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US Open semifinals show tennis is more accessible to black girls and women

Althea Gibson and the Williams sisters opened doors for Stephens and Keys

NEW YORK — As Kaia Kanepi’s return landed wide and long, Madison Keys executed a perfect spin and let out a loud shriek. On an evening that began with the added pressure of being the final piece to an all-American women semifinals at the US Open, Keys’ dominant 6-3, 6-3 win Wednesday was clutch.

When Keys faces CoCo Vandeweghe in a semifinal match Thursday — immediately after the match between Venus Williams and Sloane Stephens — it will be the first US Open women’s final four featuring four Americans since 1981.

In the world of American women’s tennis — Keys joked Wednesday night she’s often heard it described as the “death of American tennis” — that’s significant.

What’s also significant is that just over 60 years after Althea Gibson became the first African-American to win a US Open (played then at the West Side Tennis Club in nearby Forest Hills), three of the four women in the semis are black.

That isn’t lost on Martin Blackman, the general manager of player development at the USTA.

“It’s really cool to see the dots being connected from Althea Gibson to Zina Garrison to Lori McNeil to Serena and Venus,” Blackman said, pointing out some of the main African-American pioneers in the sport. “And now, to see these women representing this country in the semifinals? This is great.”

Williams, Stephens and Keys took paths to Thursday night’s semifinals that couldn’t be more different.

The Williams sisters began on public tennis courts in Compton, California, under the guidance of their father, Richard, who was ridiculed when he predicted that his daughters one day would dominate the game.

Stephens is the daughter of two prominent athletes (her mom was an All-American swimmer in college, while her late father was a first-round NFL draft pick). As a kid she lived across the street from a country club, and she started playing tennis after watching her stepdad play matches.

Keys was born in Rock Island, Illinois, to a white mother and black father, and she first became interested in tennis after telling her parents she liked a dress she saw Venus Williams wearing on television. A family vacation to Florida led to her moving there at age 9 to attend the Evert Tennis Academy. She won her first WTA match when she was 14.

Even though the biracial Keys doesn’t want to be identified as black or white, she, along with Stephens and the Williams sisters, represents the continued growth of African-American girls and women in the sport. And they’re not alone. The emergence of NCAA tennis champion Brienne Minor (who made her US Open debut this year) and the impressive US Open of the dual Japanese/American citizen Naomi Osaka shows that tennis players of color will appear on the #blackgirlsrock and #blackgirlmagic Twitter hashtags long after the Williams sisters depart the game.

“It sends a message that the game is more accessible than ever before,” Blackman said. “Serena and Venus have led the way, and it started with the fact that their parents chose a different path for them. They didn’t play a lot of junior tournaments. They weren’t part of the system, and they weren’t accepted.”

That was the same for Gibson, the subject of the documentary Althea, which will be screened at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center just hours before the women’s semifinals on Thursday.

Once Gibson was identified as having potential at age 12, neighbors financed her tennis training, which led to her winning tournaments in the American Tennis Association (formed by a group of black tennis clubs).

Gibson couldn’t play in U.S. Tennis Association events because players only qualified by playing in sanctioned events at clubs that denied blacks. It took lobbying for her to become the first black to play in the 1950 US Open (which was then the United States National Championships) when she was 23.

Even though Gibson was often forbidden to even enter the front doors of some of the events she played, she won six Grand Slam singles titles, was named the AP Female Athlete of the Year in 1957 and 1958, and was the first black woman to appear on the covers of Sports Illustrated and Time.

The life of a professional tennis player was a struggle for Gibson, who broke the color barrier in tennis. Just as it was a struggle for the Williams sisters as they faced skepticism and racial intolerance as they became forces in their early careers.

“At first, they weren’t accepted,” Blackman said of the Williams sisters. “So they had to deal with that along with the rigors of the professional tour, and they just kicked the door open.”

Which allowed Stephens and Keys to follow Venus Williams onto the grand stage Thursday night.

“The game is so much more accessible today for African-American girls and women because of what Venus and Serena did,” Blackman said. “I really respect them and admire them for that. And the game has benefited.”

Jerry Bembry is a senior writer at The Undefeated. His bucket list items include being serenaded by Lizz Wright, and watching the Knicks play an NBA game in June.