On the opening day of the US Open, fittingly Women’s Equality Day, the namesake of the biggest stage in the world, Arthur Ashe, was posthumously inducted into the Tennis Industry Association Hall of Fame and then, just two hours later, a stunning, almost imposing statue of the great pioneer Althea Gibson was at last unveiled just outside the stadium at the Billie Jean National Tennis Center.
Venus Williams, a cool 6-1 6-0 winner over Saisai Zheng, noted: “It wasn’t easy to be African American in the ’50s…It was impossible to do that, and she did…I can’t imagine what she went through.
“Because she went through that. I didn’t have to…Who knows what kind of line calls she got? I don’t think anyone really understands what it was like.
“My mom and dad do because they grew up in the ’40s, ’50s, [in] Mississippi and Louisiana. This is a country where we came for freedom and it was unfortunate that many people were not given that. And because of Althea [and] people fighting for it, we have gotten a lot closer.”
The 39-year old former World No 1 is currently ranked 52 and last won the US Open in 2001 but she still can dominate on a tennis court, especially when her serve is firing at an 80% success rate on first deliveries.
Former USTA President Katrina Adams tirelessly pushed for decades for due recognition of a Gibson memorial: “Althea was the first to break the colour barrier in tennis, the first African American to have an opportunity to perform on the great stages…the first person of colour to win the French Nationals and Wimbledon and the US Nationals back to back.
“She used her success in early ATA [all African-American] tournaments as a pathway to earning a college scholarship…I met her at the age of nine or ten and…her presence made me feel humbled and inspired
“The sport she loved so much didn’t love her back in the way that it…should have.
“Her accomplishments were in the pre-Open Era, and not enough of our history pre-1968 is revered in the way that it should be – but today, that all changes.”
Recognition came easier for Ashe and 10 miles away and a couple of hours earlier, his friend Stan Smith told a meeting of the Tennis Industry Association: “You really have to be new to tennis to not know that Billie Jean King is a tennis center, that Ashe is a stadium and Stan Smith is a shoe [i.e. the Adidas sneaker that’s the best seller in tennis history].
“When I think of Arthur the words that come to mind are: activist, visionary, encourager, innovator, leader, writer, speaker, creator, team player, husband, father and loyal friend.
“Now, the word that really drove Arthur Ashe was education. He realised that if people wanted to pursue their dreams and reach their potential, they needed education. So he left home to go to UCLA.
“Arthur was constantly reading magazines, papers and books. He was inquisitive and he wanted to improve the world. He started with the tennis.
“He was one of the founders of the ATP and one of the leaders of our 1973 boycott of Wimbledon to establish players rights.
“And he sought a code of conduct and was fortunate that he had Ilie Nastase to be the example of why we wanted to have a code of conduct.
“He was a big part in creating the non-wood Head racket…and he wrote the book A Hard Road To Glory about the history of African American athlete.
“He continued preaching education to young people and tried to use sports to get an education.
“Arthur loved the US…but I think of him as ‘a man of no borders.’ His favourite T-shirt said, ‘Citizen of the world.’”
Venus’ younger sister Serena is certainly a citizen of the world and already considered the best player of all time by many.
Chasing her 24th Grand Slam title, she was in no mood to stumble in her first round blockbuster against Maria Sharapova in the first night match on Ashe Stadium, delivering a drubbing in just 59 minutes to defeat the Russian.
“Obviously I was going against a player who has won 5 Grand Slams, so it was never going to be easy, and every practice after that was super intense because it was such a tough draw,” Williams said.
“She’s such a good player, and you have to be super focused, so every time I come up against her I have to play my best tennis.”
Serean, who has now won 19 matches in a row against Sharapova, added: “I just feel like her game really matches up well against mine.
“I always said her ball somehow lands in my strike zone. I don’t know. It’s just perfect for me.”
Sharapova, US Open champion in 2006, was philosophical in defeat: “I thought she played well, I thought she served really well and found her spots really well,” she said.
“It didn’t feel like we got into too many long rallies. I think the one-two punch, she won a majority of those points.”
Later, Sharapova warned those writing her off that she still has total belief in her abilities, despite the uncomfortable thrashing.
The 5-time Grand Slam champion looked a shadow of her former self as she was put to the sword by her old foe, and won just two games in a 6-1 6-1 defeat.
