The main event of the United States Open on Saturday will be Serena Williams playing Sloane Stephens: a third-round duel between Williams, the greatest women’s tennis player of her era, and Stephens, the last American to win a U.S. Open singles title.
It will be their first match in more than five years, and although both players have had their struggles since the restart of the tour, it could be quite a tussle.
It will also be a timely reminder of how many Black players have flowed into tennis in the age of the Williams sisters, a wave of growth that has been more evident in the women’s game than in the men’s game.
In this year’s women’s singles tournament, there were 12 American players who are Black, some of them multiracial and four of them recipients of wild cards from the United States Tennis Association.
“I can’t imagine we’ve been even close to that, ever,” said Martin Blackman, the general manager of player development at the U.S.T.A.
That official tally does not include Naomi Osaka, who was born in Japan but spent most of her childhood in the United States and whose family used the Williamses’ story and success as a template. Osaka’s father is Haitian and her mother is Japanese, and Osaka seriously considered representing the United States before choosing to play for Japan.
The Black players from the U.S. represent nearly one-tenth of the field of 128 women. The sport relies heavily on players from outside the United States, and some leading Europeans and Australians have been absent from this tournament because of the coronavirus pandemic.
“It’s awesome,” Stephens, 27, said. “I think it’s an amazing opportunity for right now to get more people of color in this sport, because you can see there are so many amazing players playing.”
The 25-year age gap is no coincidence. It corresponds to the length of the Williams sisters’ professional careers. Though there are legitimate concerns about the dwindling numbers of junior tennis players in the United States, the Williamses have clearly inspired more diversity within the sport.
“It all starts with Venus and Serena,” said Blackman, who is Black. “That demonstration effect. The power of seeing two African-American girls with braids in the finals of the biggest tournaments in the world in a predominantly white sport. Just a huge impact that really can’t be overstated. That attracted thousands of girls into the sport, not just African-American but all backgrounds and races.”
Consider that at the 2010 U.S. Open, which Serena missed because of injury, Venus was the only African-American player in the women’s singles draw.
“That’s crazy,” said Hailey Baptiste, 18, who received a U.S. Open wild card and is one of the brightest Black prospects. “I feel like it’s amazing to see so many girls that look like me playing in the tournament and the main draw.”
Blackman said the Williams story also spoke to parents because it proved that great financial means were not a prerequisite for great success in an expensive, international sport.
“There’s a certain type of pragmatism among a lot of the parents of the African-American girls that are coming into the pathway,” he said. “It’s a feeling they can do it without having to do everything that people with money do; a willingness to do whatever it takes with the means folks have that I can really see is part of the demonstration effect the Williams have.”
Blackman said at U.S.T.A. training camps at various levels, there were an average of “about 15 percent African-American girls” with those initiatives partly designed to increase outreach to minority groups.
That is slightly higher than the percentage of people in the U.S. population who identify as African-American or Black, either alone or in combination with other races, according to U.S. census estimates.
There has yet to be a similar trend in the boy’s game or on the men’s tour. Blackman said at the equivalent U.S.T.A. boys camps, the Black participation rate was “about 5 to 7 percent.”
Frances Tiafoe, who is into the third round in men’s singles at the U.S. Open, is, at No. 82, the only American man ranked in the top 100 who is Black; Michael Mmoh the only other in the top 200.
That is quite a contrast with the 10 American women in the top 200 who are Black: approximately one-third of the world-leading 31 Americans in the WTA’s top 200.
“Tennis is one of those sports that has the most opportunities for women,” said Chanda Rubin, a former top-10 player who was part of a generation of Black players who preceded the Williamses on tour. “The challenge is to put rackets in the hands of kids. It’s always a bit tricky, but it certainly was a big factor to have these two women who have completely changed the sport over the last 15, 20 years.”
Tiafoe, 22, who reached the quarterfinals of the Australian Open in 2019, is the son of immigrants from Sierra Leone. He began playing tennis because his father was a maintenance worker at the Junior Tennis Champions Center in College Park, Md., which has helped develop a number of other talented players, including Montgomery, Baptiste and Denis Kudla.
Tiafoe said he believes a new wave of American men who are Black could enter the game if he makes a major impact.
“It will take a guy like me doing something abnormal or doing something big, where it goes beyond the sport of tennis,” he said in an interview.
Blackman was 5 years old when Arthur Ashe defeated Jimmy Connors in 1975 to win the men’s singles title at Wimbledon. In the 1980s, there was a significant rise in the number of Black men in the top 200 in the rankings, with players like Yannick Noah, Chip Hooper and Rodney Harmon making an impact.
“That’s the Arthur Ashe effect,” Blackman said.
In essence, there are cycles of effect.
More Black players is only one component of the American success this year. There were 11 American women of any race in the third round in singles at the U.S. Open, including No. 4-ranked Sofia Kenin. That is the most since 1989 and the most at any Grand Slam tournament since Wimbledon in 1994.
The American depth is in line with a clear trend that would be a fitting tribute to the Williamses, who at this late stage of their careers, are not certain to play another U.S. Open together.
“When I started, I didn’t really know what tennis was about,” said Baptiste, who began by hitting with her father, Quasim. “Once I started to play more, I started watching Venus and Serena. I had somebody to look up to, somebody I wanted to play like, and then I got to meet them at the Washington Kastles team tennis event, and that just pushed me even more.”
Now, she has practiced several times with Venus Williams since they both played World Team Tennis earlier this year.
“Venus has been going out of her way to extend herself to show Hailey, ‘You can do this too,’” Quasim Baptiste said. “We are beyond appreciative.”
Stephens also has reached out, and practiced with Baptiste at the National Tennis Center on Friday in preparation for her match with Serena Williams.
What is exciting about the next wave of Black players is not just the quantity but the quality. “We’re lifting each other up; pushing each other,” Baptiste said.
Gauff is already ranked 51 at age 16 and has won a tour title in Linz, Austria, and reached the fourth round of Wimbledon and the Australian Open, where she beat Osaka in January.
Montgomery and Scott were part of the United States team that won the Junior Fed Cup last year. Clervie Ngounoue, a powerful 14-year-old, reached the final of the prestigious international junior event, Les Petits As, in France in January and is already receiving some financial backing from Patrick Mouratoglou, Serena Williams’s coach, who is French.
“Clervie is a special talent,” Blackman said.
But potential is no guarantee of success in a sport as Darwinian as tennis. The Williamses’ story is so powerful in part because it is so improbable: two sisters training in Compton, Calif., with a father with no formal background in the sport both reaching No. 1 and becoming great and enduring champions.
“I think it’s important not to kind of limit the thesis of Venus and Serena bringing more girls into the sport to just African-American girls,” Blackman said. “I think they’ve been just as compelling for girls of every race and background.”