 of the Open, the talk of the tournament was two young Black players: 18-year-old Coco Gauff and 24-year-old Frances Tiafoe. Gauff won her first two matches to earn her first Grand Slam quarterfinal berth. Tiafoe sent out shock waves on Monday when he upset the iconic Rafael Nadal.
There is such a steep mountain to climb for a new generation of players who aspire to replace, or even approximate, Williams’ impact. As I began to think of the void she was leaving and who would fill it, I experienced a wave of fatigue. It was as if I was standing at the bottom of a hill, starting from scratch, starting the climb all over again.
Are these young players, whoever they are, prepared — even willing — to carry the flag for U.S. tennis? For gender? For race? Were they prepared to have permanent targets on their backs, prepared for no days off, no easy matches? Are they prepared to handle the scrutiny — even animosity — as the novelty of newness wears off?
Do they themselves know?
Gauff said to reporters that she wanted to stay away from social media because it was getting in the way of self-discovery. “I need to live more in real life, not online,” she said.
“I’m trying to be more in real life and learn more about myself. When you’re online you’re learning about a version of yourself that isn’t attainable. I’m trying to learn about a real version of myself.”
On Tuesday, Gauff lost to Caroline Garcia despite a packed house desperately cheering for her to win. Tiafoe defeated Russia’s Andrey Rublev on Wednesday to reach the first Grand Slam semifinal of his career, becoming the first African American man to reach a US Open semifinal since Arthur Ashe in 1972. Tiafoe will play on Friday, the one-week anniversary of Williams’ final match.
Late Wednesday evening, I spoke with Martin Blackman, general manager of USTA player and coach development, about the challenge of developing more championship-caliber Black tennis players — men in particular. We touched on Tiafoe, but spoke more broadly about my sense that, with Williams’ departure, we were back at the bottom of a steep mountain.
Blackman said he didn’t see that way at all. As Williams used “evolution” to explain her departure from tennis, Blackman used evolution to explain his perspective on Black success in tennis.
There was no such thing as being back at the bottom of the hill and starting over. In Blackman’s view, the journey is about climbing mountains, one after the other, one generation after the other: the first black boxing champion, the first Black baseball player, the first Black president of the United States. It’s all about climbing mountains.
Williams was simply the latest to make the climb.
“This is about legacy,” said Blackman, who played tennis at Stanford before turning pro. “This is about people standing on other people’s shoulders all the way up.”
In Blackman’s view, Williams led young women, young Black women, to unprecedented heights. She reached several mountaintops and in the process made tennis better and made the women playing tennis better. “She’s leaving the game at such a better place than she found it,” Blackman said.
I hadn’t really looked at it that way. My perspective was filtered through the prism of a storyteller who recorded the rise of Venus and Serena Williams from the time they were 13 years old, living in Compton, California, until now, when they are in their 40s.
To drive home his point of evolution, Blackman told the story of his father, who was born in Barbados. He went to the US Open in the late 1950s and watched the great Althea Gibson play. “He was one of three Black people in the crowd,” Blackman said. More than 60 years later, there is a statue of Gibson that sits outside Arthur Ashe Stadium.
Ashe came next, winning Wimbledon, the Australian Open and the US Open. There is a statue of Ashe on the grounds of the stadium. There will — or should eventually be — statues of Venus and Serena Williams at every Grand Slam stadium.
While I can say with a degree of certainty that there will never be a tennis story quite like the Williams sisters’ story, I can say with the same certainty that there will be another fascinating story.
Blackman rattled off a list of rising juniors in the pipeline: Whitney Osuigwe, Robin Montgomery, Hailey Baptiste, Katrina Scott, Clervie Ngounoue. They are in addition to Gauff, Sloane Stephens, Madison Keys and Tiafoe.
“When I think of Serena leaving the game, I think it’s a victory for tennis,” Blackman said. “She’s inspired millions of kids — kids of color, women. She’s shown that you can make it being your authentic self.”
I’ll accept that; perhaps we are not at the bottom of a hill having to push a boulder back up the mountain.
Serena and Venus Williams led us to the peak of one mountain. Now Tiafoe, Gauff and the others find themselves at the foot of the next mountain to climb. They are the new torchbearers to light the path for others as the Williams sisters lit the path for them.
As Gauff told reporters on Tuesday, “The Williams sisters inspired me to play tennis because I saw someone like me playing a sport with not a lot of people who look like me. I hope I can be that for other kids.”
I left the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center on Wednesday evening feeling a little less exhausted at the prospect of beginning a new narrative and even encouraged. If you put Williams’ departure, Tiafoe’s success and Gauff’s improvement in the context of evolution and progress, the chasm does not seem as wide, the mountain not so steep.
“I see multiple players moving upwards in her footsteps because of her inspiration and motivation,” Blackman said.
The reality is that many are called, few are chosen, and Williams is a once-in-a-generation force of nature. But I accept Blackman’s point: We are not starting from scratch when it comes to talented Black championship-caliber tennis players in the pipeline. They are at the top of one mountain getting ready to climb another.
Progress for Black people, in and out of sports, has always been about climbing mountains. The mountains are steep, but we’ve climbed them before. We’ll climb them again.