“There are NO words to describe how proud and how happy I am for @Madison_Keys and @SloaneStephens for making the US open finals,” tweeted Serena Williams, the queen of tennis, who is now on sabbatical after giving birth to a girl. Stephens had just outlasted Williams’ sister in an enthralling 6-1, 0-6, 7-5 semifinal.
READ: Stephens stuns Keys in improbable U.S. Open final
The Next Generation of American future stars who had walked in the footsteps of Serena and Venus had finally escaped their shadows. Stephens, 24, outsmarted and out-steadied Keys, 22, in the first all-American U.S. Open final since Serena dethroned Venus in 2002. Keys was just four when she was captivated by a beautiful dress worn by Venus at Wimbledon. Her mother told her that if she wanted that dress, she would have to take up tennis.
Stephens, like so many girls of her generation, idolised Venus and Serena, the greatest sister act in sports history. During the U.S. Open, Stephens reverentially said, “I think Venus is our leader. She’s a great player, a great person. Being on Fed Cup teams with her, 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.”
READ: Hurting Keys tells Stephens 'drinks are on you'
Venus sure does, but the next Next-Gen of American girls showcased their unmistakable talent, too, at Flushing Meadows. In the junior (18-and-under) final, No. 4 seed Amanda Anisimova, just turned 16, had way too much experience for callow Cori “Coco” Gauff and prevailed 6-0, 6-2.
The 5’10” Anisimova possesses a serve regularly surpassing 100 mph, picture-perfect strokes, superb timing and balance, and the poise of a veteran pro. The last attribute isn’t surprising given she’s already reached four ITF Challenger finals, winning one this year, and has earned a fast-rising No. 194 WTA ranking.
The broad-shouldered, 5’10” Gauff, whose first serve reached 110 miles an hour, is only 13. You read that right. Another number stands out: Anisimova needed 10 match points in the final 28-point game to clinch the title against the battling Gauff. Both competitors reached the final without dropping a set. During the trophy presentation, it was rather amusing when the much more experienced Anisimova consoled the ingenue Gauff, who had cried late in the match, by saying Gauff “has a bright future.”
“Gauff is really solid off the ground, moves well, and hits really good shots from really difficult positions,” said Jill Craybas, who upset Serena at the 2005 Wimbledon. On her fighting mentality, former doubles standout Luke Jensen said, “Gauff is so ultra-positive. She’s a fist-pumper. She reminds me so much of Rafa.” Had the precocious Gauff won the final, she would have become the youngest U.S. girls’ champion and the third-youngest Grand Slam girls’ champion after French title winners Martina Hingis (12) and Jennifer Capriati (13).
Many experts think the sky’s the limit for Gauff. Unabashedly ambitious, she doesn’t merely aspire to become No. 1 in the world. “I want to be the greatest of all time,” she proclaims.
Even if Gauff doesn’t become the GOAT or No. 1, the American pool of potential stars in the 2020s is impressively deep. Catherine Bellis, at 18 the youngest player in the WTA top 50, ranks No. 41. This year Bellis defeated two-time major winner Petra Kvitova and Svetlana Kuznetsova, and former Wimbledon finalist Agnieszka Radwanska.
Claire Liu beat Ann Li in an all-U.S. Wimbledon girls’ final, and Whitney Osuigwe topped Liu to capture the French Open junior title. A year ago, versatile Kayla Day took the U.S. Open girls’ title, and the 18-year-old lefty now is WTA-ranked No. 139.
At the U.S. Open, wildcard Sofia Kenin reached the third round to earn the “WTA Breakthrough of the Month” award and boost her world ranking to No. 111. The 18-year-old Kenin upset 32nd-seeded Lauren Davis 7-5, 7-5 and escaped two match points to edge Sachia Vickery 6-3, 4-6, 7-6. Then the Russian-born American faced her idol, Maria Sharapova, and energised by the night-time crowd, extended the five-time Grand Slam champion to 7-5, 6-2.
Gauff and Osuigwe are African Americans, as are another promising teenage sister duo, Floridians aptly named Hurricane and Tornado Black.
These sterling results show that the all-American women’s and girls’ finalists at Flushing Meadows, the first such clean sweep since 1981, was no aberration. The Williams Era is not yet over. Not by a long shot with Venus rebounding this year and Serena returning next year. Happy days for American women’s tennis should continue into the 2020s.
As Martin Blackman, head of player development for the USTA, told ESPN.co m, “Our pipeline is loaded. And we attribute a lot of that to Venus and Serena. Maybe nobody else was breaking through during their time, but more importantly, they kept the bar calibrated to where it should be — at the top of the game.”
