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Fans beam with pride as Venus Williams, Sloane Stephens reach US Open semis

‘It’s great to see these women out here breaking down barriers’

NEW YORK — As unseeded Sloane Stephens entered the court just minutes before her US Open quarterfinal match against No. 16 Anastasjia Sevastova, Tracey Henry settled into her seat.

Henry, a native New Yorker, didn’t have a seatback or an actual chair. She and her girlfriend, and hundreds of others who purchased ground passes just to soak up the atmosphere, were content to watch the matches on the giant video screen outside Arthur Ashe Stadium while seated on a slab of concrete.

“Having four Americans in the quarterfinals is incredible,” said Henry, who could have watched from the comforts of her home in Rockland County but traveled well over an hour to get to the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center. “But to have Madison and Sloane and Venus? This is fantastic. This is history. I love it.”

She’s referring to Madison Keys, Sloane Stephens and Venus Williams, who, along with CoCo Vandeweghe, are the four American women to reach the 2017 US Open quarterfinals. The history in singling out Keys, Stephens and Williams? It’s the first time in US Open history that three African-American women have reached the quarterfinals of the last Grand Slam event of the season.

Stephens and Williams won their quarterfinal matches Tuesday (Stephens beat Sevastova, and No. 9 Williams eliminated No. 13 Petra Kvitova), setting up a semifinal battle on Thursday. Keys, the No. 15 seed, can reach the semifinals with a win Wednesday night over unseeded Kaia Kanepi.

“It’s great,” Stephens said when asked about the significance of three African-American women advancing this far in the US Open. “It’s great for American tennis. It’s great for African-American women. I hope that we keep it going. There’s not really much to say other than it’s amazing.”

The accomplishments of the Williams sisters, Stephens and Keys are not only amazing but also influential. For Henry, the thought of picking up a tennis racket never crossed her mind until she watched Serena Williams win her first US Open singles championship in 1999.

“Two weeks later I was on the public courts taking lessons,“ Henry said. “Serena Williams is above and beyond the best player in the game, and she inspired a lot of women of color.”

And girls of color like Ligaya Murray, who already has a tennis recruiting profile even though she’s only 9.

“When I get older I want to be like Serena, and Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal,” Murray said. “I like Serena and her sister because they’re very intense and they don’t give up. Watching them makes me want to work hard and not give up.”

As Murray speaks, her father, Dain Murray, stands by her side nodding in approval.

“Not only did the Williams sisters pave the way, they changed the way the game is played,” he said. “My father-in-law and my wife both played tennis professionally, so [Ligaya] has the influence of family. But having the success of the Williams sisters is influential.”

For Wilner Jean, watching Stephens play her quarterfinal match meant a long hike to the third-from-last row of the 23,000-seat Arthur Ashe Stadium.

“I’m up in Section 309, Row X, and I have a better seat for Venus’ match later on,” said Jean, who came to the venue from his home in Elizabeth, New Jersey. “I’ve been coming here watching matches from the days of Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi, and it’s great to see these women out here breaking down barriers. Venus and Serena have made it more comfortable for blacks to play, and we’re seeing that this year.”

As Jean watched the Venus Williams-Kvitova matchup from inside the packed Arthur Ashe Stadium, a woman who would only provide her first name, Teresa, was pacing outside watching on the big screen. Teresa, reluctant to give her full name because she’s an employee on the US Open grounds during the tournament, watched the late Williams match after changing out of her work clothes.

“If tennis were not a sport of the rich, this would have happened 20 years ago,” she said. “I feel so much pride in watching the black players dominate. And why do people continue to sleep on Venus? She can reach the finals of three Grand Slams this year, and she’s 37. What she’s doing is amazing.”

Less than 30 minutes later, Williams advanced over Kvitova, 6-3, 3-6, 7-6 (2), securing her first trip to the US Open semifinals since 2010 as the oldest player to advance that far in tournament history. The win ensured that Williams, making her 23rd Grand Slam semifinal, will return to the top five of the world rankings for the first time since 2011.

To have the opportunity to win her third US Open title, Williams has to get past Stephens, who over the past two months has played the best tennis of her career in her comeback from foot surgery. Stephens has lost just twice in her past 15 matches and plays in her first Grand Slam semifinal since advancing in the 2013 Australian Open after beating Serena Williams.

Foot surgery a year ago sidelined Stephens for 10 months, and a month ago she was ranked No. 934. In reaching the semifinals of her past three tournaments, Stephens is projected to reach the top 35. Should Stephens win the US Open title, she would reach No. 15 in the rankings, a nearly 900-spot improvement in just over a month.

“If someone would have told me when I started at Wimbledon that I’d be in the [US Open] semifinals, I would have said they’re crazy,” said Stephens, who won 6-3, 3-6, 7-6 (4). “I’m just happy to be playing well, and happy that my foot is good.”

And happy to play in just her second career match against Venus Williams, who drew a blank when asked about their previous meeting.

“I don’t think I’ve ever played her. … Did I? Oh,” was how Williams responded when told of her 2015 loss to Stephens (7-6, 6-1) at the French Open.

That match on Thursday — on the same day of the screening of a documentary on Althea Gibson, who 60 years ago became the first African-American woman to win a US Nationals singles title — ensures that another black woman will get the opportunity to raise the championship trophy.

For tennis fans like Henry, who left the grounds Tuesday night after Venus Williams’ victory, it makes the rest of the week special.

“I’m excited that Sloane won, and I’m excited for Venus,” Henry said. “Who will I be cheering for? I have to root for Venus. I’ve been riding with Venus and Serena from the beginning.”

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