It was white – lily white. In leafy enclaves, tennis was played with white balls by white folks in white gear.
Not anymore. Today, on the 60th anniversary of African-American Althea Gibson winning the US Nationals, two millennial African-Americans stepped out onto a court named after a transcendent African-American, Arthur Ashe, to compete for a fortune that was generously provided by the USTA, an organization now headed by the African-American Katrina Adams. Go figure.
But you know what? Some people didn’t even notice. Rarely do millennials Madison Keys and Sloane Stephens reflect on race or call for racial justice. But others put things into perspective. Mary Carillo told IT, “We’re going crazy about it on The Tennis Channel. My big thing is that we started the season with Venus and Serena, two veteran African-Americans who’ve changed tennis, and now we end it with two young African-Americans. That’s a big deal. It’s the 60th anniversary of Althea winning, it’s the 50th anniversary next year of Arthur winning the first US Open, it’s the 20th anniversary of Ashe Stadium. This is huge. The thing is that Madison doesn’t normally identify necessarily as being African-American, but she is. This is a game-changer – this is no lark. Maybe it’s taken a little longer than people expected for them to shine. I’m thrilled. Aren’t you?”
Well, yes, Mary, I am. After all, this is the day that the revolution for an open, inclusive game won. Yes, there is still much work to do, but to have two African-Americans not named Venus or Serena battling for millions, and there’s not a whole lot of drama around it – well, that says something.
Truth be told, there was virtually no drama about today’s final between two sublime athletes who have much in common.
Years ago, both Sloane Stephens and Madison Keys emerged as phenoms – “Here’s the next Serena,” said the hypesters. Both swept to Aussie Open semis – Sloane in 2013, Madison in 2015. Then both struggled. Sloane had a ‘tude problem and, for the longest time, couldn’t win tournaments. Madison had all the power in the world. At one French Open her groundies were measured to be faster than any other woman or man. But the critics howled. She couldn’t craft points, she failed to harness her power and didn’t compete that well – harsh!
Then, this year, Madison had to undergo two wrist surgeries and, worse yet, Sloane was sidelined with a horrid foot injury. Her future looked dim. When she finally returned, she lost her first matches at Wimbledon and in D.C. Then magic struck. In Toronto she saved three match points against Lucie Safarova, and prevailed to reach the semis there, and again in Cincy. The girl who once took things for granted, who seemed to be rather entitled, now was a woman with perspective. Hobbling about on a peg leg invites humility. Once the California girl baffled observers with her maddening cool and her flatline nonchalance. Win, lose, fight, give in – whatever.
But now America saw grit, athleticism, and, amazingly, mature emotional intelligence. What gives?
To her coach, Kamau Murray, it was about her gaining perspective from hanging around with his hardscrabble kids from the mean streets of Chicago’s storied South Side. “Toughness, perseverance, hard work, humility, that’s what she learned,” Kamau told IT. “There’s a new fighter in town – and her name is Sloane Stephens,” noted Chris Evert, who has known her since she was five. “And I never thought I would hear myself say that.”
What US Open fans heard seven times were the words, “Game, Set and Match, Stephens.” This was tennis as shock therapy. Yes, ancient Jimmy Connors grabbed our imaginations in 1991 with his feel-good run to the US Open semis. Nothing-to-lose teens Boris Becker and Maria Sharapova shocked us with their out-of-nowhere Wimbledon wins. But today, after her 6-3, 6-0 triumph over Keys, Sloane kept saying, “This is insane.”
Just five weeks ago Stephens was worried about the critical nuances of WTA protected rankings. She was No. 957 in the world. But whoosh! – in New York she was suddenly a force of nature. An oh-so-trim lightweight, she’s tennis’ answer to boxer Sugar Ray Leonard. Taking full advantage of a decent draw, she won four three-set matches. And when it got down to crunch time in her prime time match with a legend, she rebuffed Venus Williams – whom she described as “our leader” – in a semifinal battle that demanded grit, resilience, quickness and finesse.
Stephens has an effortless, quicksilver speed. The girl glides. Is she a tennis player or a Tai-Chi savant? She absorbs your power, then waits. Does she gloat inwardly when you falter? She frustrates her baffled foes. Defense-to-offense is her thing. She throws you change-ups, gives you different looks and spins, and uses the whole court. Then, just when you think she’s merely an adept scrambler, she’ll unleash a right upper cut – a mighty forehand down the line or a no-nonsense laser volley. In the final, the 134-pound 24-year-old with a pony tail took the considerable Maddy to the mat. Keys is known for her campaign against on-line bullying. Today she was bullied on court.
Ms. Billie Jean King, the Hollywood royal Emma Stone, and over 23,000 fans wanted a classic. What they got was 1:01 blow-out. Keys was nervous. She had a huge wrap on her thigh and her massive forehand repeatedly found the net or flew long. Her frustration was clear. After her errors – she had 30 of them – she kicked at the ball or vented by slamming it into the net. In the fifth game of the first set, Stephens broke Keys. Her coach knew his gal was home free. Soon after, she would win eight straight games.
After she won the Open, Sloane beamed. She hugged her weeping foe and then spoke of Madison’s goodness how wonderful her mom had been when things were grim. She praised her extraordinary coach and later showed her millennial chops. When told that she only had six errors in the final, she laughed, “Shut the front door! Oh, my God, that’s a stat! Snaps for me!”
As for me, I thought of Althea Gibson, the courageous Jackie Robinson of our sport who lived long in poverty in Jersey. She could have used some of the $3.7 million Sloane banked today. A jazz singer, she would have appreciated Sloane’s nuanced cool. And she would have laughed, too.
When a female reporter asked whether Sloane had a hunger to win more Slams, Stephens didn’t miss a beat. “Of course, girl” she said. “Did you see that check that lady handed me?”