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serena is althea’s wildest dream come true

September 6, 2019
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It was so apropos that this US Open began with the unveiling of a statue commemorating the career of Althea Gibson, the first Black tennis star, who won Wimbledon and the US National (as the Open was previously called) in 1957 and 1958. Apropos because this year, more than ever, we saw that Gibson has many spiritual granddaughters kicking butt on the tour. I mean, if Black America was its own nation within the tennis world, we’d have the best women’s team on the planet. 

That story begins and ends with Queen Serena Williams, who (as of this writing) is once again one win away from a record 24 major titles, which will tie her for the most successful women’s Grand Slam player of all time. She’s already widely considered the best player of all time. Her powerful strokes overwhelm opponents because she hits harder than anyone else; she’s got the best serve the women’s game has ever seen, and her speed helps her cover the court amazingly well. But the thing that makes her fans the proudest is her spirit. She’s got a mountain of confidence, a warrior’s determination, and she never drags herself down. No one believes in themselves more than Serena — and it’s infectious. With that energy inside her, she goes for blood on every point, bludgeoning the ball, recalling not the balletic grace of Roger Federer but the bullish brute force of Rafael Nadal or, better, the unbridled ferocity of a young Mike Tyson. Serena makes us Beyonce-level proud, and in an era where we tell our daughters that being feminine can mean being super strong, Serena is the perfect role model.  

Serena first became #1 in the world in 2002. Coco Gauff, the new phenom, was born in 2004 — meaning she has never known a world where Serena wasn’t the best women’s tennis player on the planet. Gauff exploded this year, gaining fame after a gritty comeback win at Wimbledon. She had another gritty comeback win at the Open, showing us the depth of her belief in herself. Her grit is Serena-esque. The thrill of watching her mature before our eyes is palpable. Gauff’s loss to the extraordinary Naomi Osaka, was emotional, the post-match interview moment almost brought tears to my eyes. The grace, humility, and dignity shown by both players in that moment was beyond inspiring. 

This Open also saw the rise of Taylor Townsend, a potential new star with an aggressive serve and volley style. When I was growing up decades ago, about 30% of the pro tour was made up of serve and volley players like John McEnroe and Martina Navratilova, people who rushed the net all the time. Nowadays no one plays like that because the players are stronger, the racquets are more powerful, and the courts have been made slower, all of which combines to make it nearly impossible to have enough time to consistently serve and volley and win. But here’s Townsend making it work. She throws opponents off because they see the style so rarely that they’re not used to its demands but I suspect that if she wants to win a lot she may need to develop more of a baseline game, lest she find out why no one serves and volleys anymore. Still, Townsend’s presence in the tournament alone was a victory. A few years ago the USTA denied to continue training her because they deemed her too physically big. In an era that prizes body positivity, Townsend is a woman who rejected her detractors and her doubters and found a way to succeed in spite of what some supposed experts thought about her. 

I always find myself excited to watch Madison Keys play because she loves to wack the ball as hard as possible. There’s something really satisfying in watching her bash tit. She’s got one of the biggest serves in the game and one of the biggest forehands, too. She’s got long arms and she knows how to whip them through the ball creating a loud, powerful wallop. 

Gauff, Townsend, and Keys, along with Sloan Stephens and the tail end of Venus Williams’s storied career made this Open seem like a tribute to Gibson. And within the next year, I would expect to see 17 year-old Whitney Osuigwe crash the party. She’s already ranked around 100 in the world and is primed for a breakthrough. But for now, it remains how it has been for about 20 years: the tennis world continues to revolve around Serena. She and her sister seem to have inspired a generation of Black women to follow them into tennis and to bust in with a warrior spirit rarely seen in the sport. Not only has Serena changed the way we play tennis with her aggression, her power and her relentless drive, she’s also changed the composition of the sport by pulling a lot of Black women in with her. She is Althea Gibson’s wildest dream come true.