Sloane Stephens covered her mouth, then put her hands on her hips, either in disbelief or taking in the moment. She hadn’t even smiled yet, but when she did, it lit up her face for just a moment before she jogged to midcourt to hug her opponent and friend Madison Keys, who she had just defeated.
Stephens had just won the US Open, her very first Major. What a moment. What a victory. And yet, the Stephens-Keys match was not the most exciting or momentous of the US Open.
On Thursday night, the women’s semifinal matchup between Venus Williams and Sloane Stephens was a thing of beauty. Stephens advanced to her first major finals match after beating Williams 6-1, 0-6 , 7-5 at Arthur Ashe Stadium.
“Stephens was just 4 years old when Venus won her first major,” said the match commentators. They did not, would not let the audience forget.
Watching the two women duel, particularly Stephens covering an impressive amount of ground defensively, you would not have known that the trailblazer—Williams—was being dismantled by her legacy.
I remember when Venus and Serena both hit the tennis scene, their braided hairstyles accented with beads that bounced against their head as they moved about the court with youthful confidence and fury. Seeing two black young women on the court was so momentous and influential, I even dabbled in tennis before exchanging my racket for basketball shoes. It was all because of them.
Venus Williams, now at the age of 37, has seven Major titles under her belt. Without Venus and her sister, Serena, who knows what American tennis would look like, particularly for women of color. In a year when all four of the semifinalists at the US Open were American women—three of whom were black—you can’t help but tip your cap to the trail blazed by the Williams sisters.
My dad was appalled at my admission. “This is Venus’ swan song, you want her to go out on top, don’t you?”
The guy had a point, but as a competitor, I would have relished the chance to take down a legend. Besides, Stephens had an incredible underdog story. A return from an injury and surgery, from a world ranking of 975 to winning her way to the top. Stephens proved that she was back and ready for greatness. And with a story like that, how could you not root for Sloane?
Match analyst Chris Evert caught lots of flack on Twitter for her observation about the course Sloane has charted to get to last night, including her injury and resulting time off. She suggested that everyone should have such fortune if they finally arrive playing the type of high quality tennis Sloane played last night. Perhaps it wasn’t the best word choice, but I understood what Evert was saying. And hoisting the cup, I doubt think Sloane Stephens would disagree.
Time away can be rejuvenating. It allows players to refocus in a way that the daily grind does not. It also is immensely valuable for growth and reflection. This is even more reason to be terrified of Serena’s return—I mean look at Bey after Blue.
Stephens was elated post-match, and rightfully so. In a very classy move she stood up and applauded as Venus left the court, which only confirmed it was completely OK for me to root for Sloane. She gets it; it was her moment; and she earned it.
Although, she’d better keep improving, Serena will be back.