“Battle of the Sexes” is Back
An extravaganza called the “Battle of the Sexes” ignited the 1970s Tennis Boom in America which charismatic stars Chris Evert and Jimmy Connors then accelerated.
When 29-year-old champion and outspoken feminist Billie Jean King accepted the $100,000 winner-take-all challenge of 55-year-old male chauvinist and fun-loving hustler Bobby Riggs on Sept. 20, 1973, it became much more than a tennis match. It was a cultural spectacle that reflected and shaped the fast-changing temper of the times. The women’s rights movement was gaining momentum, and a new law called Title IX gave college women, if not total equality in sports, a clear path to that cherished goal.
The pressure on women’s tennis pioneer King was immense at the time. Riggs, a triple title winner at the 1939 Wimbledon, had trounced an extremely nervous world No. 1 Margaret Court 6-2, 6-1 four months earlier in the nationally televised “Mother’s Day Massacre. “She just got bewitched, bothered, and bewildered,” Bobby bragged, insisting that no woman could beat even an over-the-hill, paunchy, middle-aged former champion.
“I plan to bomb Billie Jean King and set back the Women’s Lib movement about another 20 years,” the overconfident Riggs predicted. “The best way to handle women is to keep them barefoot and pregnant.”
King knew that as a gender defender and a saviour for the budding women’s pro tour, she had to defeat, deflate, and debunk the insufferable, wise-cracking Riggs.
When heroic Billie Jean outplayed a chastened Bobby 6-4, 6-3, 6-3 in the wildly entertaining showdown, millions of American women and enlightened men, who had always embraced gender equality, rejoiced.
“I have not had one day in my life where someone doesn’t come up to me and say something about it,” King said in an interview with the AARP (American Association of Retired People). “Women will say to me, ‘I watched that match. That gave me self-confidence for the first time.’ Guys will come up and say, ‘I didn’t understand until I had a daughter.’ Kids say, ‘My grandparents told me all about you. You played this big match against this guy — and you won!’”
In 1987, at the Black Horse Motel in West Springfield, Massachusetts, I may have encountered, albeit briefly, one of those women when I interviewed former world No. 1 Riggs, then 69. Just as I was asking him if he still believed a women’s place was in the bedroom and the kitchen, the waitress arrived. Upon hearing those words, she set his coffee cup down with a bang. Customers at nearby tables looked and listened with unusual interest as Bobby answered the provocative question.
Riggs contended, “Everyone should get everything they can out of life: happiness, contentment, and everything is a prize. I definitely am not for holding them [women] back.” But he explained, “It just always seems to me that men are more capable, smarter, and better and more physical. There’s nothing a woman can do as well as a man except make babies…. Not everyone wants to be a home builder and stay at home. For those who can get out and compete with men, good luck to ‘em.”
I don’t know if the waitress was one of the estimated 90 million people who watched the unforgettable “Battle of the Sexes” at the Houston Astrodome on worldwide television. Or if she was one of the 30 million Americans who played the sport during the Tennis Boom — an astounding one of every seven in the total population!
Attesting to those halcyon tennis years is a Turnkey Sports Poll taken in July. It reported that 47% of more than 2,000 senior-level sports industry executives thought that King’s triumph over Riggs was the event that had the biggest impact on the sport of tennis, followed by 35% for Arthur Ashe’s victory in the inaugural 1968 U.S. Open.
Now a whole new generation will be introduced to that epic match and its legacy thanks to the new movie, Battle of the Sexes, coming to theatres on September 29, starring Oscar-winning Emma Stone and Steve Carell.
Film critic Sarah Marrs concluded her favourable review by writing, “Battle of the Sexes is a fun movie, a total crowd pleaser, which is pointedly about how far we have and have not come since 1973, and the work still to be done. It’s also a reminder that we have won before, and we can win again.”
King and Stone view the historic match and its re-creation in the movie as terrific vehicles to promote gender equality. In an interview with ESPN magazine, King said, “Sport teaches us leadership and resilience, because you have to lose a lot to win a lot, and I think it carries over into the boardroom, into family life, in helping children believe in themselves, in empowering women to stand up for themselves and to know it’s OK to be ambitious.” Although women have come a long way since 1973, tennis’ Joan of Arc knows the fight for equality must continue to overcome the remaining barriers. “Equal pay has not been achieved across the board in America….
“There was research about two years ago that [found] men are hired on potential and women are hired by performance. We have to stop always thinking of women for their performance and start thinking about their potential. You have to believe in people and empower them to open up possibilities.”