Serena Williams and tennis’ challenge of maintaining her momentum
For 25 years, Williams helped make the sport’s audience and participation more diverse. How does the sport capitalize on them after her retirement?
Presented with an opportunity to see Serena Williams at the US Open, Eric Akins pounced. It was a pricey trip back in 2016 — tennis tickets, airfare from Austin, Texas, and a hotel in New York — but the chance to see Williams in Arthur Ashe Stadium was too good to pass up.
“I love everything about her,” Akins said. “Seeing her at a major was special.”
When Akins arrived at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, he was not alone as he encountered Black and Latino people — like him — who became drawn to tennis when two kids from Compton came onto the scene.
So will that interest in the sport change, now that Williams appears to have played her last match with Friday’s third-round loss to Ajla Tomljanović?
“I’ve been a fan of Serena since my mom had me watch her first US Open championship . Up to that point, I really didn’t know about tennis,” Akins said. “To be honest, I don’t really have an interest in tennis outside of Serena.”
Williams brought a skill level to tennis that produced 23 Grand Slam titles. She might be one shy of the 24 Grand Slams won by Margaret Court, but her dominance has earned her the title of the greatest women’s tennis player — and of a player who attracted massive crowds who wanted to witness her brilliance.
Martin Blackman, in his role as the USTA’s general manager of player development, was present at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center for the entire first week of the US Open.
“Let’s be honest, the unbelievable diversity that you saw when Serena was playing on Monday, Wednesday and Friday — that’s the Serena effect,” Blackman said. “I’ve been thinking about Althea Gibson and Arthur Ashe, and what Serena has done with her presence is one more massive step. We’ve got to have a sense of urgency about capitalizing on that development while tennis is in the spotlight.”
That spotlight has grown bright on women’s tennis throughout Williams’ career.
On the court, last year’s US Open women’s final, a championship featuring Emma Raducanu and Leylah Fernandez, drew more viewers (an average of 2.44 million) on ESPN than the men’s final between Daniil Medvedev and Novak Djokovic (2.05 million).
Off the court, the impact has resulted in increased crowd diversity where the Black star power that traveled to New York to pay homage to Williams (boxer Mike Tyson, R&B singer Gladys Knight, singer Dionne Warwick, Denver Broncos quarterback Russell Wilson, singer Ciara and golf great Tiger Woods were among the long list of celebrities) was balanced by the thousands of Black fans seated throughout the rest of the stadium.
The presence of a star player like Williams combined with the creation of themed events like HBCU Live (held last week for the second straight year) has helped with the increase in crowds.
“Serena brings crowds, but if you look in the stands throughout the whole three weeks, you’re seeing more diversity than we’ve ever seen,” Blackman said. “That’s something we should all be proud of, but we definitely shouldn’t take it for granted.”
The challenge at the US Open, and the tennis circuit in general with Williams’ departure: finding a way to shift fans’ devotion from a player to a sport.
“There are people that are ride-or-die Serena fans: Whatever Serena does, they’re going to follow,” said Leslie Allen, an NCAA tennis champion in 1977 who became a top-20 player as a professional. “Will they continue to come to tennis? There’s going to be a void when the Williams sisters leave.”
Allen has family who were drawn into tennis during her professional career, lost interest after she retired and were reenergized after the Williams sisters began winning shortly after Venus turned professional in 1994 and Serena in 1995.
“My aunts, the matrons of the family, say ‘oh, when do the sisters play, I want to watch,’ ” Allen said. “In a way, they put eyes on tennis that maybe would have never paid attention before. People saw themselves in the Williams sisters.”
That includes Leah Pressley, 12, who attended the US Open last week with a group from the National Junior Tennis & Learning of Trenton in New Jersey.
“She set the bar so high, and she did that after coming up as a nobody to become a Black woman who became the best in tennis,” Leah said. “It’s sad she’s retiring.”
“Venus and Serena paved the way for up-and-coming ladies of color, and my daughter’s in tennis because she saw a woman on the big stage who looked like her.”— Tonia Pressley
Leah is part of the generation of athletes who desire to be the next Serena Williams, just like the legions of kids who have spent the last three decades aspiring to be like Mike.
Tonia Pressley, Leah’s mother, believes a system that can provide tennis programs like the one her daughter attends in Trenton with direct connections to athletes might help.
“Venus and Serena paved the way for up-and-coming ladies of color, and my daughter’s in tennis because she saw a woman on the big stage who looked like her,” Tonia Pressley said. “It’s all about passing the baton. Serena passed it to Madison [Keys] and Sloane [Stephens] and to Coco Gauff. If Serena were to visit some of these camps, maybe that can help get more Black girls in the mix.”
The USTA, has long worked through its player development program to increase efforts to get more kids in the sport, including talented players such as Robin Montgomery and Hailey Baptiste on the women’s side.
Attempting to identify the next Serena Williams?
“The mistake that federations of organizations make sometimes is to try to pick someone who can fill a role like that,” Blackman said. “For the most part, those players are born, not made. We’re trying to be systematic about creating as many opportunities as we can for players and coaches. By doing that, you increase your chances of having another Serena.”
Allen’s vision of diversifying the sport is the development of Black girls and young women in areas outside tennis.
“We need to introduce those populations to different careers behind the scenes,” Allen said. “There’s only a small percentage of players who make it on the court. But if we can direct the youth to careers in television, writing or design, that’s another way to help with diversity.”
The elimination of Serena Williams on Friday ensures that the remaining days of the US Open will feel different.
In TV ratings: Williams’ victory over Danka Kovinic in the first round averaged 2.7 million viewers, four times the viewership in the opening round last year and surpassing the numbers posted in the 2021 men’s and women’s finals. Five million viewers watched the end of Williams’ second-round win over Anett Kontaveit.
In attendance: a single-day record of 72,039 attending the night session at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center on Friday for Williams’ third-round match. A record 29,959 fans crammed Arthur Ashe Stadium for Williams’ second-round match on Wednesday, beating the record of 29,402 established two days before for her opening-round match.
In social media interest: Williams’ Twitter handle (@serenawilliams) was the most mentioned handle in tennis conversations globally during the US Open and 30% of Twitter users who tweeted about Williams between August and Sept. 2 had not posted a tweet about tennis all year, according to the social media company.
“She redefined tennis as a sport where people of color, in particular women of color, can be their authentic selves unapologetically,” Blackman said. “There will never be another Serena Williams. But I think if we maximize the opportunity that we have to make the game more accessible, to bring in more coaches of color and more women coaches, then the likelihood of having players like Serena in our sport in the men’s and the women’s side becomes higher and higher.”