The Newport Casino in Rhode Island sports a shingle style façade that finds pride of place in the United States register of historic places. The beautifully architected facility, home to the international tennis hall of fame, enjoys a place of significance in the history of American tennis. It was on the pristine lawns of this complex, that Richard Sears became the winner of the US National Championship, way back in 1881. After all, the US Open, one of the world’s oldest and most celebrated tennis tournaments, had its humble beginnings as an event meant to unearth American heroes.
The Billie Jean King National Tennis Centre seems to have awoken those holy spirits again this season. The women’s draw, for the first time since 1981, has delivered four American heroes for an eagerly anticipated evening of celebrations in the heart of New York. And suddenly the tournament seems to have reacquired that sentiment and nostalgia that belonged in that era when it was a national championship.
As the protagonists’ battle for glory, the exuberant fans will be split in half as they watch the finals. Sloane Stephens and Madison Keys will vie for honours as the US Open reaches a thrilling climax. The two defeated Venus Williams and CoCo Vandeweghe in their respective semi-finals to earn a treasured date in the final.
The four women emulated the feat of Tracy Austin, Chris Evert, Martina Navratilova and Barbara Potter – who reached the semi-finals of the US Open 36 years ago.
The fact that the current quartet has accomplished the task in the absence of Serena Williams has added to the charm for delighted American fans. But while the younger Williams stays in the cozy comforts of her home, tending to a new born girl, her 37-year-old sister was eager to win some silver for her niece.
The semi-finalists spanned two, if not three generations of tennis players. Keys is 22, Stephens is two years elder to her, while Vandeweghe is 25. All three women were all but little girls, when Venus won the first of her five Wimbledon titles, seventeen years ago.
Three of the four women are of African American heritage. And the influence of the Williams sisters and audacity of their parents cannot be overstated in the context of this uniquely American celebration this weekend.
“I think you can connect some dots there,” Martin Blackman told the New York Times. As the general manager for player development at the United States Tennis Association, he is best placed to connect those dots.
“It’s the inspiration and the demonstration effect Venus and Serena have had, making the game more accessible for African-American families, making it something they can aspire to. Huge impact, and we’ve got lots coming.”
Tribute to the Williams sisters
The clash between Sloane and Venus was a tribute to the resilience of two women at the opposite ends of their career spectrums. Venus, making light of her recent battles with Sjogren’s syndrome, played some of her best tennis to force her way past several younger opponents to become the oldest semi-finalist in New York.
Raw and rough after a year away from the sport, Stephens has shown remarkable form just weeks into her return from a lengthy absence for a debilitating foot injury.
While Vandeweghe finally seems intent on fulfilling on avowed potential as a champion player, Keys has capped an impressive run this fortnight by reaching the final, after struggling for several months with her left wrist.
The presence of Venus, after all these years, and the emergence of these three young contenders is a portent that has been long awaited by the USTA.
If this marks the beginning of a new era in American tennis, the country owes a large debt of gratitude to the Williams family. Their emergence from the troubled neighbourhood of Compton in Los Angeles injected new life into the flagging fortunes of American tennis.
Even as their country’s tennis resources dried up, the Williams sisters kept the American dream afloat on the sheer strength of their determination. The two sisters have combined to collect 30 Grand Slam titles enduring injury, personal trauma, loss in interest, form and an upsurge of European contenders.
Their stories of inspiration and feats of endurance have come to define the aspirations of a new generation of kids that seem ready to bring the harvest home.
Sloane Stephens made no bones about her appreciation for the contributions of her opponent. “I think Venus is just our leader. I think as a whole, she’s just like what everyone looks up to. She’s a great player, a great person. She’s a great leader,” emphasised the American after reaching the semis.
“Being on Fed Cup teams with her, like, there is not anything bad you can say about Venus. I’m just honoured to be able to play at the same time as her. I’m happy she’s still playing. She means a lot to the game.”
The game needed this
The eighties were a glorious period for American tennis. Navratilova and Evert along with Zina Garrison and Kathy Rinaldi made the Wimbledon semi-finals in 1985, underlining the dominance of American stars during the period. In fact, seven of the eight quarter-finalists in London that year were from the USA.
After all these years, it appears that the persistence and success and Venus and Serena is rubbing off again on American tennis. With the USTA investing well over $60 million for the development of tennis, there could be plenty other stars in the pipeline.
The USTA National Campus in Lake Nona has 100 courts, including clay courts made with clay from Europe. The Orlando facility is expected to be a “game changer” for the sport in America. The American resurgence could not have timed itself any better, especially considering the volatility that has gripped women’s tennis.
The current world No. 1 Karolina Pliskova managed to hold on to the crown for a mere eight weeks. Garbine Muguruza is set to be the fourth women in just over a year to occupy the top slot on the WTA rankings.
Under the circumstances, an all-American final on Saturday could be just the right prescription for women’s tennis. The television ratings are set to spike up this weekend as America and the world tunes in to celebrate the first all-American final in the US Open since Serena beat Venus in 2002.