After Coco Gauff won the US Open women’s singles Saturday by defeating Aryna Sabalenka in a dazzling three-set match, she made sure to praise the Black women who lifted her so she could lift her first Grand Slam trophy.
“Carrying their legacy that they left means a lot to me — Serena and Venus especially, Althea especially,” Gauff said in an interview after her championship-winning match. “I’m a product of their legacy and all the trials and tribulations they went through, and I wouldn’t have this trophy if it wasn’t for them.”
Gauff was referring to the great Althea Gibson who, in 1956, became the first Black tennis player to win a Grand Slam tournament. And, of course, Venus and Serena Williams, who dominated the past quarter-century of women’s tennis and birthed a new generation of Black superstars in pro tennis.
Call it the “Venus and Serena effect.”
It’s not just Gauff. Madison Keys, a 2023 US Open semifinalist, calls Serena her “forever idol” and the reason she wanted to pursue a professional tennis career. Sloane Stephens, a 2017 US Open winner, said she grew up with a poster of the 23-time Grand Slam singles winner on her wall.
Before last year’s US Open, Naomi Osaka, a four-time Grand Slam champion, said, “I think that [Serena’s] legacy is really wide to the point where you can’t even describe it in words. She changed the sport so much. She’s introduced people that have never heard of tennis into the sport. I think I’m a product of what she’s done. I wouldn’t be here without Serena, Venus, her whole family.”
In singles and doubles, the Williams sisters have won a combined 60 Grand Slam titles. Serena retired last year, but Venus is still playing — meaning she could still add to that astonishing number.
Certainly, the great ones are winners. But the legends don’t just inspire. They are lanterns to light the way and chase away the darkness, especially in a nation more likely to denigrate Black women than celebrate them. The Williams sisters represent for this generation what Gibson was for those who came after her.
When Gibson died in 2003, Zina Garrison, who in 1990 became the first Black woman to reach a Wimbledon final since Gibson, said, “She knew she opened the door for all of us, and she was so excited about all the women who followed her.”
Sometimes to be it, it helps to see it.
What Gibson and the Williams sisters also did was bring their whole authentic selves to every court where they played. From the sisters’ iconic braided and beaded hair worn early in their careers to Serena’s celebratory “C-walk” dance after she won her first gold medal at the 2012 Olympics, they were unabashed in their Blackness and culture.
This is why there’s been no similar effect during the illustrious career of Tiger Woods. While he has influenced white golfers like Justin Thomas and Jordan Spieth, when Woods won the Masters Tournament in 1997 there was an expectation that the then-21-year-old phenom’s presence would inspire Black golfers and bring them into the game.
And that might have happened if Woods hadn’t been perceived as eager to distance himself from Blackness. (He’s the son of a Black father and a Thai mother.) In a 1997 interview with Oprah Winfrey, Woods said as a child he concocted a new word to describe himself — “Cablinasian,” a reflection of his Caucasian, Black, Indian, and Asian heritage. Of course, that’s his prerogative. But throughout his career, Woods has never found a social or racial justice issue with which he was willing to publicly align.
Compare that to the seven masks Osaka wore during the 2020 US Open, each bearing the name of a Black person killed by police or racist violence, “to make people start talking.” Or Gauff who, instead of condemning climate protesters who caused a 40-minute delay during her US semifinal match this month, later said, “Throughout history, moments like this are definitely defining moments. I believe in climate change. I don’t really know exactly what they were protesting. I know it was about the environment. I 100 percent believe in that.”
At 19, Gauff is the first American teenager to win the US Open since Serena Williams did it at 17 in 1999. In the past 23 years, four American women have claimed nine US Open singles championships — the Williams sisters, Stephens, and now Gauff. (Osaka plays for Japan.)
The Venus and Serena effect is a hallowed inheritance of determination, excellence, and Black pride. And Gauff’s ascension proves again that their legacies and greatness can never be reduced or measured in trophies and titles alone.