Obviously, the highlight of the 2017 Australian Open was the women’s championship match between Serena and Venus Williams. It was a match for the ages in more ways than one.
For black tennis fans, the final was a thrilling prelude to Black History month, with Serena again rewriting the books by becoming the all-time Grand Slam winner in the open era – that includes the men’s tour.
But I want to reflect for a moment on another milestone that occurred during the fortnight Down Under, one that did not get nearly the attention as the potential duel between the Williams sisters as they plowed their way to the final.
Frances Tiafoe Jr., one of two African-American teenagers playing in the main draw, clinched his first Grand Slam victory in five major appearances. He defeated 98th-ranked Mikhail Kukushkin, 6-1, 6-7, 6-3, 6-2 in the first round. He lost in the next round to 19-year-old German sensation Alexander Zverev.
The victory was a confidence booster for Tiafoe, who came close to notching his first major win at last year’s U.S. Open where he took top American player John Isner, ranked No 20 at the time, to five sets. Tiafoe, who recently turned 19, served for the match but apparently was unable to manage the big moment.
Michael Mmoh, the other African-American teen at the Aussie Open, was less fortunate in Melbourne. He lost in straight sets in the first round to No.25 seed Gilles Simon, a saavy veteran who has ranked as high as No. 6.
Both players, among the ATP World Tour’s “next generation” of tennis stars, had to play their way into the first of the four annual major tournaments. Tiafoe earned his berth through the qualifying rounds, while Mmoh gained entry by winning the United States Tennis Association Pro Circuit Australian Open Wildcard Challenger.
By tournament’s end, Tiafoe, who turned pro in 2015, was again among the top 100 players in the world (ranked 97 on Jan. 30). Mmoh is ranked 193.
Both players established impressive records as juniors, each having reached as high as No. 2 in the world. Mmoh, 19, is the reigning USTA boys national champion. Tiafoe was the youngest player ever to win the prestigious Orange Bowl tournament at age 15.
I call attention to these rising stars because their success is critical to the growth of tennis in black communities. At a time when tennis participation is gaining all across America, there are signs of stagnation among African Americans.
In it’s latest study, the Tennis Industry Association found while tennis participation increased slightly overall in 2015 – it was lead by a 12.2 percent jump among Hispanics – participation in the sport among blacks fell by 2 percent.
And in its African-American Engagement Guide, the USTA acknowledges a decline in the number of blacks playing tennis, even though they are “super fans.”
“Despite being a group that watches a lot of tennis, African-Americans are less likely to play than many other groups,” the guide says.
Those are disturbing findings considering the rich history of African Americans in tennis and efforts by the USTA, the American Tennis Association, the oldest black sports organization in America, and others to grow the sport.
The tennis industry data also seem to belie the influence the Williams sisters have had on growing the sport in black neighborhoods.
Who knows how much longer Serena and Venus will play, especially Venus who suffers from an energy-sapping disease. But there are African-American women — Madison Keys and Sloane Stephens, for example — primed to fill the void.
On the men’s side, no African American has won a Grand Slam since Arthur Ashe captured the Wimbledon title in 1975. Ashe also reached a No. 1 ranking.
So a lot of eyes and hopes are on Tiafoe and Mmoh, whom many believe could contend for the sport’s top crowns, particularly the U.S. Open, which Ashe won in 1968.
Now, about those Williams sisters. What a run they had in Melbourne!
I doubt I was the only fan with mixed feelings while watching the match. I was torn between a desire to see Serena break the open-era Grand Slam record and Venus winning her 8th major title to end a nine-year drought.
But let’s put such ambivalence aside and feast on some of the highlights of their championship match.
Their combined age of 71 years and 351 days was a record for a Women’s Tennis Association Grand Slam.
Venus at age 36 and 225 days was the oldest woman to play in an Australian Open final. Serena was the second oldest at 35 years and 125 days.
Venus returned to a Grand Slam final after the longest gap in women’s tennis history. She had last played a final at Wimbledon in 2009. Venus also had the longest absence from an Australian Open final, 14 years, before returning this year.
And it was the first all-American Aussie final since Serena defeated Lindsay Davenport in 2005.
The first Grand Slam match against each other was in the second round of the 1998 Australian Open.
Serena’s victory over Venus gave her 23 Grand Slam singles titles, breaking her tie with Steffi Graff, for the most all time. She is one slam behind Margaret Court’s all-time record of 24.
Serena also reclaimed her No.1 world ranking with the win.
Now consider these combined career stats: 565 Grand Slam match wins; 30 Grand Slam singles titles; 14 Grand Slam doubles crowns, 21 overall and three Olympic Gold Medals; 121 WTA titles; $116.3 million in prize money.
Not too shabby for two black girls who climbed straight out of Compton, Calif., to the penthouse of international tennis and now have a reservation in the sport’s Hall of Fame.