Sharapova has been nowhere near her best since returning from a 15-month drugs ban in 2017, reaching the quarter-finals once in 8 attempts and falling at the first hurdle 3 times.
In light of such a soul-destroying defeat, questions have understandably been raised over her future in tennis but she insists she will continue fighting on.
These are the two toughest mental competitors on the women’s tour, both being the products of intense, driven fathers who left their homes for tennis-friendly Florida.
Serena’s grandfather was a Louisiana sharecropper and her Dad said she would be No 1, while Sharapova’s father came to America with $700 in his pocket, telling his daughter she ‘was born to be a champion’.
Sharapova is as icy as her Siberian heritage, and the tennis universe knows a thing or two about Serena’s fiery volcanic intensity.
Both stars seem to be in their twilight tennis years, adore fashion and know a thing or two about making money on and off the court.
Arthur Ashe stadium was packed with opening night celebrities and eager fans, but the match was hardly packed with drama.
While the usual grunts pierced the night air, there was none of the fury and fright of Serena’s last match on Ashe. She was dialled in, prepared, locked and loaded.
Quickness in tennis is critical and Serena not only served with power and accuracy, she turned her most bitter foe into a yo-yo, running Sharapova from corner to corner.
There were hints of a real match, and although Sharapova’s deep backhand is still great, her serve is flawed and her movement, slow.
Nevertheless, she is programmed to fight hard, and in the second set she did win 7 of 9 points, gaining 3 of 5 break points in the 3rd game, but it all fell way too short.
Serena’s aggression was under control and in clear sight, with Umpire Carlos Ramos nowhere to be seen.
When asked about him in her post-match press conference, she said: “Yeah, I don’t know who that is.”
Just 4 months ago Sharapova, 32, had a shoulder procedure and now will be tumbling out of the top 100.
Her match against Williams was only her 15th of the season.
“Just getting the routines back and being back in the draws is, you know, it’s tough to talk about after a defeat, but it’s a long road.” Sharapova said during her press conference.
“It’s facing an opponent that’s, at her stature, is extremely difficult in the first round of a slam, coming in with the fact that I haven’t played that much.”
It was a disappointing, lights out, for a great player who will, no doubt fight. It’s what champions do.
Earlier in the day there was more success for another American of colour, Madison Keys who, after a tight first set, fired past Misaki Doi as she carried her recent hot streak into New York.
In the Louis Armstrong Stadium nightcap, the 24-year-old American won the final 8 games to roll into Round 2 with a convincing 7-5 6-0 win, striking 13 winners in both sets.
When the World No 10 cut down on her errors in set two, her Japanese opponent simply could not keep up.
Keys’ 16 unforced errors in the opener let Doi hang tight early, but just 6 second-set freebies left the World No 108 with no hope.
“I think [Doi] played really well in the first set,” Keys said in her post-match press conference. “I think I raised my level in the second. Happy to win in straight sets.”
The American dictated from start to finish, restricting her opponent, who managed just 3 winners, to playing defensively throughout the 64-minute contest.
Keys’ second-set bagel was in doubt, as love-40 turned to deuce on the Doi serve, but on her 5th match point, the American broke to secure the victory.
“I think [Doi is] really tough because she hits so flat and so fast,” said Keys. “She likes to take the angles away.
“The first couple of games I was obviously struggling with that a little bit.
“I think once I figured out how I wanted to play her, and kind of try to go through the middle, more get her off the baseline, things started working for me a little bit better.”
Keys is showing no signs of stopping after winning the biggest title of her career at the Western & Southern Open just 8 days ago at the WTA Premier 5 event Cincinnati, where she defeated 4 former Grand Slam champions: Garbiñe Muguruza, Simona Halep, Venus Williams and Svetlana Kuznetsova.
Keys came closest to major glory herself at the 2017 US Open, when she fell to her good friend Sloane Stephens in an all-American final.
Seeking to reach the US Open semi-finals or better for the third straight year, Keys has been among the final four at a major four times.
With the likes of the Keys, Stephens, the Williams sisters and Coco Gauff amongst many others now dominating American tennis, it is only fitting that the original African American trail-blazer has a permanent memorial in New York, unveiled on a day that saw an Opening Day record attendance of 68,059, the largest crowd to attend Day 1 in the tournament’s history.
“Welcome home Althea Gibson,” said Billie Jean King at the event. “A lot of us have waited a long time for today to happen. We’ve finally gotten over the finish line.”