History was made at this year’s US Open tennis championships, but you will have to dig deep to find any mention of it in mainstream media.
For the first time ever, three of the four women playing in the women’s singles semi-finals were African American – Madison Keys, Sloane Stephens and Venus Williams. The fourth semi-finalist was another American, Coco Vandeweghe.
When the curtain closed after the semi-final performances, the stage was set for a historic encore. For the first time, two African-American women would play in a Grand Slam final, neither of whom is named Williams.
It is a testament to the legacy of Venus, who has won seven Grand Slam championships – two US Open and five Wimbledon titles — and her younger sister, Serena Williams, the all-time modern-era Grand Slam winner. (Serena took a leave of absence to have a baby after capturing her record 23rd major title while pregnant at the Australian Open in January.)
When the 16th-ranked Keys clinched her semi-final berth on Day 10 in Flushing Meadows, N.Y., to round out the Open’s final four, tennis officials, analysts and commentators lauded the fact that four American women would be playing in a US Open semi-final for the first time in 36 years.
Nothing was said about the historical fact that three of the four were black.
I was pretty sure this was a history-making achievement, but I called upon black tennis historian Bob Davis for confirmation.
“This is a first,” Davis told me via email. “The important thing is what Venus stated, that we all should recognize Serena’s contribution in motivating black women to reach for the stars.”
Not only was it a first for a Grand Slam event, it probably was a first for any WTA tour-level tournament.
But as remarkable as Madison’s, Sloane’s and Venus’s collective achievement was, perhaps just as remarkable were their individual storylines leading up to the semis of the biggest and final Grand Slam of the tennis season.
In the amped up conversation preceding the tournament, Madison and Sloane were considered dark horse contenders at best. Both began the 2017 season on the injured list and had only recently returned to playing at a level that had them pegged as potential No. 1 contenders.
Madison, 22, was out the first two months following wrist surgery. After a scratchy few months that included first-round losses in Rome and Madrid and second-round exits at the French Open and Wimbledon, Madison began to find her form a couple of weeks before the US Open. She won the Bank of the West Classic in Stanford, knocking out the 2017 Wimbledon champion and WTA No. 1 Garbine Muguruza in the semi-finals.
Sloane, 24, was out for 11 months, including the first half of the year, with a foot injury. Sloane, who defeated Serena to reach the 2013 Australian Open semi-finals and had been ranked as high as No. 12, had plummeted to No. 957 on the WTA tour. When I saw her play at the Citi Open in Washington, D.C., in early August, a tournament she won in 2015, she seemed listless and out of sorts. But she rebounded to reach the semi-finals of her next three tournaments, including the US Open.
As for Venus, she was very much on the tennis experts’ A-List of potential winners of this year’s championship. After all, she had been playing some of the best tennis of her Hall-of-Fame worthy career — at age 37 — having reached the finals in Australia and at Wimbledon and amassing $3.5 million in prize money. She also had climbed back into the WTA’s Top 10.
The semi-final matchups pitted Sloane against Venus and Madison versus Coco at night in the 23,000-plus-seat Arthur Ashe Stadium, the largest in tennis. In the first match, Sloane’s athleticism and defense proved to be too much for Venus to overcome. Sloane won 6-1, 0-6, 7-5.
“I have no words to describe what I’m feeling, what it took to get here,” said Sloane, whose ranking will climb to at least 22 after the tournament.
A little later, Madison’s power game prevailed to give her a 6-1, 6-2 victory and set up a championship match against Sloane. It is the first Grand Slam final for both players. The last time two Americans played in the US Open women’s final was in 2002. That was Williams vs. Williams. Serena won.
Regardless of who hoists this year’s silver Tiffany winner’s trophy after the final, it will represent another milestone in black tennis history.