At the US Open, Serena Williams was a ‘game changer’

When Serena Williams made her singles debut at the US Open in 1998, it was typical to see a crowd with many white faces, many white players watching.

In the years since, she has done more than any other person to transform the Queens tournament venue into a more inclusive environment that could host a growing number of women and girls of color, some of whom have gone on to compete in the event and win, take each year join the fun.

While emerging as the face of tennis, Williams, along with her older sister Venus, changed the faces of tennis.

“It’s a great feeling to see that,” said Martin Blackman, general manager of player and coach development at the United States Tennis Association. “I attribute this to Serena and Venus. They completely changed the narrative.”

Blackman’s father was featured at the US Open in Forest Hills, Queens Althea Gibson in the late 1950s and was one of three black fans in attendance, he told his son. When Blackman first went to the US Open as a fan 20 years later, there were more black crowds than his father saw, but not as many as there are today, thanks largely to the Williams. Blackman later went to the tournament, as players’ representative in 1999, the year Serena won her first major singles title at age 17.

“I was privileged to be working in the junior division at the time, and over time I saw more and more African American girls and African American boys coming into our camps,” he said. “And the common thread was the inspiration and demonstration effect that Serena and Venus provided. That was the turning point. That was the game changer.”

For over a quarter of a century, Serena Williams dominated the US Open, winning six singles titles and reaching four other singles finals. Winning two doubles titles with Venus; and won a mixed doubles title. She also flared up spectacularly more than once.

For each title, there were countless players, such as Sloane Stephens, Madison Keys, Naomi Osaka, Coco Gauff and others, whose passion for the game was ignited by William’s fiery and uncompromising charisma.

There have been groundbreaking wins, shocking losses, emotional outbursts and hours of exciting, inspiring tennis that are now drawing to a close. Williams wrote a cover story for Vogue magazineposted online Tuesday that she was moving away from tennis to focus on other pursuits, including growing her family.

“I started playing tennis with a goal of winning the US Open,” she wrote.

She achieved that goal and much more. In an era of the sport when American men were faltering, she carried more than the burden for the nation’s tennis aspirations.

Williams was 16, pearls in her hair, when she played her first singles match at the US Open, defeating Nicole Pratt and making it to the third round. But as Serena Williams, she walked away with a title, winning the mixed doubles with Max Mirnyi.

“Even at that age you could see her talent and athleticism,” recalled Mirnyi, 45. “I would find that every time she went back to hit the ball, the opponents were back on her heels. You literally secured yourself.”

Mirnyi’s father Nikolai was in charge of arranging the pairing at Wimbledon two months earlier. He asked Richard Williams, Serena’s father, and within days the two had won their first tournament. The only things that could stop them, according to Mirnyi, were the warnings and point penalties chair umpires gave when pearls from Williams’ hair fell onto the court.

“I kept saying, ‘We don’t want to lose points because of the pearls,'” Mirnyi recalled. “And she’d just be like, ‘Oh, it’s fine.’ And it was.”

But a singles title was her mission. Her first major singles championship came at the 1999 US Open when she defeated Martina Hingis in the final at Arthur Ashe Stadium, becoming the first black woman to win a Grand Slam event since Gibson, who won five including the US Open 1957 and 1958.

When she won, she put her hands to her heart and could be seen saying, “Oh my god, I won, oh my god.” She later spoke to President Bill Clinton and his daughter Chelsea over the phone.

In 2001, fans saw the first of the awkward Williams sister duels in a grand final won by Venus Williams. Over the next year, Serena Williams conquered rematches at the French Open, Wimbledon, and the US Open.

It would be six years before she beat Jelena Jankovic for the 2008 US Open title, which was followed by an on-court outburst in 2009 that abruptly ended her semi-final match against Kim Clijsters. Williams had been called out for a foot fault that justified a match point and then addressed the lineswoman. Williams was given a point penalty which gave the match to a stunned Clijsterswho won the tournament.

Williams won three consecutive titles as of 2012; In 2015 she walked into New York looking unbeatable. She had won the previous three Major events that year, and winning the fourth would have earned her the coveted Grand Slam. But the pressure turned out to be too great, and She was upset in a semifinal by an unsolicited Italian, Roberta Vinci.

Her 2018 Open final against Osaka was marred by a protracted and at-time dispute between Williams and chair umpire Carlos Ramos, who initially sparked the uproar by accusing Williams of breaking a code because her coach was gesturing at her from the seats. The argument ensued over two substitutions and resulted in her losing a game and her concentration, so Osaka can get their first major title amidst a cascade of boos and jeers.

Viewers were right on William’s side, and still are. 13,000 tickets had been sold as of 3 p.m. Tuesday after it was announced that Williams was retiring, the USTA said. As has been the case for years, fans will be flocking to the US Open again as Serena, along with Venus, have made Flushing one of the best places in the country to see a celebrated, groundbreaking black hero in person.

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