“This is the first time I’ve ever played here that the crowd has been behind me like that. Today I felt American, you know, for the first time at the US Open. So I’ve waited my whole career to have this moment, and here it is.”
These words were spoken by Venus Williams after she had lost a three-set match to Angelique Kerber before a raucously supportive late-night crowd at Flushing Meadows in 2012. She wasn’t kidding when she said she had to wait her whole career for that moment; believe it nor not, it wasn’t until her 14th US Open that this future Hall of Famer, who has won four Olympic gold medals for the United States, said she "felt American" in America's biggest city.
Over the past week we have been reminded, courtesy of Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling, that racism still exists in sports. Venus and Serena Williams, obviously, could have told you that. If it can happen in the NBA, a league dominated by African-Americans, it can certainly happen in tennis, which has often been described as “lily white.” In his new autobiography, "Black and White," Richard Williams writes:
“In tennis ... there was a crowd and I had often heard it grow ugly. I was never sure for whom it cheered. Many people said to me, ‘I’m not pulling against your daughter, we’re just pulling for the underdog.’ It only reminded me how when we first came up, people pulled against us even when we were the underdog.”
Tennis, perhaps because of its exclusivity, has always been a forum for determined American outsiders to prove themselves. Pancho Gonzalez, Billie Jean King, Jimmy Connors, Althea Gibson, Arthur Ashe and Andre Agassi were all champions who started somewhere other than the local country club. Looking beyond U.S. borders, it’s hard to think of another sport that’s as nationalistically diverse. If you want to learn about foreign countries and their residents, tennis isn’t a bad place to start. Over the years, watching and listening to Alexandr Dolgopolov, Sergiy Stakhovsky, Elina Svitolina and Andrei Medvedev has given me more of a glimpse into Ukraine and its collective personality than the evening news has. These days, tennis brings the world to us.
Yet as Venus Williams said, acceptance can still be slow when it comes to blacks in the United States. We all know what happened to Serena at Indian Wells in 2001, but even at the Open, when a young Venus or her sister faced a fellow American like Jennifer Capriati, there was an edge in Ashe Stadium, and it cut decisively against the Williamses. But it would be wrong to say that the sisters haven’t had a tangible, positive effect on the game and who plays it. It’s not a coincidence that an unprecedented number of promising U.S. prospects -- Sloane Stephens, Madison Keys, Taylor Townsend -- are African-American.
Tennis players can be beholden to agents, sponsors and tours, but they aren't "owned" the way athletes are in team sports. Prodigies from the U.S. and Western Europe still have a leg up when it comes to training and publicity, but that hasn’t kept Eastern Europeans from virtually taking over the sport in the past two decades; the determined outsider is still at the center of the game.
In the near future, when those ultimate outsiders, Venus and Serena, retire, we'll look to define their legacy. We'll mention how they brought power to tennis, and we'll be right: They showed that the power -- to succeed and to define yourself -- is with the player.