That Sloane Stephens became only the third African American woman to win the U.S. Open women’s tennis championship speaks volumes about how far they’ve come since Althea Gibson made history in 1957. That race wasn’t a part of the narrative as she carved her place on the Mount Rushmore of Black female tennis players with her victory stands as the testament to the impact Venus and Serena Williams on the American game.
Gibson broke down the barriers that allowed Venus and Serena to become the most dominant family United States tennis history. However, it was the Williams sisters who ushered in the post racial era of their sport as icons for the next generation. They are ambassadors and role models for the future of tennis in stars and stripes entering the twilight of their playing careers. While neither was at Arthur Ashe Stadium for this final their impact could be felt on America’s center court.
There was no symbolic passing of torch as Stephens made quick work of her good friend and fellow American Madison Keys 6-3 6-0 to win her first major title in only 61 minutes. Millennials don’t carry things that way. They take what they want. On the road to this milestone she beat a Williams sister for the second time at a major tournament.
Stephens ended Venus’ run at this year’s U.S. Open by winning a three set marathon 6-1, 0-6, 7-5 in the semifinals. She previously beat Serena at the 2009 Australian Open in one of the biggest upsets in tennis history. You know Stephens had arrived when Serena unfriended her on Facebook and stopped following her on Twitter.
Stephens remains deferential to the Williams sisters though not intimidated by their shadows that hover over the women’s game. This final personified the impact of how Venus and Serena have revolutionized their sport. Power and athleticism are what makes them champions. Class and character are what made them role models for this year’s finalists.
Stephens is a counterpuncher in an era of women with blistering power who deliver knockouts with powerful serves. Though Stephens lacks the big serve that can swing the momentum of a match she covers the entire court effortlessly turning what are often winners into extra shots during long rallies. Her long, graceful strides allow her to come to the net with the ease of a gazelle and demoralize opponents like she did to Keys during this abbreviated final.
That athleticism is not by accident. Her father, John, was destined for stardom after his rookie season with the New England Patriots where he rushed for the second most yards in team history. His former NFL coach Raymond Berry, who was Johnny Unitas’ primary target with the old Baltimore Colts, once compared John Stephens to Jim Brown. Her mother Sybil was an all-American swimmer for Boston College so championship pedigree is part of her DNA.
This historic milestone is understated much like Stephens personality. She’s not the face of endorsements yet. There are no screams to generate power on the court. Her voice speaks when she turns an opponent’s baseline winner into a volley to steal the point.
After 11 months off recovering from wrist surgery Stephens was unseeded heading into the tournament. Afterwards her humility was clear despite earning $3.4 million which is the largest purse of her career. There was the quiet understanding of the significance of the moment.
Stephens now stands on the shoulders of the Williams sisters as they once stood on the shoulders of Gibson holding the greatest trophy in American tennis.